Why the Bad Side of Brexit Needn't Prompt a Trump-Like 'Amerexit'

In his invaluable book The UnconquerableWorld, the late Jonathan Schell renews an understanding of “good” nationalism that’s too-often dismissed by apostles of global, neoliberalism and of leftist progressivism.


Schell contends that political power “begins with the capacity to create or discover something… that other people cannot help but love.” And he went on to describe how people as differently situated as John Adams, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, and others fused national sentiments with universal ideals to build movements that mattered.

We all know what’s horrible in nationalism, and the Brexit decision sent me reeling back to the British-American poet W.H. Auden lamentation of February, 1939:

In the nightmare of the dark                                              

All the dogs of Europe bark,

And the living nations wait,                                                                 

Each sequestered in its hate.                                       

Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face.

And the seas of pity lie                            

Locked and frozen in each eye.

This is from Auden’s ode “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” his contemporary, who’d written that the center cannot hold as the best lose all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. Surely nationalism drove a lot of that madness. Glancing at developments not only in the Brexit controversy but also in the American presidential election and in Russia, China, we see the nightmarish dimension of nationalism returning.

But Anthony Barnett, founder and 'elder statesman' of the invaluable British website openDemocracy.net, has followed and parsed the Brexit upheaval in an instant book, “Blimey, It Could Be Brexit!” that revives a deeper possibility: “Living nations” aren’t condemned to “wait, each sequestered in its hate,” each erupting into a “nationalist’ variant of racism, xenophobia, and imperialism. To the contrary, civic-republican national identities remain more necessary to democracy than it pleases some cosmopolitans to believe.

Nations, understood as Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” or as the late American historian Robert Wiebe’s “grand fictive families,” are as essential as real families to nourishing democratic dispositions and habits. Fail though they often do, we discard them at our peril.

The word "nation" comes from "natal" and "nascent," reminding us that, inevitably, we need distinctive national civic cultures and narratives just as we need individual, idiosyncratic families to seed, nurture, and cultivate democratic dispositions and habits in the young.

Even Kant, the great universalist, hoped for a federation of republics, warning that a one-world government would be a “soulless despotism.” Many Britons who voted to leave the EU were motivated by a similar caution more than by the racism and xenophobia that the neoliberal media have slapped on all of them. If the EU itself is to be a federation of real republics, not a despotism, its constituent nations must renew their democracies from the ground up.

Barnett posed that challenge starkly, and rightly, before the vote:

A multi-national entity like the United Kingdom whose constitution is uncodified is bound to be fundamentally threatened by membership of a larger, multi-national entity that is dedicated to codifying itself. If its membership continues, its constitution will eventually be dissolved by it….

If Britain stays in, we face the prospect, over the coming decades, of membership of the EU dissolving the bonds that have reproduced the UK’s uncodified settlement; at the level of the nations, of rights, of legal systems, of sovereignty, of parliament. The political caste are acutely aware of this as it strikes at their existing powers and influence, hence their various forms of ‘Euroscepticism’. Regular folk don’t have so much to lose but instinctively – and rightly – theEnglish know that if they want to stay British in the old way they have to leave the EU.

Far from idealizing “the old way,” Barnett characterizes it as broken, perhaps beyond repair. But he notes that democratic sovereignty has been reborn in the past, bursting its aristocratic and imperialist casings. Can theLeave victory prompt a new birth, amid and against what neoliberal, global capital has become?

Democracies “act in the name of universal principles which are then circumscribed within a particular civic community,” explains the political philosopher Seyla Benhabib. “This is the ‘Janus face of the modern nation,’ in the words of Jurgen Habermas,” the German political philosopher who in the 1960s marveled at and praised what he called the “constitutional patriotism” of Americans in the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, who resisted their state in the name of their civic-republican nation.

Even when a liberal capitalist republic has a written constitution like that of the United States, it depends on its citizens to nourish and uphold voluntarily democratic beliefs and virtues that neither the liberal state nor markets nourish or defend – the liberal state because it doesn’t judge among differing ways of life, and markets because their very genius is to approach investors and consumers as self-interested individuals, not as citizens who might persuade one another to subordinate immediate self-interest to achieving public goods together and “larger selves” in so doing..

That leaves the shaping of democratic citizenship to a national civic-culture, as Robert Wiebe explains well in his revelatory Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism. “States, hovering like crows over the nests that nations make, have… played on the sentiments of ancestry, destiny, and sacred soil," Wiebe wrote. "Try though they might, however, they have rarely inspired feelings of kin-connectedness, the core around which cultures of nationalism have developed.” 

To nourish democratic dispositions and virtues in order to remain free, a society has to assert itself against the state hovering over it and, often, misdirecting it.

Nationalism need not -- and cannot -- say “No” to multiplicity and trans-national cooperation, any more than an individual family can say “No” to membership in a community more fractious and pluralist than it might like. Barnett hopes that a healthier, more democratic British civic-culture may well contribute to a federation of republics if Brexit prompts a more vigorous challenge to the City of London. If it doesn’t, leaving the EU will have been a blunder.

Will American citizens blunder into the equivalent of a Leave vote by electing Donald Trump? Might such a disaster also force the rebirth of a “constitutional patriotism” with sufficient national, democratic civic wellsprings to draw from? No less an international capitalist than Laurence Summers, the former Secretary of the Treasury and Harvard President, wrote this a few days ago:

“[T]he basic responsibility of government is to maximize the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good… [P]eople want to feel that they are shaping the societies in which they live. It may be inevitable that impersonal forces of technology and changing global economic circumstances have profound effects. But it adds insult to injury when governments reach agreements that further cede control to international tribunals of one sort or another. This is especially the case when, for legal reasons or reasons of practicality, corporations have disproportionate influence in shaping global agreements.”

We faced similar abuses late in the 19th century, but, with an open frontier and burgeoning if discriminatory labor markets, the poet Emma Lazarus was able to compose a civic-national narrative that people couldn’t help but love --“The New Colossus,” written in 1883 and mounted on the Statue of Liberty, and Americans renewed that credibility in the 1960s:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame                                                

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;                          

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand                                     

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame                                      

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name                                 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand                                      

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command                                                          

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.                               

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she                             

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,                             

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,                               

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,                                 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.                           

 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Not long after Lazarus wrote, new American leaders, including, eventually, Theodore Roosevelt, birthed the Progressive Movement to make good on the promises implicit in Lazarus’ encomium: “Wretched refuse” could be redeemed with a combination of social justice and national assimilation. It could be implemented in an “Americanization” movement, involving news media, schools and businesses, that I described in a paper for Harvard’s ShorensteinCenter for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

The European Union, too, has lifted its lamp beside a golden door, at least intermittently. We’ll see if Britain can inspire both us and Europe to transcend ourselves by finding ourselves. Only if we can do so on both sides of the Atlantic, can we hope to be as worthy as Anthony Barnett is of W.H. Auden’s concluding admonition:

Follow, poet, follow right                                                                   

To the bottom of the night                                                               

With your unconstraining voice                                                             

Still persuade us to rejoice.                                                          

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse.

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

For now, the word “free” should be in quote marks. Unmoored from any national narrative that “people cannot help but love,” we’re lost.

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