Farmer Isabel Milligan drives a tractor as she weeds and transplants crops on a farm in Amagansett, N.Y., July 11, 2019. (Lindsay Morris/Reuters)
The emotional volume of this Will Wilkinson column in the New York Times is excessive, but there is much that is useful in it.
Try to get past the McCarthyite language and the illiterate neologisms. (“Denialism”? What’s wrong with “denial”? This is a little like how “epicenters” have come to displace good old-fashioned “centers,” even though “epicenter” does not mean “center.”) Wilkinson writes:
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America.
Perhaps those Americans who hold political views at odds with Wilkinson’s are not “disloyal” but simply hold political views at odds with Wilkinson’s.
Wilkinson argues that our gregarious new “nationalists” do not seem to care very much for the United States of America as it actually is, and about that he has a point. Many of the people vowing to “Make America Great Again” have nothing but contempt for the most successful communities and enterprises in these United States: Silicon Valley, the universities, Wall Street, Hollywood, the major cities — all merit criticism, and trenchant criticism, but conservatives sometimes forget why it is these institutions command our attention in the first place. Wilkinson is right that there is a great deal of talk about the “Real America” that is fantastical and delusional.
But I wonder if Wilkinson is not in some sense arguing himself in circles, or at cross-purposes with himself. These nationalists, he says, do not much like the actual country, the country as it is. But they, for their part, would argue that that is precisely what they cherish, and that they resist political efforts by the likes of Wilkinson et al. to transform the country into something other than what it is. I do not think they reject the pluralism and diversity of the country categorically: Perhaps it is the case that they are happy for Miami to be Miami and for New Orleans to be New Orleans and (pushing it here, I know) for Los Angeles to be Los Angeles, but do not wish for the entire country to be like one of those places. I have often said that about Las Vegas: I am happy that it is there, but I do not want it everywhere. The nationalists would turn the charge back against Wilkinson et al.: Why not let the United States be as it is? Why not let Kansas be Kansas? It is not as though progressives give a fig about “diversity” or “pluralism” when either runs up against their political projects. You’re going to pay for those abortions in Chicago, Bubba. You’re going to write that birth-control policy, Sister Marie-Claire.
Wilkinson says these so-called nationalists believe themselves to be “entitled first to a country that feels like home to them.” In this he is no doubt correct. Is that necessarily wicked? Would we think it wrong if the sentiment were being expressed by, say, a farmer in Andhra Pradesh lamenting the changes wrought by globalization on local agriculture, or a restaurateur in Paris rolling her eyes at the opening of yet another KFC, or a poet in Kyoto lamenting the ubiquity of American popular culture, rather than a Trump voter in Oklahoma complaining about whatever it is that Trump voters in Oklahoma complain about?
To be sure, that sentiment is wrong when it requires the maintenance of injustice — African Americans’ claim to civil rights superseded southerners’ claims to their local traditions, and the claims of gays couples to arrange their lives and dispose of their property as they see fit supersedes the claims of people who’d rather just not think about that. But I do not think the “follow my pronoun conventions or lose your job” strain of “social justice” to which many reactionaries react is entirely about justice. Still less is it about honoring diversity and plurality. It is about homogeneity, conformism, obedience, and the pleasure of exercising social power over one’s perceived cultural rivals. It is not the Right that seeks to gut, for example, federal statutes for the protection of religious liberties or to limit the scope of political speech.
I have been thinking about this in relation to the recent increase in the volume of claims about “racism” in American politics. (Look for that essay in the future.) I think conservatives can admit this much: It is the case that American institutions and the facts of African-American life have been shaped by centuries of policies and attitudes that ranged from the merely oppressive to the monstrous, and those who charge that the conservative bias toward the status quo effectively entrenches and furthers that racism are not entirely wrong. (Conservatives once had a bias toward the status quo; since the 1990s, they have been drifting away from that toward a stance of right-wing revolutionism.) But people of good will, including conservatives, have generally been willing to work toward reform where justice demands it. Consider the career of Barry Goldwater, who is mainly remembered for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but who also was an important leader in the cause of civil rights, leading both public-sector and private civil-rights efforts in Arizona and helping to fund an important desegregation lawsuit in Phoenix out of his own pocket. Different people end up making different conclusions about tradeoffs, and that does not make them evil. And there is an enormous difference between “We should reform certain police procedures” or “We should address these educational inequalities” and “Smash capitalism!” or proclaiming that the future of the United States “is the path that I call democratic socialism,” as Senator Sanders says.
The role of race in all this tends to be oversimplified. It almost certainly is the case that racial differences can amplify political differences, and that Barack Obama’s being black made him seem even more radical or even “un-American” to a lot of people who would go on to embrace Trump, but it also is the case that the overwhelming majority of those self-proclaimed nationalists would have been very, very happy to vote for a charismatic black man who shared their views.
That being said . . .
In a society that maintains some decent respect for the individual conscience and private property, there will be some disagreement about how to balance claims of justice with the most basic claim of political liberty: the right to be left alone. And many — though by no means all — of these funny new “nationalists” are really arguing for very little more than the right to be left alone. Many conservatives, including religious conservatives such as myself, believe that as a matter of law and politics same-sex couples have every right to arrange their own affairs however seems best to them. Would that the Left would extend the same indulgence to home-schoolers.
The problem with American political discourse right at the moment is that we cannot have that discussion without Democrats insisting that those who would draw the line of activism short of their desired point are Nazis and Republicans arguing that those who would draw the line one micron to the left of where they’d like are getting ready to grow out Stalin mustaches and build gulags. This is preposterous, but we are nonetheless very, very worked up over it.
There is a proverb (attributed variously) about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “If the Arabs put down their weapons today there would be no more war. If the Israelis put down their weapons today there would be no more Israel.” These so-called nationalists believe something similar about themselves. Wilkinson is correct that many conservatives see the Left as the aggressor in the culture wars. They are not obviously wrong to do so, and it is a mistake — or a cynical strategy — to conflate the genuine pursuit of justice with ordinary politics.
There is another line of argument that might be interesting for Wilkinson et al. to pursue. There are conservatives who complain that progressive-leaning communities and institutions — the media, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and much of Big Business more generally, the universities, the commanding heights of culture, etc.— have at their command an overwhelming arsenal of cultural firepower, and that conservative-leaning institutions and communities have very little of that in comparison. This is true. But have they — we — really seriously asked ourselves why? Worth thinking about, for those inclined to do that sort of thing.