Anti-immigration sentiment is vehement these days. What are its roots? In part, it lies in the mistaken view that a get-tough-on-illegal-immigration policy would have the positive consequences of protecting jobs and fighting crime. Refuting this line of thought, as easy as it apparently is, is a job for sociologists, not philosophers. A more basic motivation is a fear among many that the very nature of American culture is being undermined, that immigration constitutes a threat to the very identity of the American people. The prospect of “taco trucks on every corner” is intended to cause alarm because it signals a shift in cultural identity: the taco replaces the cheeseburger. This sort of fear implicitly rests on a certain conception of what it means to be an American, and, more generally, what is that in which the identity of a nation consists. This conception is, broadly speaking, “nationalist,” as, in Miscevic’s words, it posits a correspondence between “the mapping between the ethnocultural domain (featuring ethnocultural groups or “nations”) and the domain of political organization.” This is why Trumpism has been labelled a form of nationalism.
Nationalism has a bad reputation. Varieties of nationalist thought been responsible for many of the horrors of the last century, and even in America, today, video clips of the audiences at Trump rallies leave no doubt that much of American nationalistic sentiment is energized by the ugliest kinds of race hatred and xenophobia. Nonetheless, important philosophers and political theorists have made the cases that more reasoned forms of nationalism can provide credible theoretical justification for determining the boundaries between those within a political community and those outside of it. An account of the nature of these boundaries would determine who is in and who is out. Are they to be understood as spatial borders, as is suggested by Trump’s declared intention to build a big wall? Or are they to be understood otherwise? A thoughtful response to the resurgence of American nationalism demands that we to revisit these questions.
One response is to reject the reality of nations as anything other than an invidious convention, to minimize the importance of the political or ethnic groups to which we belong. Perhaps we should join the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes in declaring “I am a citizen (politēs) of the world (cosmos)." Cosmopolitanism mandates that all human beings deserve the same basic rights, as equal members of the world community. There should be total impartiality within the political sphere. On this view, to say “your kind belongs there and our kind belongs here” is inherently irrational and morally objectionable. Cosmopolitanism does not of course demand that there should be no political borders at all, or that citizens’ rights and liberties should never be determined by these borders. Who would deny that government is often most effective when regionally administered, and when accountable to those living in the area governed? Even cosmopolitans would agree that there may be good reasons why the residents of New Jersey do not have the same privileges in regard to park usage and education as do residents of New York. But cosmopolitanism does provide a theoretical basis for the elimination of stringent immigration restrictions (what Trump has called “extreme vetting”). To deny residents of New Jersey the freedom to pursue opportunities in New York would be morally arbitrary. Being a New Yorker is a function of where one lives, nothing more. A cosmopolitan might argue that just as current state of residence does not constitute a good reason for denial of the freedom to move to another state, so too, there is no morally defensible reason to deny all citizens of other countries the prima facie right to immigrate to the United States. To be sure, it is conceivable that an influx of new immigrants might have a negative impact on what governmental goods and services can be afforded by the government responsible for those living in a certain region, but why place higher value of the goods and services lost by current citizens over those gained by the new immigrants? From a cosmopolitan perspective, these sorts of worries are to be addressed through a consequentialist calculus, in which the welfare of all of those at issue is taken to be of equal value.
The earlier Greek Stoics argued that the only one true community is the world, ruled by God. (How tensions in the thought of Plato gave rise to an uncompromising form of cosmopolitanism, and, in the late Stoa, reverted to a more conservative ethic of partiality, is a complex story.) Today’s secular versions of cosmopolitan theory require different foundations. These usually lie in various versions of utilitarianism and Kantianism, both of which demand ethical impartiality. (Utilitarians say that we must be impartial because what is of ultimate ethical value in the world is the extent to which people’s interests are satisfied, or the amount of happiness in the world. Whether the happiness that is a potential consequence of our actions belongs to someone similar to or having certain social relations to us is ethically irrelevant. Kantians would say that all human beings have equal dignity; all ought to be treated as intrinsically worthy. Kant’s way of putting this was to say that we all ought to live as though we were all share the status being members of a “kingdom of ends.”) These ethical theories were directed against the more traditional view that moral obligations, at least in part, are derived from the special, exclusive relationships in which we find ourselves. A good example of this sort of defense of the partiality in ethics is found in traditional Catholic Natural Law theory, according to which our obligations to our immediate family are of a different order than those we have to those to compatriots, and those to compatriots of a different order than those we have to all human beings. Along similar lines is Christina Hoff Sommers’s defense of the moral force special relations endorsed by the traditions of one’s society. If our ethical obligations do derive from special relations, we can understand why not everyone makes the same ethical claims on us, for example, why it is not unethical to buy one’s own child a bicycle, while other children are hungry. On such a view, although there will be times when obligations to those more distant take precedence over obligations to those closer, “charity begins at home.”
There are a number of ways of arguing for this sort of anti-cosmopolitan conclusion. Communitarians such as the 19th-century philosophers Herder and Hegel, as well as contemporary political theorists such as Sandel and Walzer, have argued that political communities are important insofar as they are necessary for perpetuating culture-specific norms and modes of life that are necessary for human flourishing. On this view, a Native American, for example, has a fuller, more meaningful life if she lives as a member of a tribe. This involves not only distinctive food and dance; it involves a whole way of life. So, it is argued, national culture, including the majority American culture, can play an important role in constituting who were are and what gives our lives meaning; whether there is available an ethically acceptable understanding of what constitutes the core of that culture is another question altogether. Philosophical nationalism takes things one step further, endorsing the view that a legitimate, perhaps essential, purpose of a nation state is to promote and protect a certain communal identity. This argument is in tension with those that conclude that an ethical state will be impartial in all of its institutions and practices. For communal identities are often constituted by factors, such as ethnicity, that cannot be willed. A nationalistic state may strengthen the way of life of the majority culture, but can marginalize and possibly harm the culture of minorities. This is why the most extreme nationalistic states have been guilty of the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
In our days, Israel is notable for being among the few Western-style democracies that rests on a fundamentally nationalistic justification: Israel understands itself as a “Jewish state.” Zionism argues that such a state is necessary to preserve and protect Jewish cultural (and religious) life, given the persistent hostility towards Jews seen throughout the world for millennia. The core argument against Zionism lies not in dispute concerning historical territorial claims, as intense as that debate is, but in the very concept of a Jewish state, which, insofar as it departs from the ideals of impartiality, is condemned as racist. Israel may be unique in its open proclamation of nationalistic ideals, but one finds academics supporting this mode of national self-understanding in America, as well. In his last book, Who Are We?, political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that the United States of America derives its identity from a specifically Protestant culture with roots in English thought, and argued that unchecked immigration of groups not amenable to cultural assimilation threatens the continuance of American national identity. Again, it was not surprising that the book was condemned as racist.
Some varieties of nationalism are racist, no doubt, but must this be true of all? There are two ways of approaching this question. One attends to history; the second abstracts from it.
In a recent paper, Grant Silva follows the first path in his condemnation of moves (like that of Trump) to restrict and criminalize the immigration of Latinos. He criticizes Walzer’s defense of national boundaries and restriction on immigration as presupposing that cultural identity and membership has been already established in a nonproblematic way. The reality, Silva points out, is that throughout American history American self-understanding has been motivated by colonialism and race hatred. If I understand him, his point is that such morally vicious underpinnings are perpetuated through the defense of cultural and geographical boundaries that have such morally problematic historical roots. His paper does not exclude the possibility of ethically permissible boundaries, but since every variety of national self-incorporation presupposes the distinction between an in-group and an out-group, which, prior to the establishment of peoplehood, is discriminatory and accordingly morally problematic, it is not clear when a nation can redeem itself from its history, and can take steps to preserve itself as distinct from other nations in a way that is not racist or otherwise unjust. A thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism cleansing political culture of all exclusionary tendencies might be a logical result. (In a personal communication, Silva points out that an alternative way of dealing with the problematic history of national identity would be relax immigration restrictions on those populations that were victims of a nation’s exclusionary history. This would be an example of what Shelley Wilcox has called a “non-ideal position” concerning immigration.)
Another way of evaluating whether national institutions embody morally pernicious ways of distinguishing people on the basis of race or culture is to abstract from history, and to simply consider the institutions as they stand today, disregarding the people who live under them and their historically grounded prejudices and aspirations, and to see whether at the present time they conform to universal standards of justice. John Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness provides a way to make this sort of evaluation. Rawls asks us to engage in the famous thought experiment of the “veil of ignorance.” Suppose that you are deciding on the institutions of the political system in which you are destined to live, but are ignorant of the details of who you would be in that society, and what your personal preferences and allegiances are. You would not know your future gender, race, or sexual orientation. You would not know if you will have a disability. You would not know what your religious convictions or affiliation would be. It would be rational for you to select those institutions in which the least advantaged would be the best off, in comparison with alternative institutions, since, for, for all you know, you will end up among that group of the least advantaged, and the rational choice is the safe choice. Rawls argues that behind the veil of ignorance the rational choice would be selecting those institutions that do not favor the interests of one group to the detriment of those of another group. Such institutions will be those that are fair, and accordingly just. For this reason, the institutions and laws of a nationalistic nation-state will be unjust to those of a different national identity. Note that Rawls’s thought experiment does not bear directly on the question of immigration, as it concerns the institutions of a state whose membership and borders is not in question; the international order is not a single political entity, and the institutions of international law are at best works in progress. Still, it does call into question the legitimacy of appealing to national cultural identity in justifying political institutions.
But suppose the communitarians are right, and our identities are to a large extent constituted by the groups to which we belong, groups that have an identity and unity of their own and will not arise or persist out of individual choice, outside of social structures supporting them. It could be argued that behind the veil of ignorance, one would be unaware of whether one would belong to an ethnic, religious, or other kind of cultural group. Would it not be rational for the one behind the veil to choose those institutions that would preserve and nurture cultural identities, both majority and minority? Institutions intended to preserve such groups might be understood to be required by the demands of justice. Perhaps some legal and institutional arrangements dedicated to the preservation of indigenous cultures are of this kind, just, even if some rights and freedoms that they offer to those belonging to those cultures are denied to others. For example, those of us who are not Native Americans may not purchase or live on tribal lands. Few of us would consider this an unjust result of cultural or ethnic discrimination. The same line of thinking could be used to justify nation-states, like Israel, or even America, conceived as Huntingdon does. (I again bracket as sociological question the details of Huntington’s analysis, and the matter of whether majority cultures do need such protection.)
There are no clear answers. One strategy is to graft Kantian or utilitarian ideas of impartiality onto nationalistic frameworks, but it is not an easy fit. This is the strategy of Zionist philosopher Yael Tamir in her Liberal Nationalism. Although she supports Israel’s self-identification as a Jewish state, deontological considerations lead her to the conclusion that Palestinian national identity is likewise of value for the flourishing of Israelis of Palestinian heritage, and accordingly, when serving as Israeli Minister of Education, Tamir insisted on the need for some impartiality in regard to cultural narratives, endorsing textbooks for Israeli Arabs that included references to Israeli independence and the ensuing exodus of Arabs as “the Nakba” (“the Disaster”), causing a furor from the Israeli right. Tamir’s proposal of respecting competing national narratives was thought to pose a severe threat to a dominant version of the Israeli national narrative.
The tensions that arise from nationalistic modes of self-understanding arise when one mode of self-understanding excludes or marginalizes another. It is not easy to see how Zionist and Palestinian modes of self-understanding can come to be respectful of each other, as each rests on a historical narrative that is incompatible with the other. If Huntington had been correct in his analysis of American national identity, we would be facing a similar issue. The flourishing on a society grounded on Anglo-American cultural principles on his view would inevitably “clash” with those with a different cultural grounding. He would not have been surprised by the eruption of racism and Islamophobia within the phenomenon of Trumpism. But we in American have the resources for negotiating these tensions more easily than other nations. Fortunately, many Americans (including myself) are convinced that Huntington was wrong in making his fundamental historical and sociological point that American culture is, at its root, European and Protestant. The diversification of curricula and the publication of textbooks with multiple historical narratives might be bemoaned by some as signs of a culture adrift, but there is the promise that they are signs of the fruition of the ideals of self-determination and opportunity that are celebrated in our founding documents. Paradoxically, a distinctively American variety of pride and national identity might find its fruition not in the exclusion and marginalization of minority cultures, but in embracing and welcoming them, with no way of knowing in advance whether this will be a matter of assimilation, mutual influence allowing the emergence of a new unified culture, or a cultural mosaic of diverse elements. American nationalism need not be fearful, driven by a fortress mentality.
Owen Goldin is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.