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.

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