American Nationalism: A Debate

American Nationalism: A Debate

Does nationalism have a place in left politics?

Central American immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, in February 2019 (John Moore/Getty Images)

Last fall, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote a bracing essay for The Nation that criticized progressives in the United States who oppose free migration and defend the existence of nation-states. We should not, she argued, promote “the idea that someone arbitrarily born on the wrong side of a line is less deserving of a good life” or “play by the far right’s rules” that, in part, “got us into this mess.”

An ethical internationalism has always been a cardinal virtue of the left, one we should never abandon. But we can uphold that ideal without calling for scrapping borders and nations. In fact, there are both principled and practical reasons for American leftists to retain them.

One cannot engage effectively in democratic politics without being part of a community of feeling. For most Americans, their nation, with all its flaws, is that community. And nationalism in the United States has always served tolerant, democratic ends as well as racist and authoritarian ones. Think of Frederick Douglass, in 1852, basing his hopes for abolition partly on “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.” Or of Franklin D. Roosevelt calling in 1944 for an “Economic Bill of Rights” in the middle of a war against fascism. Or of Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” Each figure, in a different way, was engaged in a transnational effort to advance equality and tolerance. But each also depended on the power and legitimacy of the United States to gain mass support for his ideas.

A nation that liberals and leftists hope to change needs to have borders. The EU, embattled as it is, endures only because the gap between its richer and poorer members is narrow enough to convince most Europeans who could settle in other lands to remain in their current one. For example, France, one of the richer nations in the EU, has about five times the per capita GDP of Bulgaria, the poorest. But if anyone in the world could move to the United States and stay as long as they liked, its population would likely swell quite rapidly with millions of people from nearby countries like El Salvador, whose per capita income is one-fifteenth that of the United States, and from other nations plagued by poverty and crime. The jobless rate in the United States would skyrocket, environmental conditions would deteriorate quickly, and politics would become uglier and perhaps more violent than it already is. The chances of “a good life” would greatly diminish for many Americans who already enjoy one—and for most newcomers who don’t.

Without a compelling political argument that might persuade more than a tiny fraction of Americans to support open borders, advocating for it plays right into the hands of Trump and the other leaders of his despicable party. Today, even most Latinos and Latinas oppose an increase in immigration, let alone dismantling the border altogether. A Pew survey conducted around the same time Atossa was drafting her article found that nearly half of Latinos thought there were “about the right amount of immigrants living in the U.S.” A quarter actually thought there were too many.

The only way out of our current mess is to engage in a political struggle within our nation-state—and to win it. Enact a comprehensive immigration bill that would keep families together, give all undocumented people a path to citizenship, deport only violent criminals, and treat asylum seekers with respect and guarantee them due process. Someday, perhaps, our children and grandchildren may be able to live in the world John Lennon sang about, where “there’s no countries” and “nothing to kill and die for.” In the meantime, we have to fight for a more decent society. The only way to accomplish that is to mobilize the citizens and institutions of the nation we have.

—Michael Kazin


Dear Michael,

Of course, borders and nations are not going anywhere anytime soon. If they suddenly vanished without a massive amount of planning, investment, education, and infrastructure, you are right that things could get hairy—certainly in the short term, and especially if space and resources are a constraint. I’m not totally convinced the United States is there yet. I’m also not certain that if the southern border opened tomorrow, quite as many people would show up as network TV would lead us to believe. But for the sake of argument, let’s agree on this: if the climate continues warming at its current pace, and if there isn’t an enormous political and economic effort on the part of the United States, together with other governments, to invest in making life good for the people who are here, regardless of where they happen to be born, then life won’t be all that good for anyone.

That’s why I am arguing that the left needs to imagine a world that would allow humans to live where they please, while working to create conditions in which they have a choice in the matter. Do refugees have a choice? Do bankrupt farmers have a choice? Do abused women or mixed-status families have a choice? Will coastal communities flooded almost out of existence have a choice? I don’t think they do get to truly, freely choose where they live.

To give them this option, we need a far more expansive definition of who gets to belong where and when. That requires thinking nationally and regionally in the short term, all while thinking beyond borders, regions, and citizenship in the long term. I don’t think these two strategies are incompatible; the Greeks conceived of citizenship in concentric circles, from the nuclear family out to the whole world itself. That’s instructive for how the left should think about both solidarity and power. I agree that we should be making real changes at whatever level of power we have; it’s obvious that we have to start organizing politically at the level of nations (and more locally!) because those are the structures we have to work with right now. Just as many Sanders supporters voted for Clinton against Trump, I’ll gladly watch and help the left win national elections, even if they have the problem of being national by design.

It is the ideology of nationalism that I find indefensible. I believe any progressive movement needs to organize with the longer-term goal of a less discriminatory world. There is no value in reclaiming such a tarnished, destructive, and in many cases racist ideology for the purposes of limited, short-term electoral gain; we need progressive leaders to do better. This isn’t purity politics, either, because climate change is already forcing us all to think deeply about where borders are and the purposes they serve.

To be sure, freedom of movement won’t happen overnight. But it is within our reach politically. In the future, just as in the past, there will be people who simply want to move because they feel like it, people who don’t want to move but must to survive, and people who have to move and can’t. If we continue to conceive of the left project in solely national terms, the first group will probably be okay; the second group will struggle to get to where they need to go; and the third group will die.

There are, then, levels of need and urgency, which should inform any decent left policy on borders and immigration.

At the same time, I see migration as a right and a first principle, and I believe our conversation around borders and migration has to be about individual freedom, social and economic rights, and personal autonomy—not what one government seeks to arbitrarily impose on people. That’s what I mean about ceding ground to the far right. Instead of talking about keeping people “out,” we need to talk about what makes them move in the first place. My hunch is that with the exception of mercenary careerists (guilty as charged!) and Americans at Thanksgiving (not guilty, but I get it!), most people in the world enjoy being close to their families and loved ones, in the places they have grown to know and love. Given the choice, that’s what they’d want if they could make it work.

It’s pretty arrogant and, dare I say, America-centric to think they’d prefer the United States. Just think logistically. Moving sucks! Learning new languages is hard! Not everyone likes the idea of uprooting their life and kids and possessions! Most of the reasons why you or I would object to moving to Greenland or South Bend or New Delhi would probably be shared by most people in the world—if only they could feel safe and prosperous at home.

And if they feel fine at home but just want to move, who are we to tell them no?

—Atossa Araxia Abrahamian


Dear Atossa,

I gave a cheer when I read the first paragraph of your response. Yes, we desperately need “an enormous political and economic effort on the part of the United States, together with other governments,” to stop climate change before it destroys the only planet we have.

But by the logic of that statement, you ought to agree with me on the necessity of a left-wing version of nationalism—now, and probably for years to come. Because the only way to compel the U.S. government to undertake that mighty, urgent effort is to elect women and men who share that goal to run it. And to win office, they will have to convince voters that the well-being of Americans is their first priority. The sponsors of the Green New Deal have shrewdly borrowed the name of the most sweeping and unabashedly nationalist reform program in U.S. history. And if they did not promise “to make climate change an urgent priority across America” [emphasis mine], they would probably not have convinced nearly two-fifths of the Democratic members of the House to sign on.

That national focus is neither selfish nor a pander to exceptionalism, much less racism. It merely indicates that politicians in the United States are no different from those in other countries. A left that cannot win power in the “short term” will have no chance to enact policies that can curb climate change, nor will it be able to solve any other serious problem plaguing humanity.

Your vision of a world without borders is my desire, too. But to get there, we need more than an ideology; we need a strategy. And there is no strategy that does not involve persuading a majority of the people in one’s nation that you hold their interests close to your heart.

Most influential leftists in the past understood this. In their 1848 Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously declared, “The working men have no country.” Yet in the same document, they wrote, “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.” Following their lead, socialists fought to win universal suffrage in their countries and ran for office vowing to turn their class-riven societies into communities bound by solidarity. The Swedish Social Democrats called their vision Folkhemmet, “the people’s home,” and with it, they governed their country for decades.

Only a strategy that takes the nation’s welfare into account can advance the rights of migrants too. At a meeting in Iowa in April, an audience member asked Bernie Sanders if he supported open borders. He quickly replied, “If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it.”

Read in isolation, that sounds a bit like something our vile president might say. But Bernie strongly favors expanding DACA and DAPA, eliminating family separation, ending “cruel and inhumane deportation,” and he slams Trump for having “made himself the biggest platform of hate in the country.” If Sanders endorsed migration as a right, he would never be nominated or elected, and thus would be unable to enact programs that could help millions of people who desperately need it—whether inside the United States, along its borders, or anywhere else.

Of course, progressive social movements should continue to advance the “goal of a less discriminatory world.” That ideal, after all, defines what it means to be a leftist. But, except after revolutions and major wars, transformative change occurs in democratic nations only when elected leaders respond to demands that popular movements make it possible, even imperative, for them to support. I hope people born in this century will someday be able to move freely around a world no longer threatened by environmental collapse. But for that to occur, most Americans will first have to be persuaded to welcome migrants and not fear them. Humane activists have begun that process, but only politicians at the helm of a nation-state can complete it.

—Michael Kazin


Dear Michael,

Again, we agree on much more than not. Whomever accused the left of being fractious should immediately subscribe to Dissent! Still, I don’t think that appealing to voters nationalistically is going to get us where we need to go environmentally, economically, socially, or geopolitically. By definition, the kind of world we both want requires our solidarity to be more expansive than the most enlightened nationalism can ever be.

The effort has to start locally, perhaps even nationally: places and communities matter a great deal. Again, I’m all for electing leftists. But I see no reason to trust that appeals to voters’ nationalism won’t eventually go awry, however friendly or progressive this version of nationalism might initially present itself—especially when climate change intensifies today’s border practices and politics. When have wholesale appeals to nationalism, especially in times of crisis, ever ended well for leftists, women, and minorities? At its best, nationalism preserves the status quo, obscuring class divisions by creating an “us” and a “them” to the benefit of those with wealth and power. At its worst, it “others” entire groups of often vulnerable people.

In fact, it seems the more countries appeal to nationalist fervor, the less friendly they are to what we both stand for. If you agree with that, wouldn’t it follow that the inverse could be true, too? I realize this is a somewhat facile equivalence, but my point is that there might be something about nationalism that is inherently opposed to our interests as leftists. Nationalism, right or left, isn’t a new idea; if there was something to it, wouldn’t it have worked by now? Or is the problem that left nationalists haven’t been nationalistic enough—that they have been too friendly to immigrants, too generous to outsiders, not muscular enough in the execution of their plans? That argument seems to arise inevitably when you go down this road. We can’t stand for it.

I share your enthusiasm for national programs like the New Deal. But the reason programs like that work is because they make people’s lives better, not because they’re nationalistic. Yes, they exist in a national framework—that’s where the money is—but I don’t think any of the Green New Deal’s hypothetical beneficiaries, rich or poor, are particularly attached to the nation-state. I can also imagine a transnationally financed, cross-border, global Green New Deal, as progressive economists and commentators have proposed for years. Wouldn’t that be even better than a limited national one, particularly when the climate problem is a global one?

If nationalism typically grows out of negative conditions like conflict, austerity, and war, then there’s reason to hope that a transnational Green New Deal (or something like it) could bring about enlightened cosmopolitan leftism in its stead.

What is the first step to achieving this utopia? You’re right: it’s electing progressive leaders on a national scale—and holding them accountable, preventing them from slipping into third-way compromise politics. It means pushing them to take their multilateral commitments seriously as internationalists and cosmopolitans, and to change how they think about, allocate, and regulate capital.

Does that mean we should ask Bernie Sanders to champion open borders while campaigning for the U.S presidency? Of course not. If I were a politician, I wouldn’t go there either—if only because, as we agreed, this is not a policy you can reasonably enact overnight (though I’m all for the positive elements of Bernie’s migration policy that you detail). At the same time, characterizing the idea of free migration as a Koch brothers conspiracy, as Bernie has in the past, is misinformed and counter-productive. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has likewise disappointed some younger voters for its stance against free movement.

Bernie and Corbyn have many positive qualities, but their approach carries the dead weight from another time. Today, we need new ideas to fight a much greater existential battle: one where the enemies aren’t countries, but transnational forces, and in which the very lines that define nations as we know them will inevitably be redrawn.

—Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a senior editor at The Nation and sits on the editorial board of Dissent.