Walmart’s “Made in the USA” Ad

I had several posts last year on nationalism (see them here). Grover Cleveland over at Pileus offers yet another example of it.


I was just taking in a few minutes of the Olympics when I saw a new Walmart ad touting its pledge to purchase $250 billion of American-made products (or perhaps more accurately, its  “pledging [of] $250 billion to products purchased from American factories”).  Roll the tape and see for yourself:

It is a bit odd to see Walmart pitching this “Made in the USA” message while blaring a song (“Working Man”) by the non-Americanband Rush!*  It really made me chuckle to see Walmart undercut its mercantilist-esque theme by choosing the best product for what it is trying to accomplish – just like most of us – and that product is made by non-Americans!

Of course, I generally don’t care where my products (or music) come from as long as they meet my needs (price, quality, etc).  Just like Walmart with its music selection, the wise consumer choooses products no matter where they come from and just says yes to free markets without any mercantilist-induced…

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The Mighty Nation

There were several comments in my posts on nationalism, and I started to respond to them, but then decided to do a separate post instead.

In the previous posts, I questioned whether two politicians were laying on the nationalist rhetoric a little thickly. In one, John McCain referred to his Americaness as his most meaningful association. In the other, David Cameron defended the mythic achievements of the UK with great flourish. One commenter pushed back against the point I was making a little and did so quite charitably. He concluded with:

nationalism is something I hold near and dear to my heart. I love this country and I believe if everyone shared in this passion we would live in an even greater one.

Danielle responded to this comment with a question (which I paraphrase): Isn’t too much nationalism a bad thing?

I would say that I don’t think the question is one of degree, but of priority. Another way of putting it is to say that a nation can either be an instrumental good or a final good. Valuing our institutions because they accomplish some positive good for our persons, families, neighbors, property etc. is something qualitatively different from valuing the nation as one’s most meaningful association. I think our nation is great to the extent that it does good. Note that I value it as a means to other ends and its value is subordinated to those ends. When, heaven forbid, it becomes destructive of those ends, it becomes our duty to oppose it, even destroy it. Recall that great passage from the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But if the nation itself becomes the most meaningful association, all other values are subordinated to it and only valued in as much as they contribute to the preservation of the nation. The mention of Hitler in the comments illustrates the point I am making. Historian Paul Johnson expresses the danger quite pithily in his history of the 20th century:

As Churchill correctly noted, the horrors he listed were perpetrated by the ‘mighty educated States.’ Indeed, they were quite beyond the power of individuals, however evil. It is commonplace that men are excessively ruthless and cruel not as a rule out of avowed malice but from outraged righteousness. How much more is this true of legally constituted states, invested with all the seeming moral authority of parliaments and congresses and courts of justice! The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless. Modern Times (1983).


Nation, State, and Democracy

This weekend, I leave you with a quotation from Henry Kissinger‘s 1994 magnum opus, Diplomacy. Following a penultimate chapter on the end of the Cold War, Kissinger looks ahead to the complexities of the “New World Order” even as he contemplates the nature and origins of liberal democracy:

The growth of democracy will continue as America’s dominant aspiration, but it is necessary to recognize the obstacles at the moment of its seeming philosophical triumph. Curbing the power of the central government has been a principal concern of Western political theorists, whereas, in most other societies, political theory has sought to buttress the authority of the state. Nowhere else has there been such an insistence on expanding personal freedom. Western democracy evolved in culturally homogeneous societies with a long common history (even America, with its polyglot population, developed a strong cultural identity). The society and, in a sense, the nation preceded the state without having to be created by it. In such a setting, political parties represent variants of an underlying consensus; today’s minority is potentially tomorrow’s majority.





Nationalism: A More Recent Example

So no sooner did I post on nationalism did the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron provide an excellent rhetorical example of nationalist sentiment. In response to an apparent jibe from Russian officials that Britain is “just a small island no-one pays attention to,” Cameron responded thusly:

Cameron says, in part:

Britain is an island that has helped to clear the European continent of fascism and was resolute in doing that throughout the Second World War.


Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth inventing, including every sport currently played around the world, that still today is responsible for art, literature and music that delights the entire world.

There you have it folks–Britain the Glorious! Thank you, Mr. Cameron, for that apt and timely example of nationalism.


Nation: The Most Meaningful Association?

My previous post offered a definition of nationalism. I recently stumbled across a great example of nationalist sentiment worthy of consideration. The following clip contains the John McCain concession speech following his loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Campaign. The portion relevant here is between 4:00 and 4:10 in the clip below.

McCain, after several moving statements about the historic significance of the Obama presidency, indicated his intention to support the new president as well as his respect for Obama, because “We are fellow Americans, and believe me when I say that no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

This statement was met with fairly vigorous applause. I admire the graciousness and apparent sincerity of the speech. Moreover, I think it demonstrates one of the greatest gifts of modern democratic politics: the routine and peaceful transfer of power.

On the other hand, I am intrigued by the nationalist sentiment evinced in McCain’s statement and the applause it received. McCain has many associations that might be deemed significant. After all, he is someone’s son, husband, father, and friend. McCain identifies as a Christian as well. Yet it is Americaness that is his most important association?

To some scholars of nationalism, sentiments like this come as no surprise. Benedict Anderson believes it no mere coincidence that

The eighteenth century marks not only the dawn of the age of nationalism but the dusk of religious modes of thought. The century of the Enlightenment, of rationalist secularism, brought with it its own modern darkness. With the ebbing of religious belief, the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes continuity more necessary. What then is required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning…few things are better suited to this idea than an idea of nation.

Imagined Communities

We can imagine our nation with a great and glorious past and a “limitless future.” Moreover, “it is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny. With Debray we might say, ‘Yes, it is quite accidental that I am born French; but after all, France is eternal.’”

Anderson is not suggesting a causal relationship between the decline of religiousness in the West and the rise of nationalism as a predominant mode of conceptualizing the individual’s relationship to the world. His point is that “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being.”

Essentially, nationalism is a taken-for-granted frame of reference in much of the modern world. This frame is large in scope and makes demands on our loyalty that were once reserved for kinship or religious faith. It is important to remember, however, that nations are “imagined communities.” Or, as Ludwig von Mises put it,

 It is illusory to believe that it is possible to visualize collective wholes. They are never visible; their cognition is always the outcome of the understanding of the meaning which acting men attribute to their acts. We can see a crowd, i.e., a multitude of people. Whether this crowd is a mere gathering or a mass (in the sense in which this term is used in contemporary psychology) or an organized body or any other kind of social entity is a question which can only be answered by understanding the meaning which they themselves attach to their presence. And this meaning is always the meaning of individuals. Not our senses, but understanding, a mental process, makes us recognize social entities.

At bottom, America is a group of persons related to one another by a common set of institutions–some formal, some informal. Institutions are perpetuated to the extent that the norms of conduct which comprise them are internalized by the individuals that make up the community in which they arise. They are important, but they are not sacred. Institutions–even national ones–are valuable only to the extent that they achieve the goals for which they are formed. As countless historical examples attest, we worship our nation at our peril.


Nationalism Defined

Nationalism Globe

“Nationalism” is a tricky term to define in Political Science. Though there are book length treatments of the subject, I was pleased to stumble across a clear and concise definition which I decided to share below. This typology should prove particularly helpful as we think about contentious politics unfolding around the globe. At its core, nationalism is about demarcating “us” and “them.”

In its most general terms, nationalism involves the twin claims that distinct nations have the right to possess distinct states, and that rulers of distinct states have the right to impose national cultural definitions on inhabitants of those states. Nationalist politics therefore divides into two interdependent forms: attempts of self-identified members of nations that do not currently control their own states to acquire independent states, and efforts of rulers to make their definitions of national interest and culture prevail within their own territories. In either case, obviously, political disputes concern both who has rights to control what territories, and who has rights to speak for what nations. Following Haas (1986) in large part, we proceed from the following definitions:

A nation is a body of individuals who claim to be united by some set of characteristics that differentiate them from outsiders, who either strive to create or to maintain their own state.

A nation-state is a political entity whose inhabitants claim to be a single nation and wish to remain one.

Nationalism is a claim by a group of people that they ought to constitute a nation or that they already are one; but this generic category divides into:

a. National sentiment, a claim that people on one side of a categorical boundary ought to exercise self-determination at some point in the future;

b. Nationalist ideology, a body of arguments and ideas about a nation advocated by a group of writers and activists embodying a political program for the achievement of a nation-state; and,

c. A national myth, the core of ideas and claims that most citizens accept about a nation-state beyond their political divisions when a nation-state is successfully created. A nationalist movement…is a struggle between (a) activists that embrace a nationalist ideology and (b) states and/or other groups which either oppose or are indifferent towards their claims.

Dynamics of Contention, McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly 2001, 229-30