Liberals keep denigrating the new nationalism as racist. This is nonsense.
Progressives too often display contempt for instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale
Have you noticed that liberals think Donald Trump and his supporters are racists?
You may have missed it if you didn't read the lead story on the front page of Saturday's New York Times, or watch one of three late-night talk shows on Monday night, or pay attention to Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" speech earlier this month, or follow the array of articles that appeared over the following week making the case that, if anything, Clinton was too restrained in describing merely half of would-be Trump voters as motivated by xenophobic bigotry.
The latest and most ambitious of these liberal hit pieces is by Vox's Zack Beauchamp, who marshals a range of academic studies to defend the view that the electoral success of right-wing movements across the Western world — from the rise of Trump and the outcome of the Brexit referendum to recent strong showings for far-right parties in European countries from France to Hungary — is not mainly a product of economic anxiety but rather a result of "racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia."
As Beauchamp puts it in a summary statement that verifies what an awful lot of liberals appear to believe: "The 'losers of globalization' aren't the ones voting for these parties. What unites far-right politicians and their supporters, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a set of regressive attitudes toward difference. Racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia — and not economic anxiety — are their calling cards." (In another passage, Beauchamp adds that "the privileged" are "furious that their privileges are being stripped away by those they view as outside interlopers.")
There you have it — a perfect distillation of liberalism in 2016: Trump voters and their analogues overseas have "regressive attitudes." They're motivated by bigotry, fear, and selfishness, all of which makes them angry that various outsiders are threatening to take away their abundant "privileges." They certainly have no justification — economic or otherwise — for their grievances.
The studies that Beauchamp cites do indeed seem to show (as he puts it) that the story of the rise of right-wing nationalism "cannot be told in purely economic terms." Whether it can be told without reference to economics at all is another matter. (Usually communities that are thriving economically don't show spikes in suicide and widespread addiction to prescription pain killers.)
But the real problem with the way Beauchamp and so many others on the center-left talk about those on the nationalist right is that it displays outright contempt for particularistic instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale. On the contrary, a very good case can be made that these instincts are natural to human beings and even coeval with political life as such — and that it is the universalistic cosmopolitanism of humanitarian liberalism (or progressivism) that, as much as anything, has provoked the right-wing backlash in the first place.
Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but "racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia" — is the desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic. As I explained shortly after the Brexit vote, cosmopolitan liberals presume that all particularistic forms of solidarity must be superseded by a love of humanity in general, and indeed that these particularistic attachments will be superseded by humanitarianism before long, as part of the inevitable unfolding of human progress.
For such liberals, any outlook that resists or rejects humanitarianism is an atavistic throwback to less morally pristine times, with the present always superior to the past and the imagined even-more-purely humanitarian future always better still.
Concerned about immigrants disregarding the nation's borders, defying its laws, and changing its ethnic and linguistic character? Racist!
Worried that the historically Christian and (more recently) secular character of European civilization will be altered for the worse, not to mention that its citizens will be forced to endure increasing numbers of theologically motivated acts of terrorism, if millions of refugees from Muslim regions of the world are permitted to settle in the European Union? Islamophobe!
Fed up with the way EU bureaucracies disregard and override British sovereignty on a range of issues, including migration within the Eurozone? Xenophobe!
As far as humanitarian liberals are concerned, all immigrants should be welcomed (and perhaps given access to government benefits), whether or not they entered the country illegally, no matter what language they speak or ethnicity they belong to, and without regard for their religious or political commitments. All that matters — or should matter — is that they are human. To raise any other consideration is pure bigotry and simply unacceptable.
Earlier forms of liberalism were politically wiser than this — though the wisdom came less from a clearly delineated argument than from observation of human behavior and reading of human history. "Love of one's own" had been recognized as a potent and permanent motive force in politics all the way back to the beginning of Western civilization, when Homer and Sophocles depicted it and Plato analyzed it. It simply never occurred to liberals prior to the mid-20th century that human beings might one day overcome particularistic forms of solidarity and attachment. They took it entirely for granted that individual rights and civic duties needed to be instantiated in particulars — by this people, in this place, with this distinctive history and these specific norms, habits, and traditions.
But now liberals have undergone a complete reversal, treating something once considered a given as something that must be extricated root and branch.
If people gave up their particular attachments easily, conceding their moral illegitimacy, that might be a sign that the humanitarian ideal is justified — that human history is indeed oriented toward a universalistic goal beyond nations and other forms of local solidarity. But experience tells us something else entirely. The more that forms of political, moral, economic, and legal universalism spread around the globe, the more they inspire a reaction in the name of the opposite ideals. The Western world is living through just such a reaction right now.
How far it goes and how much it destroys will depend in no small part on how long it takes humanitarian liberals to accept their own role in provoking the very thing they most want to destroy.