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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why Nationalism Is A Brain Disease

Matthew Yglesias’ “One Billion Americans” argues that America needs more people because America must be the best. But why be the “best”? And what is “America”?

I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” Thomas Paine

Once when I was in law school, a Black classmate recalled a conversation he had with his wife just after they moved to New Haven. Yale had given out packets of welcome material containing maps of the city. The maps showed two neighborhoods in detail: “Downtown” and “East Rock.” The rest of the city’s many neighborhoods were grayed-out. My classmate said his wife asked what the gray area was. 

“Sweetie,” he replied, “that’s ghetto.” 

New Haven is over ⅓ Black. But Yale constructs its own mental geography of New Haven, one in which New Haven consists of Yale and the neighborhoods that its students and faculty live in. In the university’s map, the rest of the city essentially does not exist or matter. 

Have a look at a familiar shape:

Fig. 1: “America”

Most of us do not see this shape as strange. It is the “United States.” (Not all of it, of course, but the US as it is frequently presented on, for example, book covers.) If you are an American, a vague version of this map may exist in your head as the place containing “our” people, “our” country

Borders, however, are ideas. The full continent looks like this::

Fig. 2: “The Real America”

This is a somewhat less familiar angle than we are used to, but it is just as legitimate to see things this way. This is America, or at least half of it. (Here is America in full.) 

The “United States” is in some ways a bizarre construct. It’s true that the people living in the geographic territory selected in Fig. 1 are governed by a common set of institutions, and their passports have the same bird printed on them. But beyond the somewhat arbitrary historical fact of which governing unit happens to cover which pieces of geographic territory as a result of certain wars, is it really the case that people in San Diego are properly thought of as part of the same “place” as Detroit or Burlington rather than Tijuana, which is literally 10 feet away

You may think that the mental grouping of “America” versus “non-America” using the Fig. 1 map is relatively inconsequential. But One Billion Americans, a new book by the liberal policy analyst Matthew Yglesias, demonstrates how bizarre and deranged the consequences of our “imagined communities” can be. 

Yglesias sees the shape in Figure 1 as a deeply meaningful entity. It is, to him, America, a country that we are in. Our identities are defined by being Americans, and we should pursue collective interests as Americans. Yglesias argues that the job of Americans is simply to try to make sure that we (ourselves and other Americans) are richer and more powerful than the people who are not Americans.

Yglesias’ book is an absolutely fascinating document, because it is both intelligent and deranged. It is intelligent because it is mostly dedicated to suggesting a series of sensible social democratic political policies and making clear arguments for them. It is deranged because all of it is built atop a wildly irrational and dangerous set of assumptions that are never defended but simply posited as true. 

Here is the argument that Matthew Yglesias makes in One Billion Americans:

 America, he says (again, defined as the United States) lacks a “shared sense of purpose” and faces a “very real challenge that we must meet: rapid ongoing economic growth in India and especially China is leading to the relative decline of the United States as a great power and threatens its position as the world’s number one state.” He says that we must therefore “tripl[e] our population to match the rising Asian powers” and “make America greater than ever.” “Against China we are the little dog,” he says, and the “balance of power is shifting away from America and toward China, and beyond it, India and Nigeria and others.” We should want, he says, to “stay number one forever.” He explains that he sees this position as so uncontroversial that it does not need proving:

The United States has been the number one power in the world throughout my entire lifetime and throughout the living memory of essentially everyone on the planet today. The notion that this state of affairs is desirable and ought to persist is one of the least controversial things you could say in American politics today. We should take that uncontroversial premise seriously, adopt the logical inference that to stay on top we’re going to need more people—about a billion people—and then follow that inference to where it leads in terms of immigration, family policy and the welfare state, housing, transportation, and more. Admittedly, it sounds a little loopy. But while some left-wing intellectuals might suggest that the end of American hegemony might be desirable, I’ve never heard an elected official from either party articulate that view. 

 Yglesias admits that it’s “not exactly clear” if there would be negative consequences “if the United States did allow itself to slip to the world’s number two economic power,” especially since our military advantage would mean that it wouldn’t pose an obvious threat to our security. But, he says, “American leaders, with good reason, aren’t talking about learning to adapt to a world where the United States is a second-rate power.” He says that throughout American history, from the time people “[rode] oxcarts across the Rocky Mountains,” there has been an animating vision of growth and expansion that he believes should be maintained. He admits that ‘”some bad things happened across the settling of the West.” (I assume he is referring to the mass extermination of the Native population.) Yet he still endorses the Manifest Destiny mindset: “But [the Bad Stuff] was done for a reason, and I’m basically arguing for a continuation of that vision.”

 It is important here to understand that Yglesias is a liberal, and his book explicitly argues in favor of many positions that those on the left would agree with. He rejects Trumpian hostility to diversity and argues for massive increases in immigration, and does not believe we should discriminate against immigrants from poor or nonwhite countries, or demand that only “skilled” workers be admitted. He makes the case for a massive increase in government social programs, endorsing for instance the “Family Fun Pack” of child support policies put forth by socialist Matt Bruenig. He argues for cutting military spending and doesn’t think we should worry too much about the deficit.

Yglesias also frames his proposals as a way to support the continued growth of China and India. His argument goes like this: if the United States wants to remain the globe’s dominant economic power, we will not be able to do so if China and India achieve the same average standard of living as us. While the “good news is that, for now, we still have more wealth,” soon these countries will catch up. We can either try to stop them and keep them in poverty—which, he says, would be unconscionable—or we can try to have a billion people of our own and continue to grow our productive capacities. Much of the book is then devoted to arguing that it is perfectly feasible to have a billion people in the United States because there is plenty of land and the increased carbon emissions can be mitigated—though he acknowledges that there are plenty of problems like “water access issues, pollution, traffic jams” that might be exacerbated. 

When encountering an argument like this, I think many people’s first tendency might be to argue against the factual premise that massively increasing population numbers are compatible with stopping global climate catastrophe. This is an empirical debate, however, and I am far more fascinated by the pure irrationality of the underlying set of normative values. Forget the question of whether he is right or not that the United States could accommodate a billion people. Look instead at how utterly insane these nationalistic assumptions are.

The book’s whole argument for having a billion Americans is that America should want to stay Number One in the world. Yglesias’ argument is: no reasonable American (except some “left wing intellectuals”) would disagree that we should try to be more powerful than all of the other countries. But if we are to do this, it will require having far more people. Otherwise, we will end up being a “second-rate” power like Portugal or Canada, a “little dog” compared with China and India. Hence, the uncontroversial premise that we must be #1 leads to the controversial conclusion that doing so will require a vast population increase and lots more immigration and infrastructure spending and such.

But let’s linger on the uncontroversial premise. Yglesias is absolutely right: no elected official in the country would say that America should be content to lose its status as the most powerful country in the world. For Yglesias, a thinker from the mainstream of American liberalism, the fact that no elected American would dispute this idea is proof that we can accept it as true. But is it true? Or is it madness? 

Why, after all, does it matter at all if China and India, who have many more people, also have larger economies than our own? Who cares? Why is it a “very real challenge that we must meet” that they are “catching up” and might “overtake” us, especially if standards of living are increasing across the board? Why should we be in a race for the largest economy? No reasons are given by Yglesias, because the actual reasons for believing this are ugly ones indeed. It ultimately amounts to a belief that United Statesians are superior to others and deserve more. Why should we be #1, rather than someone else? Because we prefer “our” people to “their” people?

Nationalism is a kind of brain disease. Once it gets into your head it shapes your understandings of the world in ways that have very, very negative consequences. There is no rational reason for believing that the people who live in Fig. 1 need to make sure they have access to greater numbers of consumer products than people living in India. And of course, only Americans believe in American superiority. Yglesias says that no American elected official would doubt that we should be in a position of great power, but billions around the world who see our influence as negative would strongly disagree. 

The most “uncontroversial” positions are often the ones we should be most careful about accepting. Yglesias’ book is very interesting and useful because it shows how something many Americans, including him, assume to be so obvious as to be beyond dispute, actually leads to an utterly absurd conclusion when you work out the implications of it. Yglesias is intelligent enough to ask: if we accept the premise that America must outpace China and India economically and cannot accept secondary status, what does that actually imply we have to do? He comes up with the answer “somehow increase our population to a billion Americans.” Yglesias—having been infected with the brain disease of nationalism—cannot bring himself to doubt the assumption that “we” must retain our “greatness,” and so for him that which looks absurd is actually something we must do. For a reasonable person, uninfected by nationalistic bias, the absurd conclusion actually reveals the problem with the premise. The book should not have been called One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, but One Billion Americans: How The Assumption That America “Must” Remain On Top Produces Ludicrous Implications. 

There are many circumstances in which accepting a seemingly uncontroversial premise leads to an unacceptable implication. During the Vietnam War, the belief that “American troops should first and foremost preserve their own lives and safety” led to the massacre of Vietnamese civilians, as soldiers would, say, kill a child if they thought the child might be carrying a hand grenade. “People should have freedom of contract” and “companies should pursue their profits” can easily lead to hideous outcomes, if pursuing continued profits necessitates committing murder and lying about it. “Countries ought to prioritize their self-interest” can lead to the devaluing of the lives of people outside those countries, even though arbitrary borders should not create moral distinctions between the value of human lives. “Manifest destiny,” of course, led to the idea that it was acceptable to dispossess and murder people who stood in the way of that “destiny.” The idea that “growth is good” and that improving GDP is synonymous with improving human welfare has led to colossal destruction and misery

 What is interesting is the contrast between how utterly deranged/irrational Yglesias’ position is and how normal/mainstream/rational it seems to many people in this country. His book is blurbed by Ezra Klein, Mark Cuban, Paul Romer (winner of the Nobel Prize in economics), and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. It was even called “utterly persuasive” by David Wallace-Wells, who wrote a book panicking about the catastrophe of climate change and yet is somehow open to the position that it’s reasonable to embark on a massive nationalistic initiative to ramp up the production of new human beings and the consumption of goods. Hayes says this is a book that “makes you think,” but I would argue that this is exactly the opposite of what it does. What it does is get you to think about issues like housing, transport, and immigration while getting you not to think about the underlying premise that “more Americans” and “being #1” are rationally defensible goals. 

 We need to avoid the conclusion that Yglesias just suffers from his own personal bizarre mental aberration. He is, in fact, speaking with unusual bluntness about premises that, as he says, are essentially the ideological water we swim in. But we need to start viewing the familiar as strange, the “beyond dispute” as disputable. Yglesias insists that his position is not racist, because he’s pro-immigrant and believes that it doesn’t matter what color the Americans are so long as there are a billion of them. He’s not a white nationalist, but an American nationalist. Thus to him, racism is a bad and immoral moral hierarchy of human beings, but pro-Americanism is a good and acceptable hierarchy. 

 This is very widely believed, and often not even noticed that it is believed. The National Review commends Yglesias’ book as “harken[ing] back” to a time when policy discussions were not “tribal.” But the entire premise is tribal: the America tribe must keep the China tribe from having more wealth and status. Yglesias calls explicitly for “recommitting ourselves to winning the competitive aspect of geopolitics.” This views humanity as some sort of vast sports league in which our job is not to secure happiness for all but to secure more happiness for ourselves than for the person next door. 

 We have seen some of the consequences of nationalistic assumptions during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic should be a moment of international solidarity, during which we all work together to solve a problem that affects us collectively as a species. Instead, countries are denying access to vaccine research to others, racing to be “ahead” and criticizing those who dare to “spy” on proprietary information about how to stop the virus

I share the position of Thomas Paine: my country is the world. Nationalism has always seemed to me a strange instinct. I do not feel more in common with someone in Rochester than someone in Montreal. I do not find existing U.S. political borders to be rational ways to lump human beings together. I do not see myself as being on a “team” that is trying to “win” a global competition. I do not care if “we” are “falling behind other countries in math.” If we think people ought to learn math, we should teach them as much math as they ought to know. If we have cities that are empty and need more people, we should try to find ways to get more people (and figure out what caused people to leave in the first place). Many of my ideas overlap with those of Yglesias, but for completely different reasons; for instance, I do not see increased immigration as a way of improving our “competitiveness” but as a moral imperative.

 If we both believe in social democratic political policies, you might wonder why it’s so important to stress the differences in motivation. This is because the differences in motivation do matter. Yglesias argues for free childcare because it will help boost the U.S. population by making it easier to have a child. But what if it didn’t? What if it turned out that free childcare was a negligible factor in determining people’s likelihood of having a child? Would the case for it be weakened? Not for me, because I don’t care whether people have children or not. What I care about is making sure that anyone who does decide to have children is able to have them taken care of without suffering economically. If you base your arguments on nationalistic premises, you’ll be fine so long as those premises are leading to reasonable conclusions (e.g. give people childcare) but stuck when they lead to nutty ones (like THE GOVERNMENT MUST GET AS MANY BABIES OUT OF AS MANY WOMBS AS POSSIBLE). 

I stress again, though, that Yglesias is if anything just more consistent than everyone else. He takes what many others believe and shows what it means. The problem here is not him. It is with the very idea that one’s moral universe should overlap with an “American identity.” We need to remake our mental maps and believe in a shared humanity rather than a geographically-defined imaginary community. This does not mean abandoning distinctive culture or group identities, even place-based ones—Chicago blues, French or Chinese literature, Neo-Andean architecture. Wanting more for “my” people than “your” people, however, is hard to defend, especially when the boundaries between “us” and “them” are so recent and so arbitrary. (There are serious moral questions about whether it is okay to prioritize your friends’ lives over the lives of strangers, but at least I have real meaningful connections with my friends, rather than simply sharing a unit of institutional governance with them. Caring about American lives over Mexican lives is rather like an employee of BP thinking fellow BP employees deserve to be happier than Exxon employees. It might well happen, but it is also senseless.)

A sane world will have communities and it will have identities—probably mostly city-based and regional—but a competitive system of nation-states is something we should reject. For one thing, it is not a “natural” form of organization but an incredibly recent one, and what is done can be undone. It may be the case that no serious American legislator would dare to question the matter of our shared national identity, or the need for us to remain superior to everyone else rather than participating as an equal. But it should be uncontroversial to note that we do not measure whether something is true by whether an American legislator believes it. We have to be intellectual anarchists and question every assumption. Nationalism is among the most questionable assumptions of all, yet for too long it has gone unquestioned. It’s time to change that.

For more on the strangeness of nationalism, see “What’s With Nationalism?” by myself and my colleague Brianna Rennix. 

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