Published on: July 14, 2016
Nationalists and cosmopolitans
How Samuel Huntington Predicted Our Political Moment
In 2004, the eminent political scientist offered key insights into the nationalist-cosmopolitan divide at the heart of our society.
Samuel Huntington, the professor of government at Harvard University (and member of The American Interest editorial board from its founding until his death in 2008) was a titan of 20th-century social science. Several of his books, including Political Order in Changing Societies, The Third Wave, and The Clash of Civilizations, are classic works that will shape political thought for generations.
Huntington’s final book, however, has been denied a place in that pantheon. Who Are We?—a wide-ranging treatise that argued, among other things, that American elites were dangerously out of touch with the American public when it came to issues of patriotism, foreign policy, and national identity—was panned by most mainstream reviewers in 2004 as an ideological and careless screed that flirted with xenophobia. At 77, the eminent scholar was accused in respectable circles of losing his marbles.
But as the Republican Party prepares to hand its nomination to Donald Trump—a self-described “America First” nationalist, running on a platform of immigration restriction, trade wars, and Jacksonian foreign policy—Huntington’s thesis is looking more prescient than ever before—not as a prescription, but as a way of describing the divisions running through the heart of American society.
Since Trump’s rise, many sharp analysts have identified the clash between nationalism and cosmopolitanism as the fulcrum of American politics and even suggested that our parties are in the process of a long-term realignment driven by these competing understandings of American national identity. But Huntington saw the crucial importance of this fracture more than a decade before the gifted New York demagogue declared his candidacy for president:
The views of the general public on issues of national identity differ significantly from those of many elites. The public, overall, is concerned with physical security but also with societal security, which involves the sustainability–within acceptable conditions for evolution–of existing patterns of language, culture, association, religion and national identity. For many elites, these concerns are secondary to participating in the global economy, supporting international trade and migration, strengthening international institutions, promoting American values abroad, and encouraging minority identities and cultures at home. The central distinction between the public and elites is not isolationism versus internationalism, but nationalism versus cosmopolitanism.
According to Huntington, postwar globalization had given rise to a new class of “global citizens” at the highest echelons of American academia, industry, and (bipartisan) politics—a “de-nationalized” elite whose “attitudes and behavior contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification of the rest of the American public.” The jet-setting cosmopolitans tended to be far more supportive of free trade, open immigration, and activist foreign policy than most Americans. Huntington described this wide and allegedly growing gap as a major source of the decline in trust in democratic institutions since the 1960s.
The internationalist understanding of America’s place in the world preferred by the ruling class came in two flavors. The first might be called liberal cosmopolitanism. Under this philosophy, Huntington wrote, “America welcomes the world, its ideas, its goods and, most importantly its people. The ideal would be an open society with open borders, encouraging subnational ethnic, racial and cultural identities, dual citizenship, diasporas, and would be led by elites who increasingly identified with global institutions, norms and rules rather than national ones.” This description closely tracks the official view of today’s Democratic Party, which grew increasingly cosmopolitan under President Obama, and seems poised to continue this trajectory during its (still likely) second Clinton era.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Cold War, conservative intellectuals developed their own distinctive spin on the prevailing internationalist philosophy. Huntington called this “the imperial alternative.” In this view, instead of allowing the world to transform American society, America would transform foreign societies. “At the start of the new millennium conservatives accepted and endorsed the idea of an American empire,” Huntington wrote, “and the use of American power to reshape the world according to American values.” This variety of internationalism might be seen as an effort to accommodate the mass public’s patriotic populism within the elite cosmopolitan vision. The American eagle would bestride the globe.
The imperialist (or, to put it differently, neoconservative) synthesis sufficed to hold the Republican Party together during the Bush years, even though the cosmopolitan-nationalist distinction still manifested itself in a number of ways, including the 2007 derailing of comprehensive immigration reform. By 2016, however, the floor fell out from under the internationalists in the Republican Party altogether. With conservative internationalism vanquished, the 2016 contest pits liberal cosmopolitanism against a vulgar expression of pure nationalism inflected with racial overtones. The gap Huntington warned about now seems very real.
Though he would surely see through Trump’s opportunistic demagoguery if he were alive today, Huntington was rightly concerned about the tendency of the political class to ignore the public’s preferences on issues related to America’s identity, culture, and role in the world. Disillusioned by both liberal internationalism and neoconservatism, he advocated for an alternative approach. “Cosmopolitanism and imperialism attempt to reduce or to eliminate the social, political and cultural differences between America and other societies,” he wrote. “A national approach would recognize and accept what distinguishes America from those societies.”
Huntington is almost certainly right that the internationalists in both parties have gone too far for their own good, and for the country’s. At the same time, the kind of nationalist populism now flaring up across Western democracies is less an alternative approach than a white-hot reaction. And the elite perception that a certain level of globalization and American leadership brings distinctive benefits that the public is slow to recognize will always endure, not only because elites are stubborn and insular, but because their view also contains a significant element of truth. The point is not to kick internationalism to the curb; it is for elites to rediscover the delicate balance between cosmopolitanism and nationalism that they started to lose in the mid-20th century and abandoned altogether as the Cold War came to a close.
As Francis Fukuyama, Huntington’s former student and protege, wrote last month: “The intellectual challenge is to see whether it is possible to back away from globalization without cratering both the national and the global economy, with the goal of trading a little aggregate national income for greater domestic income equality.” Figuring out how to do this should be one of the defining challenges of American politics over the next generation.