American Politics

Cultures, Borders and the Nation-State

Lloyd W. Robertson
November 29, 2018
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair recently confirmed the Canada-U.S. land border will remain closed until Nov. 21 at least. Rhetoric about the inevitability of global homogeneity, Lloyd W. Robertson reminds us, can’t entirely erase stubborn cultural differences. Ultimately, writes Robertson, there is something virtuous and rational in loyalties to nation and culture.
American Politics

Cultures, Borders and the Nation-State

Lloyd W. Robertson
November 29, 2018
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair recently confirmed the Canada-U.S. land border will remain closed until Nov. 21 at least. Rhetoric about the inevitability of global homogeneity, Lloyd W. Robertson reminds us, can’t entirely erase stubborn cultural differences. Ultimately, writes Robertson, there is something virtuous and rational in loyalties to nation and culture.
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Canadians often observe that there is more divisiveness or anger in American politics than in Canada. What we are less likely to admit is that there is more actual debate about big issues among our neighbours. They’re still arguing vigorously, for example, over whether abortion and gay marriage are or should be constitutionally-protected rights. Philosophical and policy disputes over the growth of the welfare state, including more socialized health care, are far from resolved. And today’s thunderous battle over immigration – legal or, especially, illegal – is as polarized as it’s ever been.

Such questions do not go completely unmentioned in Canada, but they attract more lengthy, detailed, and – dare one say it – thoughtful debate in the U.S. There are many reasons for this. There are more opportunities stateside for those with minority views, or those on the “losing” side at any given time, to be heard; partly for this reason, issues can remain unsettled and in doubt for decades, as is the case with abortion. The legal and political resources available to many points of view are reflected in the media, which is more diversified and aggressive in the U.S. than in Canada. In this country an issue can arise and then appear to be settled once and for all within a short time, and anyone who holds out for further debate can be dismissed as a dinosaur or heretic. We have, and sometimes suffer from, a consensus in favour of consensus.

Donald Trump, in his presidential campaign, his surprising victory, and his presidency, has angered millions, but the man some are calling “the Great Disruptor” has also invigorated some important debates in a way that Canadians might learn from.

Some of the disruption Trump has caused stems from how Americans view their country’s relationship with the rest of the world. Until the 2016 presidential election campaign, two different policy directions seemed to be converging into a bipartisan consensus. Mainly driven by the so-called neo-conservative faction among the Republicans, and therefore associated most closely with “the right” (although it can be traced back to John F. Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson), there was a belief that literally any country was amenable to democracy in a form that would be familiar to Americans. With the end of the Cold War, which had required collaboration with some unsavoury regimes, it seemed that democratization should be the central goal of foreign policy, even at the cost of dethroning undemocratic governments, friendly or not. Achieving this ambitious goal sometimes required limited war making. The cost of these efforts, in blood and treasure, was justified by faith that it was not only desirable but possible to remake the world in America’s image. Among progressives, of course, this bellicose idealism was often condemned as a continuation of old-fashioned imperialism, based partly on notions of cultural superiority if not racism.

But those same progressives typically inhabit the Democratic Party, and even during the presidency of Barack Obama the goal of spreading Western-style democracy remained important. It’s true the Obama Democrats had learned at least one lesson from George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq: war should be a last resort and should be conducted, if at all, multilaterally. The punishing costs of the Iraq War, and the even longer-lasting war in Afghanistan, persuaded Obama to retreat on several fronts. When he participated in the largely European-driven intervention in Libya, he did so by “leading from behind,” seeking to achieve democracy with just a wee push. Elsewhere he relied heavily on weaponized drones and special forces to advance military objectives. This produced fewer American casualties while killing plenty of enemies of democracy.

The other major policy track that enjoyed significant bipartisan support pre-Trump involved easing restrictions on immigration. This included not only turning a blind eye to illegal immigration but, in many states and cities, actually flouting federal immigration law. The accepted view was that controls at the U.S.-Mexico border should be lightly enforced, and the problem of people arriving illegally from anywhere or overstaying visas should be dealt with via periodic amnesties. The hope and expectation was that newcomers would eventually come to see themselves as Americans, so they should be granted legal accommodation sooner than later. Presidents and legislators from both parties advanced this view; relatively recent examples include Congress’s DREAM Act and Obama’s DACA executive action.

On foreign policy in general, Trump dumped both the Bush and Obama varieties of nation-building in favour of an “America First” policy – harkening back to President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. At the same time, by openly and often crudely ridiculing the U.S.’s relaxed or unenforceable immigration standards – and their proponents – Trump shone a harsh light on the bipartisan consensus in favour of virtually open borders. Suddenly millions of Americans began to see this domestic immigration policy, driven mainly by Democrats but with considerable Republican support, as almost the opposite of forcing everyone to conform to American ideals. Instead of making the rest of the world resemble the U.S., it seemed designed to make the U.S. resemble the rest of the world.

The bipartisan consensus (“elites” in Trump-speak) on immigration actually favours something beyond that old binary choice. It aims for a world in which the old differences between people, such as race and religion, are cleansed of significance. It proposes a new kind of human self-understanding, one stressing the fundamental similarity of “everyone” as equal multicultural participants in a global economy. Differences in race, religion, culture, even gender may be identified and even celebrated – as long as they do not stand in the way of overall progress towards economic and social homogeneity. The ultimate goal is for everyone on earth to live in a liberal democracy.

The bipartisan consensus also includes surprising agreement between progressives and Wall Street. Global capitalists want to hire whomever they want from wherever they want. They want to deploy capital and assets anywhere that optimizes returns. Their hiring and investment practices are perhaps the single most powerful tool for creating a global population that is increasingly similar from one country to another. There are class divisions, to be sure, between rich elites skilled in new high-tech fields, providing professional services such as medical care and law, or those in government, and the castes beneath them on various rungs of the economic ladder. Yet both capitalists and progressives see globalization as the path to universal upward mobility and prosperity, however much they disagree on the particulars. What’s good for the “Davoisie,” the transnational uber-elite who profit from deconstructing national borders, is also good for the new middle class in China and the teeming millions in Africa who will eventually follow them up the ladder.

This great levelling has not occurred without casualties, of course. In Western countries, several social or economic cohorts have experienced decline. Millions who were once relatively wealthy, with secure working- and middle-class jobs and stable families, now compete for low-wage service jobs in sectors such as child care, home cleaning, senior care and food service. Farming and blue-collar industrial jobs are succumbing to automation. Among other consequences, there is a widening gap between rich and poor in the U.S. Governments there, and in other western countries, are exacerbating these problems with their open-border policies, their devotion to uninhibited free trade, and their fervent devotion to saving the planet by taxing carbon – which drives up energy costs mainly for those who can least afford it.

President Trump, consciously or not, has forced open a debate about bipartisan orthodoxies. He blasphemes against open borders, free trade, and exporting democracy, putting him at odds with both progressives and mainstream Republicans. Although his tax cuts and deregulation frenzy offend the left, he’s with them on improving big welfare programs, including what remains of Obamacare, rather than replacing or drastically reducing them. There is a consistency, if not logic, to his program, and it’s focused on the quaint idea that the first responsibility of government is to look after its own people.

In a larger sense, Trump has raised and-or greatly amplified questions about whether the “one world” approach is desirable let alone possible. It has never been easy to get humans to consistently behave in a way that is moral or good, or show commitment to the welfare of others, even within the limited scope of family, community, or country. It’s hugely ambitious to expect us to be good to many others, indeed to all others in the world, simply because the elites claim this is the path to peace and prosperity. Surely it’s more realistic to hope for a more limited moral commitment to “humanity”, a level of altruism that will keep the peace and share the wealth as much as possible within the confines of realpolitik.

Slogans like “America First” offend the gospel of globalization by daring to suggest there is much that is good and rational in the “old loyalties” to nation and culture. Many Canadians would find this very suggestion startling, perhaps even offensive, such is the weight of our consensus on globalization. But if we weren’t so quick to judge and forsake our history we might consider that the old loyalties, which could sometimes bring out what seemed to be the best in us, were and are natural, and that the whole project of trying to replace them with new and different loyalties, and then to rely on these loyalties to make the world a better place, seems a questionable dogma at best – and well worth debating. The U.S. is clearly having this debate. Shouldn’t we?

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