Interview: Steven Smith, Part II
Interviews Politics

Interview: Steven Smith, Part II

William Lombardo
William Lombardo

Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University

Professor Steven Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University. His scholarship has focused on the work of, among others, Leo Strauss, Baruch Spinoza, and Isaiah Berlin. His most recent book is Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes (Yale University Press, 2021).

Reclaiming Patriotism is a defense of American patriotism as an indispensable civic virtue in the face of both nationalist and cosmopolitan critiques. Professor Smith depicts an American patriotism suspended between a rational appreciation of liberal democracy and an affective attachment to one’s particular way of life and between a reverential appreciation for tradition and a resolute commitment to moral progress. I sat down with Professor Smith to discuss some of these themes.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. The first of our interviews with Professor Smith can be found here.

William Lombardo: After the events of January 6 (which took place after this book was completed), I found myself questioning the value of patriotism. After all, if probed, many of those who stormed the Capitol would consider themselves patriots and indeed say that patriotism demanded their actions. So your book was very timely, in that it provides the conceptual tools to explain why January 6 was a betrayal of patriotism while showing why we need not adopt a pure cosmopolitanism, which I think was where those of us who felt uncomfortable with the nationalist impulse gravitated.

To recover patriotism from these “deviations”—nationalism and cosmopolitanism—you defend what you call enlightened patriotism, which seems uniquely American. For those who haven’t yet read the book, what is enlightened patriotism?

Steven Smith: One of the things that is central to enlightened patriotism and that is unique to American patriotism is that it has a creedal component, an aspirational component. That is, our patriotism is based in texts and ideas. Throughout the book I refer to Americans as “People of the Book,” meaning that we have a strong textualist tradition. This started with the Puritans, but extends to the fact that our Constitution is a written document—entirely unique in the 18th century—and that our animating ideas are written in the Declaration of Independence. This component has always given our patriotism an element of principles, ideas, and beliefs, as well as aspirations, those things that American patriotism holds up as what we think we should be as a people.

There is no single document that spells out the American creed, but nevertheless, over time, we can elicit a number of principles: equality, liberty, limited government, a balance of powers, and pluralism. These shape the American creed and the American ethos. This ideational character gives American patriotism its uniqueness, distinguishing it from nationalist elements that claim rootedness only in the soil and the land.

William Lombardo: When you say that American patriotism is rooted in ideas, it seems that one can’t defend patriotism (in that aspirational sense) without making a case for the ideas themselves. There is another critique, leveled from the right, that isn’t a nationalist critique, but that stems from a critique of liberalism, which is criticized not for being neutral, but for being nonneutral and promoting a warped anthropology. This usually leads to advocacy of withdrawal to the local and the familial rather than a strong nationalism. Could you explain where this impulse goes awry?

Steven Smith: Sure. First, on this subject of nationalism, the term “blood and soil” is what we usually use to describe European nationalisms, and there is an element of that in American nationalism that often takes the form of racial or ethnic determination of the nation’s people. I’ll note that you hear people self-describe as white nationalists, but you never hear them self-describe as “white patriots.” They speak a completely different language and use a completely different idiom.

In the section of the book called “Ethos Patriotism,” I point out that it isn’t enough just to have the ideas. These ideas are rooted in a particular way of life, the ether that makes the people what they are. Patriotism is the embodiment of a certain kind of life that every regime, over time, develops on its own. There is something distinctive about American patriotism, not just in our ideals, but in the sub-constitutional forms of our common life: our language, our manners, our cuisine, and our music. These are all elements of what we might call American national character that is the other side of our creedal character. These are elements that perhaps come closer to what the nationalists claim, but I don’t think of these in any way as rooted in questions of ethnicity or particularly race. They are qualities that characterize Americans.

William Lombardo: You also describe American patriotism as suspended between an ethos and a logos and as suspended between narratives of progress and of return. That is, do we return to the principles of the founding or march forward to realize them more fully? How do we manage this tension, or this suspension between ideals?

Steven Smith: That’s hard, because it’s very easy to select only one side of those. The narrative of return is most associated with the school of constitutional originalism, where the principles of the Founding are the only solid guiding principles. Whereas the progressives, who believe that beginnings are irrelevant, believe we live in a world where we constantly need to adapt to the needs of the moment, unbound by tradition and the past. I want to say that America is a combination of both of these.

Lincoln got these two elements best. He frequently referred to the language of the “Fathers,” as he called them, but he saw the Declaration—and its equality principle in particular—as having been very imperfectly realized and requiring a struggle or a progressive moment to realize. He understood that American patriotism was to hold both of these things together.

You’re right to point out that these are in tension in some respects, and that is what makes American patriotism challenging. So frequently, you hear those on the right bemoan the legacy of progressivism or of progress more generally; on the left you frequently hear an effort to tarnish the claims of the Founders. Both of these seem deeply flawed—one-sided at best. Neither captures the richness of American patriotism.

William Lombardo: Lincoln was a very appropriate choice for the case you make, because he in many ways was not very well educated, certainly no philosopher, certainly not as well read as the authors of the Federalist Papers. But he famously possessed a practical wisdom that you argue is key to a proper patriotism. Could you elaborate the role of practical wisdom?

Steven Smith: The genius of Lincoln, despite having no formal education, was in being our most philosophically-minded political leader. It does seem to me that the Founders in particular saw the need for practical wisdom in order to think politically or to apply patriotism. We’ve lost this capacity for practical judgment, instead thinking in terms of extremes, all-or-nothing, whereas politics has always been a matter of give and take. That’s the interest-based politics that Madison describes in Federalist No. 10 and that Jefferson invokes when he submits the facts of the Declaration to a candid world or says that prudence will decide when rebellions are necessary. And what is prudence? It is a moral reasoning about politics that requires judgment and a sense of responsibility. Since you brought up the events of January 6: practical wisdom is the opposite of what we saw there, a crowd inflamed by an ideology of extremism. This is very different from the language of our best leaders.

William Lombardo: On the subject of the Founders, it seems that two things have happened that make it difficult to recapture a widespread respect for their political virtues. The first has to do with Jeffesron’s quip that after several generations the Constitution could come to be seen as something imposed by a foreign army. So he recommended writing a new one every few decades. It seems something like that has happened; two centuries ago might as well be a foreign country, and many feel alienated or estranged from the Founding generation. The second is a demystification of that generation, exposed as flawed or immoral, especially with respect to their slaveholding. These two have combined to sow a distrust that something like Trump’s 1776 Commission, silly as that might have been, purported to counteract but would have failed to do. How do we recapture a reasoned respect for the Framers?

Steven Smith: Those are two really important tendencies in our political climate and two great obstacles to reclaiming patriotism. The first is well put by Jefferson: “the dead should not be binding on the living.” The Federalist authors considered Jefferson’s view and sensibly rejected it, understanding that Constitutions should not so easily be rewritten every generation. They require respect and reverence that builds over time. A kind of Constitutional reverence is a good thing. And it’s a very naive view of history and of human psychology to assume that it has nothing to say or address to us today and that every generation should start from scratch. This is the attitude that Michael Oakeshott described as “rationalism” that is destructive of a way of life. Yet it is a modern sensibility that we have for better or for worse and can’t simply ignore or dismiss. It should be balanced by elements that stress the importance of custom, habit, and our common moral practices. There's tension.

The second question is the project of denigration toward the past. This is no new thing. In the early 20th century, the famous progressive historian Charles Beard leveled the critique that the Founders were rich men who created an aristocratic Constitution for the wealthy classes. In this view it was always a capitalist Constitution working against the interests of the working classes. Today, the argument is related to this but much more directly to the issue of slavery: the Founders were slaveowners trying to install a system of racial hierarchy and domination. An essay in the 1619 Project argues that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery against the British Crown—which is sophistry. Of course, I do not dispute the importance slavery and race had to our Constitutional beginnings, extending far after with Jim Crow and its legacy. But to impose a blinkered view of history—as if the entire trajectory of American history is shaped through domination—is such an injustice to the generations of people who have struggled to make this a far more inclusive country than before. To demean the Founders as simply slave owners is to do a fundamental injustice to the principles on which the country is based, which as Lincoln understood were not properly realized. But there is a narrative of inclusion and progress that is worth telling.

William Lombardo: Many of the generations fighting for liberation whom you mention very intentionally recoursed to the language of the Founding documents, and still do in fact. Even while making a critique of the Founding, the authors of the 1619 Project couched their goals in the language of the Declaration.

To pivot a bit: I’m interested in what you think about the nation-state. On one hand it’s what we’ve been given; we don’t live in Sparta or in a cosmopolis. On the other hand, the nation-state is not the enduring political form, and, unless we want to take a Hegelian view of things, it is possible that some other form will succeed the nation-state. And this historical contingency can be adduced as a reason against patriotism. What’s your appraisal of this dominant form of organization: is it simply that we should make the most of it or is your claim stronger, that it’s the best way of organizing political life?

Steven Smith: We live in a world of states, and my analysis begins with the primacy and legitimacy of the nation-state as our basic form of political organization since the Treaty of Westphalia, which recognized states as the highest political principle. At that time it was about working through religious struggles and so each sovereign chose the religion of the state. But since that time the world order has been shaped by the nation-state. And I accept the legitimacy of that order. From a philosophical view, there is no necessity that the form we have today had to come into existence. Take the United States; the form of the United States has changed enormously since the Articles of Confederation, for example. These boundaries between states are constantly negotiated and renegotiated, partly as a result of war, of migration, or of conquest. I don’t deny for a moment the historical side of the state system we have today. It’s not the only possible world, but it’s the one we have—I think for the better—and the one that has conferred legitimacy on our way of life.

Attempts to abolish or transcend the state have been tried; the official ideology of Communism, which has of course gone hand in hand with the creation of states, is that the state will be transcended and a universal classless society will reign. We see where that went: to a Communist Empire that was one of the most vicious, tyrannical systems that history has known. This is one example of a modern-day cosmopolitanism that has failed. There are, of course, other attempts which are far more benign. Take the European Union, which has not abolished the state but is often discussed as a world of “post-sovereignty”: there is a common passport, a common currency. State sovereignty will no longer matter. In many ways the EU was created for a very important reason: to try to end the violence of the nationalist wars of the 20th century. And that was all for the good. But we’ve also seen that the EU has become an immense bureaucracy that has in many ways meshed national sovereignties into an international web of rules and regulations that alienate people from their nationalities and traditions without replacing those with anything. These experiments of trying to transcend the nation-state as the principle of organization are, in the case of the EU, at best only partially successful.

I do think the nation-state remains our basic principle of legitimacy. One example from the book is the attempt to replace national courts with international courts of justice, which have worked very imperfectly, slow to bring criminals to trial, and very selective in whom they prosecute. Similarly, when it comes to war crimes, EU troops were not very effective in stopping the slaughter in the Balkans; the U.S. was far more effective in stopping the bloodshed. International bodies have not worked as well to ensure regional stability or peace or to bring criminals to justice.

William Lombardo: We obviously don’t have access to the counterfactual world where the EU and its predecessors didn’t form after World War II, and indeed there are some historians who think the peace would have been kept anyways and that the Balkans and Kosovo may have belied the notion of the EU as a peacekeeping community.

You do seem to argue that the sort of liberalism that inspired the American Founding generation offers the resources needed to maintain peace between nations (Montesquieu’s doux commerce for example). Could you elaborate on the resources that tradition gives us to prevent international wars and, also, to prevent the Soviet Union’s nationalistic counterpart, the Nazis? In other words, how does the patriotic tradition give us the resources needed to achieve what supra-national organizations purport to achieve?

Steven Smith: One of the tendencies of nationalists, as I argue in the book, is to see the world in perpetually zero-sum terms, as friend and enemy. It’s a militaristic attitude of us and them that shapes that narrative and which is a formula for perpetual war. Patriotism speaks a different language; it is not a militaristic doctrine. It is particularist, rooted in a particular way of life, but not one that sets itself up as being the existential enemy of others. In that way it disarms the militaristic side of nationalism.

Cosmopolitanism has a more insidious (so to speak) element. You referenced Montesquieu, who was right in the 18th century to see commercial relations as a desirable substitute for the older, feudal codes of honor and military glory that would create a world of trading partners. But as the 19th and 20th centuries have shown, commerce, capitalism, and international markets have their ways of corroding our national identity and turning the world into a vast marketplace of consumers. This also derails our sense of patriotism. Once you begin thinking of yourself as a consumer, you’re no longer a citizen. You’re a bourgeois, not a citoyen, in the distinction Rousseau makes. In that respect patriotism and its rootedness in national traditions is a useful counterfoil to the trends of global markets.

William Lombardo: Certainly, and I don’t know that global markets have a particularly stellar record of preventing wars. 19th century China can testify to that, subjected to violence for the sake of open markets.

Steven Smith: Yes, in many ways the great 18th century theorists of the market—Smith, Montesquieu, Hume—were a bit naive about markets, or at least hadn’t seen their full development. They thought of economic transactions as largely peaceful and pacifying of people’s manners and habits. They didn’t realize the degree to which global competition can just as equally be a source of competition and war over resources. That became much more evident a century later.

William Lombardo: It seems they could have hearkened back to Locke to find the seeds of this and to understand that market competition isn’t so far from the older pursuit of militaristic honor.

I want to touch on the question of the common good, which in a democratic society requires many of the citizens to possess a virtue akin to public-spiritedness that is related to if not wholly synonymous with patriotism. One of the strands of the American creed that you identify is individualism, related closely to Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly understood,” a way that individualism can coexist with community. Self-interest rightly understood can, however, easily become self-interest wrongly understood, where the individualism that is part of the American ethos can undermine the sense of patriotism needed to sustain it. How can we resolve or at least move forward with this ambiguity?

Steven Smith: One of the aspects of our ethos is our individualism and that is not something I want to deny or to see disappear. I think it is the source of much of the greatness of the American experience. As you say, individualism well-understood can easily morph into individualism poorly-understood, where individualism slides into egoism or “me-first-ism.” So we need other elements from within our tradition to offset the extreme forms of individualism that we find in contemporary libertarianism, for example.

One of the things I suggest as an antidote to the dangers of this world of egoism is to resurrect some notion of national service, which would instill a sense of patriotism and a common good. National service could mean many things, military service but also teaching in an underserved school or serving in some other way in an impoverished community. One of the problems of modern individualism is that—to say something we’re all familiar with—is that we don’t know each other. We live near people like us; we’re educated with people like us; we get our news from people like us. It becomes very easy to fall into the language of demonizing people who are not like us. A program of national service would give young people and give them an opportunity to spend time in some form of service in a community quite different from their own. To instill a sense of common good we have to understand each other.

William Lombardo: I really liked that suggestion when I read it, and I think it would hopefully counteract the current state of affairs where some of these programs exist but only as credentials. Resurrecting a common service that everyone participates in might help to de-credentialize service.

Steven Smith: One of the things I’ve seen at Yale is that students would like to do something to improve the world, to “give back” in today’s language. But we don’t provide them with the resources to do that, or at minimum we don’t make it easy for them. We should as a nation, that is the government, should provide young people with a venue for doing the good that they want to do before getting pushed in different directions. Undergraduate career centers bring in plenty of recruiters from Wall Street, but they don’t do much as far as showing ways to engage in public service. That is such a deficiency in our current system of education and of government.

William Lombardo: You mention this impulse to “give back,” which in one sense is animated by a sort of humanitarianism but also implies that you’ve received something you want to pass on. To me, that arises from a place of gratitude, a word that appears throughout your book. As a final question, how do we become, or remain, grateful for what we’ve inherited and for what’s around us and without going overboard and sliding into jingoism?

Steven Smith: That’s a very difficult thing. Gratitude is a virtue. Like any virtue, it has to be cultivated. People need a sense of what they’ve received, what they need to be grateful for. And the best place to start teaching this is the family, the nucleus of society that teaches its members a gratitude for one another and for their well-being. And we can work outward from there. It’s another form of moral education that we lack or at least don’t do very well. We don’t concentrate on it. I’ll leave with that. Patriotism, like gratitude, is a form of moral education, and we’re failing to provide that education.

William Lombardo is the Managing Editor. He is a policy researcher living in Washington, DC and a graduate of Duke University.