U.S. Economy

There's a Limit to What Nationalism Can Do

America's new organizing principle is weak on the follow-through.

"America First," then what?

Photographer: Justin Sullivan

American politics has a new organizing principle, according to a theory that has been making the rounds. Reaganism is dead. Our central debate no longer concerns big vs. small government, or traditionalism vs. progressivism on morals. Instead it pits nationalism against globalism.

R. R. Reno, the editor of the religious-conservative journal First Things, writes that President Donald Trump recognizes “the new schism in American life,” which “is about immigration, free trade and the broad and deep impacts of globalization on America’s economy and culture.” Reno is writing from a position of broad sympathy with Trump’s nationalism, but critics of that nationalism have argued similarly. David Brooks wrote last year that big vs. small government would give way to open vs. closed society.

Trump’s victory in November makes Reno’s argument plausible, as do Brexit and the rise of nationalists in France and Hungary. Perhaps the argument is even true. I agree with much of what Reno has to say about the fraying bonds of national unity and the need for political leaders to attend to them. Like Reno, I have written in defense of a moderate form of nationalism.

But I am skeptical that nationalism vs. globalism will be the axis on which our political life will turn from now on, let alone that (as Reno suggests) nationalism will carry all before it because it’s what Americans want.

For one thing, it’s not clear that voters consider this debate central to their or our country’s fate. When Gallup asks Americans what they consider the most important problem for the nation, 8 percent say immigration. Foreign trade and the trade deficit get an asterisk, meaning that less than 1 percent of Americans volunteer those answers. By contrast, roughly 24 percent of Americans list economic problems without mentioning any tie-in to globalization.

An anti-globalist might reply that trade and immigration lurk behind the problems that worry Americans even if they do not realize it, and so politics will have to put these issues at the forefront. But that’s not right either. Low-skilled immigration may pull down the wages of native-born high-school dropouts. That possibility should certainly affect our immigration policy. But 88 percent of Americans have completed high school. The case that immigration is hurting them economically is non-existent. Controlling immigration is not vital to our economic future.

Neither is curtailing trade. A recent study strengthened the case that trade with China has hurt some communities. But even that study conceded that a large majority of job losses in manufacturing between 1991 and 2007 had nothing to do with trade -- and it also said that the negative impact on manufacturing jobs was already over.

If elite groups have strong and polarized views about nationalism and globalism, perhaps this divide will dominate political life even if most voters care less. But there aren’t enough consistent and passionate nationalists to sustain their side of the debate. Reno isn’t even one himself: He favors “America’s role as leader of the international order” and opposes “attacking global trade.”

Another reason nationalism might not form our main political dividing line: Unlike the debate over the size of government, it doesn’t do much to inform our policy debates. There’s no nationalist prescription for health policy or tax reform, to pick two topics that actually are dominating our political debate -- and dominating it during the first months of a nationalist administration. Whether one prefers or distrusts markets and federalism, on the other hand, has obvious implications for both issues.

Trump may succeed in making the Republican Party more nationalist. His nationalism seems to have played a role in drawing him the support of many people who had not previously voted for Republican candidates, while repelling some people who had. But most Republicans didn’t run on Trumpian nationalist themes. They ran as Reaganites, more or less, and a lot of them won more votes in their districts and states than he did.

That doesn’t mean nationalism can be ignored. It is an important conservative theme, and nationalists are an important part of the conservative coalition. But there’s a limit to what nationalism can do, and one thing it can’t do is bear all the weight of American politics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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