The Nationalism of Liberals vs. Conservatives

Compare American liberal and conservative attitudes toward nationalism. (Pardon the generalizations.)

Conservatives tend to be proud nationalists. They poll higher on questions that ask, “Are you proud to be an American?” There’s the image of conservatives with their big American flags and trucks. Conservatives’ nationalism, at its strongest, tends to manifest in hawkish foreign policy.

Liberals tend to be unaware nationalists. They reject excessive displays of national pride. Flag waving makes them uncomfortable. They will proactively apologize for America when traveling abroad. Yet at the same time, they believe strongly in American jobs and workers. Narratives around the “little guy” being screwed by big bad multinational corporations is very much part of the liberal imagination. So liberals’ nationalism, at its strongest, tends to manifest in economic nationalism. In particular, protectionism.

Both forms of nationalism, when extreme, are dangerous.

But liberals’ economic nationalism I would say is less understood, especially by those who hold it. Most Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, do not understand economics and trade. So when liberals promote economic nationalism they get trapped in contradictions. We need to increase aid to Africa and poor people, for example, but we should also “Eat Local” and protect American tire factories. Those two goals pull in opposite directions: free trade and open markets is the best thing we can do for the poor in Asia and Africa. We need to help the little guy, for example, but not all those little guys overseas, even if they happen to be 10x poorer than a poor person in America.

Bottom Line: Liberals make fun of conservatives’ patriotism, but in fact liberals’ preferred economic policies are more dangerously nationalistic, and full of contradictions.

18 comments on “The Nationalism of Liberals vs. Conservatives
  • Hmmm, sure if you take either side to be just a big glob of silly ideas.

    For example, I couldn’t see how religious conservatives can sit with the hard core capitalist. Aggressive unrestrained capitalism is a terrible thing for the poor(theoretically the alleviation thereof is a big thing for Jesus). On the liberal side, you probably will find the unionists sit a little apart from general ‘bleeding hearts’ (environmentalists, social progressives)

    AND I really have to disagree with the fundamental premise of this post. Conservatives unleashed is a scary world to live in. What could be more dangerously nationalistic than invading another country? (Iraq?) It’s not just the damage done financially to your country – trillions. But the very idea of America being a ‘peaceful’ nation.

    Liberals are really uncomfortable with grotesque forms of nationalism simply as a lesson of history. Bad things happen when a nation becomes, or is allowed to baited into, a nationalistic fervor.

  • Consider it is ok to have national pride and if we invade other countries or incite world domination so that we can feel good about ourselves as a nation that does not work. It took centuries to develop the nuclear technology we now have. You could say that technology is the real power of this country. That is the technology of domination and force. Where is the technology of love and acceptance? Is there something equally as powerful as nuclear weapons or a bomb that creates love and acceptance?
    One could argue that the internet is such a tool. Given that you are such an innovator of tools to bring together a city and possibly a country. Why are you looking at it all as a division? As if there is actually one half of the population that fits into either category. As if we should all divide and conquer. An eye for an eye and everyone is half blind. It is no different than saying this person is evil and this person is good. Life is actually full of contradictions. What would you suggest to empower what you like about each group?

  • Wow, Mike has given you one of the greatest compliments you could ever receive.

    I find that those who criticize Friedman have rarely ever listened to him.

    At any rate, I hope people don’t reflexively read your post as an attack on American “Liberalism” and a defense of American “Conservatism.”

    Rather, I read it as a plea to actually consider policy in a thoughtful way, rather than simply sticking to a grab-bag of inconsistent positions that historically characterize one of the two major US political parties.

  • Ha! With all due respect, Ben, I find it hard to pardon ‘bottom line’ proclamations like “Liberals make fun of conservatives’ patriotism”.

    I had to smoke some white widow to calm myself down over this post. I write better when I’m stoned, anyway.

    Even Milton Friedman was once a rabidly enthusiastic Keynesian economist.

    How ironic that our present bailout of crooked bank and auto industry titans is the very epitome of resurgent Keynesian economics rescuing big bad multinational corporations.

    Given the evidence of our farcical over-the-counter derivatives debacle I’d say few economists understand economics.

  • At base, you have to ask yourself why is more harmful. As a libertarian-conservative, I don’t have a problem with people being proud of their country. It’s a natural impulse that comes from the Republic. You tend to prefer that which is closest to you. Defeating that natural impulse is how we can continue to maintain our living standards and actually grow — division of labor, and all.

    It’s a bit more complicated, though, than just trade with Africa and Asia. For one, our farm subsidies make it nearly impossible as our prices make it uneconomical for others to produce food and compete. Here the agrarian fear that we need a secure food source meets the leftist and ill-conceived idea that we need to “protect the little farmer.”

    A good book on this is the new book Enough.

  • This is a thought-provoking post. I have two comments:

    1. The hawkish right-wing view you describe is more of a recent development than a basic conservative principle. I’d argue you are thinking of neo-conservatism.

    There are many conservatives who tend towards isolationism. The most prominent contemporary example is Ron Paul, but the sentiment goes all the way back to George Washington, who warned against “foreign entanglements.”

    2. Reasoned love of country is a tough balance to achieve. I think liberal discontent is a symptom of a longing for progress. Most over-the-top conservative flag waving is probably a reaction to this.

    There is a time and a place for both. You can appreciate America without complacency, and you can criticize the status-quo without resentment.

  • On Facebook:

    Alan S
    Ben, Ben, Ben, I think you have it all wrong. Comparing protecting against Chinese tire dumping to giving aid to Africa is a bit of apples and oranges. Actually liberals don’t have a problem with free trade, they just want free and fair trade. There is a difference. Liberals don’t apologize for our country abroad and are no less patriotic, religious or righteous as anyone else. We may apologize for our politicians. 🙂

    Ben Casnocha
    What is the difference between free and fair trade? Also, surveys show liberals do not answer as highly on questions like “Are you proud to be an American?”

    Alan S
    Ben, “survey says” sound like you are playing Family Feud. Maybe when the question was asked might have something to do with it. I would bet many liberals would answer more positive with the current administration in power than the last. Just as you think the liberals are wrong to think that conservatives patriotism is funny, you would be wrong to … Read Morethink liberals don’t love their country as much as anyone else.

    On the difference between free and fair trade. Free trade works in a perfect world of “atheistic saints” (that is a little Marxism for you). It takes two to tango. So if I open my markets to you under the idea of free trade and then you don’t open your markets to me on an equal basis, or you dump products below cost and subsidize them with govt money in order to drive legit domestic business out, that is not very fair. Make sense to you?

    Raleigh W
    Ben–“liberal,” as you are using here, is not an economic policy. Your dangerous, radical liberals such as FDR and Truman actually pushed for global trade, and your sane conservatives often argued against it at one time. Now, some liberals are interested in advancing social agendas through trade policies, and some people pushing protectionist … Read Morebills in order to garner support in manufacturing areas happen to be liberals, but are also often conservatives (as Bush proved in supporting steel tariffs to help W.VA.) I thought you disliked simplistic equivalents?

    Bill G
    Actually, the benefits of free trade are not restricted to mutual reduction of tariffs. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Alan, countries that unilaterally liberalize their trade policies see appreciable benefits regardless of whether their trading partners do so. Also, it is the West that does the most to hurt the developing world through trade… Read More barriers (most perniciously and directly through the schemes of agricultural subsidies).

    Nearly any step towards letting individuals freely interact to their mutual benefit is a step in the right direction.

    Alan S
    Bill how naive! Yes letting individuals freely interact is great, do you actually think that is what happens in many Asian countries or Latin America for that matter? Again in a world of atheistic saints pure free trade will help everyone. But the sad truth is that it takes two to tango. I am all for eliminating govt subsidies to stop propping up… Read More non-competitive industries, but love my country too much to see industries that are vital to our national interest die out. So does that make me conservative?
    The perceived benefits of unilateral free trade can be quickly extinguished when dealing in a global economy where everyone does not play by our rules.

    Bill G
    I don’t entirely see how that responds to my point. My assertion: some (not all) benefits of free trade can be realized unilaterally. By that, I mean that the benefits of independently cutting tariffs outweigh the costs, even if other countries keep their tariffs high. We can discuss the studies that lead me to believe this, but that’s my point.

    I’m also not sure what industries you think deserve to be non-competitive due to the national interest they serve. The elimination of support for agriculture in New Zealand and Australia has strengthened their farmers, not weakened, by forcing them to focus on their comparative advantage. Market pressure strengthens firms by forcing them to compete. It’s no great love of country that condemns “vital industries” to becoming statist corporate disasters.

    Final point: I can imagine nothing more naive than supposing that government “support” will help and not harm an industry.

    Alan S
    Bill when I talk about vital national industries I dont mean agriculture though I do think it is important. I think we need to maintain an industrial base in air superiority and missile design for instance. I think making sure we stay on the cutting edge in IT technology and communications is vital. So is space technology. The list goes on and on… Read More. Take a longer view Bill. The world isn’t all a friendly place just looking to do business with us.

    Here is something that a little more experience may teach you too. Why does it have to be black and white? Why just flat out free trade? Why can’t you put in some free trade policies but reserve the right to impose tarrifs and barriers in cases where unfair trade practices by other countries is apparent? I think they call that pragmatic policy?

    Go back and read your history there have been many industries that have been strengthened by government support. And not just US companies.

    The sad fact is the world is not a bunch of diplomats singing Cumbaya around a campfire at the UN, there are people who and nations that wouldnt mind seeing us fail and will push any advantage they can. What about cyber espionage for instance. Spend a few weeks at my company working with the DoD and then tell how friendly everyone is letting their people “freely interact”

    Bill G
    I fear, Alan, you misunderstand me. I have no misapprehensions about the friendly intentions of other govts around the world, but the fact that we are not universally beloved doesn’t alter my point: government “support” rarely translates to “industrial superiority.” It does translate to planes that cost $44,000 an hour to fly that rely on 1980s-era… Read More computing technology (the F-22). It does translate to a space agency that can’t get us back to the moon. And I shudder to think what government-supported “IT superiority” would look like. Gawd.

    To return to the original point: free trade, even unilateral free trade, has unquestionable economic benefits, particularly for the poorest of the poor. The debate does not revolve around whether we should liberalize our trade in weapons programs. It is that liberals (but also many conservatives) adopt an unconscious economic nationalism that would be unconscionable in any other context.

    Alan S
    bill, I think we will have to agree to disagree. let me leave you with some final comments:That original program to get us to the moon that you talk about, it wasnt exactly privately financed. Not to mention how much of the IT stuff we have today had roots in govt funding and that f-22 you make fun of, do you see any other countries or private … Read Morecompanies for that matter shooting them out of the sky. For all of the BS it is stilll the top plane in the world (granted for a mission that may not exist anymore)
    Unilateral free trade does offer some benefits, but it has to be pragmatic to respond to realpolitic

    Ben Casnocha
    Alan and Bill, thanks for this exchange. A bunch of different issues are kind of being conflated here — government investment in innovation vs. private sector innovation is different from the free trade debate.

    I am most sympathetic to Bill’s POV on trade.

    Raleigh, just as the meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” have evolved, I don’t doubt that their preferred policies have as well. In terms of what the words mean NOW and what self-identified liberals and conservatives believe NOW, and I think it’s clear liberals are more protectionist than conservatives, in a meaningful way. I’m not familiar with the W example you cite, but I don’t think scattered cases disproves this generalization.

  • It’s important to make a distinction between policies that are ideologically coherent and those that win elections. With either party, one must make a deal with the devil. I kinda liked McCain until he picked Palin. I still generaly like Obama even though he’s slapping tarriffs on tire imports. It comes down to which I can stomach more.

  • I’m glad you categorized liberals as the dumb side of the liberal argument, while categorizing the conservative side as the smart conservative position. I think you tend to think of all liberals as pollyana-ish San Francisco liberals, given that they are who you dealt with when growing up. I dare say that barely a handful of national politicians who are liberal would fit your broad description.

    WIthout a doubt Obama is the most liberal president in years, but he has committed himself to reducing the farming subsidies that make african growers uncompetitive, as well as cutting down the huge amount of waste that congress forces into the military budget each year. One the other hand, the conservative bush administration expanded both, as well as cutting aid budgets and assistance worldwide.

    I think you should recharacterize liberals. I am liberal and I think grow locally policies are hippy-ass idiotic ideas with almost no merit. Perhaps if you had grown up around Southern liberals instead of the left in San Fran, you would characterize us more kindly.

  • I’d be curious to hear more what “committing himself [Obama] to reducing
    farming subsidies” means in terms of actions and not rhetoric.

    Not all liberals are alike, that I agree with.

    It’s sad you seem to have bought into the “San Francisco liberal” archetype
    that Fox News propagates. San Francisco is one of the most educated cities
    in America. Besides being a label that means nothing without further
    explanation, insofar as the implication is “DUMB San Francisco liberal,”
    that would intuitively make no sense given the education background of the
    people. If it means “EXTREME liberal,” that too I would challenge.

  • Wow. I taught Ben economics at SFUHS! As a lefty US economist, I recognize my ignorance about the tradeoffs between free trade helping billions of foreign poor escape poverty, and the fate of the first world’s working classes, and the tradeoffs between relatively free immigration, supporting immigrants with first world-level social supports, and job loss and wage pressure in the US. I am ignorant both of the sizes of the actual tradeoffs, and how I personally evaluate them–my preferences.

  • I’d like to put a different spin to this comparison.

    Another example of contradictory patriotism that has less to do with policy than it does attitude (also pardon my generalizations):

    I’ve often observed liberals considering themselves the more open-minded wing, and then turning around to scoff at conservatives for attempting to create a narrow-minded nation. Yet the very act of scoffing at someone for being the way they are, no matter how they are, is narrow-minded in itself.

    There is a reason why people believe what they believe: their country’s history has raised them to be the way they are. To be a truly open-minded patriot is to help the country progress while accepting ALL its people for the way they are, and to engage in discourse with people of opposing political leanings without the name-calling and ridicule.

  • That’s the classic tolerance paradox. It’s much like crime prevention though. Your not a bully for “bullying” a bully. It’s justice. If everyone on this earth was peaceful and tolerant, etc, this paradox wouldn’t exist … but some people are intolerant. Some people break the peace, and the “peaceful” then have to at times defend the peace (sometimes in not so “peaceful” ways). And I think intolerance IS perfectly consistent with a peaceful culture … BUT it kind of needs to be private. Or I should say, that intolerance can’t be inacted through the government to treat people different than others under the law (To an extent that has to exist in the culture too … at least some level of public tolerance. Letting everyone be able to work and buy property etc. for them and their families).

    Something I ran across on a lefty blog:

    “We disagree with right-wing ideology all the time, and they accuse us of being “intolerant.” I don’t think they understand the word. We aren’t trying to pass laws against them or take away their civil rights. We just don’t agree with them and we call them on it as we see fit. I could take their intolerance better if they weren’t trying to legislate against the people they disagree with. Respecting someone’s right to their opinion (something I think we all do) doesn’t mean we have to validate that opinion. This is the example I always give: I absolutely despise coconut, and I let all my friends know it when they eat it or offer me something with coconut in it. Am I being intolerant of coconut-lovers? Not at all. They can eat all of the nasty stuff they want! As long as they don’t try to MAKE me eat it, it’s fine with me. And, I’m not trying to get coconut outlawed for everyone just because *I* don’t like it. THAT would be intolerant.”

    And I’d add, a culture that values tolerance and peace would have to defend against those “anti-coconut laws” and the people who created them.

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