On July 4, we celebrate something called the nation, but what is a nation? What is the source of our affections and loyalties? 

Do you have a clear understanding of your own belief?We all assume that we know the answer to the question. But when you drill down, you find out that there is no clear agreement. In fact, disagreement on this vital issue is a huge source of division and political strife in the world today.

Divergent views on what constitutes nationhood is one aspect of why Trump’s claims make sense to his followers but not to the editorial pages, why Elizabeth Warren’s tirades strike some as sensible and others as silly, why some people regard the rise of the alt-right (or the antifa) as a saving grace and others see it as a sign of the end times.

Ask yourself: what do you believe a nation to be? Do you have a clear understanding of your own belief? Regardless of your politics, but especially if you consider yourself to be a libertarian, you need to get this settled.

In 1882, the great French historian Ernst Renan penned a passionate and brilliant essay on the question. Ludwig von Mises himself rallied around this essay as the best expression of classically liberal doctrine. If another essay has done as good a job in dealing with the issue, I’m unaware of it. He wrote it while the age of monarchy was coming to a close, as the rise of democracy was occurring everywhere. Ideologies like socialism, imperialism, and “scientific” racism were vying to replace old-world understandings of political community.

Renan delineates five conventional theories of nationhood from history and practice. 

Even if you reject his final thesis – that the perception of nationhood is an affair of the heart and nothing else – you can still be challenged by his analysis.

Renan delineates five conventional theories of nationhood from history and practice. 

Dynasty. This view believes that ruling-class lineage forms the foundation of nationhood. It’s about a history of initial conquest by one family or tribe over one people, its struggle to gain and maintain power and legitimacy, its marriages, wars, treaties, and alliances, along with a heroic legend. This is a solid description of European experience in feudal times, but it is not necessary for nationhood.

The dynastic sense of what nationhood is has largely evaporated in the 20th century, and yet nationhood is still with us. Renan saw that the dynastic view of the nation is not a permanent feature of the concept but only incidental to a time and place, and wholly replaceable. “A nation can exist without a dynastic principle,” writes Renan, “and even those nations which have been formed by dynasties can be separated from them without therefore ceasing to exist.”

Religion. The belief that a nation needs to practice a single faith has been the basis of wars and killings since the beginning of recorded history. It seemed like nationhood couldn’t exist without it, which is why the Schism of the 11th century and the Reformation of the 16th century led to such conflict. 

Religious faith and practice is too heterogeneous to constitute the basis of nationhood. Then emerged a beautiful idea: let people believe what they want to believe, so long as they are not hurting anyone. The idea was tried and it worked, and thus was born the idea of religious liberty that finally severed the idea of national belongingness from religious identity. Even as late as the 19th century, American political interests claimed that the US could not be a nation while accepting Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist immigration. Today we see these claims for what they are, politically illicit longings for conquest over the right of conscience.

In addition, what might appear at first to be a single religion actually has radically different expressions. Pennsylvania Amish and Texas Baptists share the same religious designation but have vastly different praxis, and the same is true of Irish vs. Vietnamese vs. Guatemalan versions of Catholicism. This is also true of every other religious faith, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. Overlooking this amounts to denying a persistent reality of all faiths in all times and places.

Focussing on race alone is a revanchist longing in any civilized society. Race. In the second half of the 19th century, there arose the new science of race, which purported to explain the evolution of all human societies through a deterministic reduction to biological characteristics. It was concluded that only race is firm and fixed and the basis of belongingness. Renan grants that in the most primitive societies, race is a large factor. But then comes other more developed aspects of the human experience: language, religion, art, music, and commercial engagement that break down racial divisions and created a new basis for community. Focussing on race alone is a revanchist longing in any civilized society. 

There is also a scientific problem too complex for simple resolution: no political community on earth can claim to be defined solely by racial identity because there is no pure race. This is why politics can never be reduced to ethnographic identity as a first principle. Racial ideology also trends toward the politics of violence: “No one has the right to go through the world fingering people's skulls, and taking them by the throat saying: 'You are of our blood; you belong to us!'”

Language. As with the other claims of what constitutes nationality, the claim of language unity has a superficial plausibility. Polyglot communities living under a unity state face constant struggles over schooling, official business, and other issues of speech. They have the feeling of being two or several nations, thus tempting people to believe that language itself is the basis of nationhood. But this actually makes little sense: the US, New Zealand, and the UK are not a single nation because they hold the same language in common. Latin America and Spain, Portugal and Brazil, share the same language but not the same nation. 

 “Language invites people to unite,” writes Renan, “but it does not force them to do so.” There is also the issue that not even a single language is actually unified: infinite varieties of expression and dialect can cause ongoing confusion. How much, really, does the language of an urban native of New Jersey have to do with expressions used in rural Mississippi? “Language invites people to unite,” writes Renan, “but it does not force them to do so.” There is nothing mystically unifying about speaking the same language; language facilitates communication but does not forge a nation.

Geography too is malleable. Geography. Natural boundaries are another case of nation-making in the past which, as with all these other principles, actually has little to do with permanent features of what really makes a nation. Rivers and mountains can be convenient ways to draw borders but they do not permanently shape political communities. Geography can be easily overcome. It is malleable, as American history shows. The existence of geographically non-contiguous nations further refutes the notion.

Americans speak of “sea to shining sea,” but how does that make sense of Alaska and Hawaii? Also in the US, enclaves of past national loyalty are a feature of city life: little Brazil, Chinatown, little Havana, and so on. Even further, to try to force unity based on geography alone is very dangerous. “I know of no doctrine which is more arbitrary or more fatal,” writes Renan, “for it allows one to justify any or every violence.”

So What Is a Nation?

All the above have some plausible claim to explaining national attachment, but none hold up under close scrutiny.

Can we identify any single factor to account for people’s sense of attachment to a political community?

Where your heart is, there is your nation. In Renan’s view, nationhood is a spiritual principle, a reflection of the affections we feel toward some kind of political community – its ideals, its past, its achievements, and its future. Where your heart is, there is your nation. This is why so many of us can feel genuine feelings of joy and even belongingness during July 4th celebrations. We are celebrating something in common: a feeling we have that we share with others, regardless of religion, race, language (this is, after all, a country where “Despacito” is the number one pop hit), geography, and even ideology.

It is all about affections of the heart, which appear without compulsion and exist prior to and far beyond any loyalties to a particular dynasty, regime, or anything else. And what is that source of inner pride Americans feel? It’s about the way in which the American political experiment appears rooted in the freedom to have and to hold those affections, and ennobles them in American aspirations and institutions. As with any national experience, ours is a deeply flawed history but the love that we have in our hearts for the freedom that is the theme of this nation persists despite it all.

Renan has the last word: “Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains. A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation.”

The freedom of this moral conscience is what we celebrate when we feel pride in the American nation.

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