John Judis, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization. New York: Columbia University, Columbia Global Reports, 2018. 157 pages.

Oklahoma!, the musical, opened on Broadway in 1943, as the major Western democracies were engaged in a brutal world war.1 Set in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century, it opens with Curly, the cowboy hero, approaching the farm of Laurey’s family while singing,

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’!
Oh, what a beautiful day!
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way.

The musical reflected Americans’ confidence in their collective destiny at a time of global crisis. Overcoming the inevitable obstacles, Curly wins Laurey’s hand in marriage. The one cloud in the prairie sky is Jud, a rejected suitor who crashes the wedding and starts a fight. Jud conveniently falls on his knife. His death is a minor incident.

Last year, a revisionist Oklahoma! opened off-Broadway. It is no longer a beautiful day; ominous clouds hover over this version. The dialogue and the songs remain largely intact but, instead of Jud falling on his knife, in the climactic encounter Curly shoots him at short range. Blood splatters Laurey’s wedding dress. This new dystopic Oklahoma! reflects the views of its times, or at least its audience. New York’s educated, cosmopolitan theatregoers (overwhelmingly “Anywheres” in David Goodhart’s terms) have a much darker understanding of life than the Oklahoma “Somewheres” of a century ago. The new production has received lengthy, positive reviews in the New York Times, the New Yorker – and the Observer in London. Online I couldn’t find a review in the Tulsa World. Not surprising. The new Oklahoma! is not likely to appeal to Oklahomans. Nor, I expect, to John Judis.

The Democratic Majority Fails to Emerge

Judis is a prominent journalist and public intellectual, an Anywhere formed in the 1960s New Left – now Old Left – at Amherst and Berkeley. He was a founding editor of a socialist journal in the 1970s. In time he became more eclectic in his choice of publishing venues and, by the 1980s, was a senior New Republic editor. He has published eight books on subjects ranging from an analysis of William Buckley, Jr., to a critique of George W. Bush’s war in the Middle East. In The Emerging Democratic Majority, co-written with Ruy Teixeira in 2002, he predicted that demographic change would give the McGovern coalition that was thrashed in 1972 a lock on American politics in the future. This coalition consists of mostly white cosmopolitan elites (the Anywheres) and ethnic minorities.

Obama’s victory in 2008 seemed to vindicate the prediction, but Judis has revised his thinking in light of the backlash by the white working-class Somewheres who put Trump into the White House. The McGovern coalition thesis is wrong, he concluded in a 2017 New Republic article. Intergenerationally, most ethnic minorities assimilate into the amorphous American middle class. Electoral victory is not to be found in a coalition of urban cosmopolitans and self-defined marginalized minorities. Democrats must respect core middle class interests among those who have become “white” – even if their skin colour is black, yellow or brown. In other words, the Democrats must become nationalists. Judis’s latest book, The Nationalist Revival, is an elaboration of why he has abandoned his earlier thesis.

At 150 pages, it is a blessedly short book. His fundamental conclusion is that a necessary condition for a successful society in an industrial age is a meaningful measure of shared national identity – how much is open to debate. A secondary theme is his critique of the idealistic pacifism of the 1960s New Left. Like Judis, I am of the generation formed in the United States by the New Left of the 1960s, and I am probably more sensitive than those younger to his critique of our 1960s naiveté. Has he defined a better, more realistic agenda? I am not persuaded. I return to this second theme below.

The first chapter contains a balanced discussion of academic debates on the origins of nationalism. Cases of protonationalist group solidarity that overcame class, religious and ethnic divisions to resist an external threat can be found over several millennia of recorded history. However, most historians accord a privileged role to the French Revolution and realization of universal literacy in the 19th century as the key factors enabling the rise of nationalism as understood in the 20th century. Judis readily acknowledges that leaders who employ nationalist appeals range from monstrous demagogues like Stalin and Hitler to pacifists in the tradition of Gandhi. There is no certainty in politics, concludes Judis, and the – hopefully minute – possibility of electing a despot is not reason enough to subsume nationalism in multinational institutions. An irrefutable argument for nationalism, he insists, is the need to generate public support for what are, relative to the pre–World War II era, very high levels of taxation:

The modern welfare state has been built upon shared nationalist sentiments. Governments had to secure citizens’ commitment to pay taxes to help their fellow citizens when they became sick or disabled, too old to work, or lost their job … Citizens had to be able to identify themselves with the fate – “it could happen to me” – of other citizens they did not know … This willingness to identify with others assumed … that, for instance, were or had been willing to work; that if they were immigrants, that they had entered the country legally and were committed to staying and working and that in extreme circumstances, they would fight to defend the nation …

When this trust and feeling of reciprocity has broken down, the support for the welfare state has dissipated, as it did in the US, amidst suspicion of what Ronald Reagan called “welfare queens”, and in Europe, as suspicion has arisen that immigrants or refugees are free riders or “welfare tourists”.

Here, Judis is correct. Among the states belonging to the OECD – sometimes described as the world’s rich country club – three quarters collect taxes that exceed 35 per cent of national GDP, most of which are devoted to funding their respective welfare state programs. Even in the United States, with a relatively weak set of social programs, national, state and municipal governments collect 33 per cent of GDP according to latest OECD data. In comparison, income redistribution by international organizations, such as the European Union or official development aid, is trivial.

Undeniably, nationalism has experienced a revival during this decade. Why? Judis’s answer is that cosmopolitans in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Brusssels distanced themselves from their respective Somewheres. The cosmopolitan ideal in Europe over the last quarter century was an “ever closer union” leading to open borders among EU member states, coordination of tax and monetary policy in Brussels, and some form of European federalism. On “ever closer union,” U.K. Eurosceptics got it right. The prospect of European electorates entrusting Brussels with tax decisions over one third of European GDP and generating faith in open borders has collapsed. In both Europe and North America, cosmopolitan elites favoured multilateral free trade agreements, and paid inadequate attention to the implication for the Somewheres as manufacturing jobs shifted to Mexico, South Asia, Southeast Asia and, above all, China.

In castigating political elites, Judis casts a large net: his definition of cosmopolitan leaders extends from Bush (father and son) to Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels. His major foils are Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, two prominent centre-left politicians of the two decades pre-2008. According to Judis, Clinton and Blair got almost everything wrong. They supported an undue expansion of free trade agreements culminating in the World Trade Organization, which has exacerbated income polarization and loss of middle-class jobs (in places like Oklahoma). They may not have been the initiators of financial market deregulation, which began in the early 1980s, but they participated in its excesses. They invited China into the WTO, naively believing that it would evolve into a rules-respecting future member of the OECD. By allowing moral righteousness to overwhelm realism, they endorsed every eastern European anti-Russian revolt post-1989 and admitted former Soviet colonies into NATO, thereby accelerating Russia’s return to czarism.

The cosmopolitans’ errors continued into the new century. They wasted treasure and lives in attempting to reform the Middle East by toppling Saddam Hussein. As Keynesians, they admittedly saved the “too big to fail” banks and prevented 2008 from being a repeat of 1929, but they did little to support millions of “Laurey and Curly” families faced with foreclosed mortgages and personal bankruptcy. However, their most egregious error, for Judis, was to minimize public concern over immigration and refuse to address the case for immigration controls. George W. Bush advocated a generous temporary foreign worker policy to satisfy business desire for cheap labour. Clinton “felt the pain” of illegal Mexican immigrants. Blair championed easy access to the U.K. for “Polish plumbers” as a humanitarian gesture toward eastern Europeans finally free from Soviet colonialism.

Whatever their motives, these leaders ignored the potential loss of social trust due to large scale immigration. Judis cites the overwhelming polling evidence in the U.K. that identifies immigration as the principal factor motivating pro-Brexit voting in the 2016 referendum. He explains the success of “illiberal” democrats in Hungary and Poland as, primarily, a response to the combination of massive illegal immigration from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa and Brussels’ insistence on the Schengen agreement, which stipulates free movement of all residing within the EU.

Judis’s interpretation of the many post-2016 academic studies attempting to explain Trump’s success is that the key factor is immigration and Islamic terrorism. Loss of middle-class jobs and stagnant incomes matter, but “of all the issues immigration/terrorism was the most important.” He admits, “That conclusion is based as much on interviews and the political history of the last three decades as on polling.”

He doesn’t mention Canada’s immigration policy, but his proposed “solution to the conflict over immigration and national identity” in the United States sounds a lot like ours: a points system heavily weighted to education and ability to speak English (or French in our case) and explicit policies of assimilation. (In Canada, outside Quebec, cultural assimilation is an implicit goal.) However, he is not optimistic that a U.S. equivalent could ever get through Congress. The solution, he argues, requires two impossible things:

The first is blocking illegal immigration through stiff employer penalties, while giving a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already here. These immigrants cannot simply be deported, and if they remain in the US illegally, they will continue to constitute an inassimilable underclass. The second … is to reduce the annual number of immigrants, and to narrow the conditions for family reunification, while giving priority to skilled immigrants … Regardless of how these proposals are framed, they likely cannot get through a Congress that is divided into conservative nationalists and liberal cosmopolitans.

Unfortunately, in a book constrained to 150 pages, there is not much space for nuance. As Judis sketches the sins of Clinton and Blair, I start asking: What would he have advocated as trade and immigration policies pre-2008?

U.K. acceptance under Blair of large numbers of eastern European immigrants no doubt contributed to Brexit support a decade later, but it did strengthen eastern European economic and political ties to western Europe. In the 1990s, no one knew that two decades later Xi Jinping would undo the relatively liberal domestic policies pursued by Deng Xiaoping. At the time a good case could be made that U.S. trade openness was an effective Marshall Plan for all Asian countries. U.S. support for export-led development over the last three decades facilitated the rural-to-urban migration of hundreds of millions of peasants formerly living in dire poverty who, while not wealthy, have become far more prosperous than their ancestors. While income distribution within high-income countries has become more unequal over the last three decades, thanks to Asian progress income distribution on a world basis has become less unequal.

Military Intervention from Korea to Iraq

Like all of us who came to political maturity in the 1960s, Judis adamantly opposed the ideological Cold War obsession among American elites that led the United States to pursue the wars lost by the French in Southeast Asia. On the Vietnam War I agree. However, Judis more or less argues that every war pursued by the United States since the Korean War in the 1950s was counterproductive. He makes little allowance for uncertainty and no allowance for the idea that military force is sometimes the least bad option. If the post–World War II multilateral conventions and institutions, with the United States as the “indispensable” nation, were preferable to the post-2008 reality, there is a need to acknowledge that in some instances use of military force, usually led by the Americans, was an essential ingredient.

Not all U.S.-led wars should be equated with Vietnam. Clinton intervened against Serbia in Yugoslavia’s civil war out of a legitimate fear that Slobodan Milošević would inflict a slaughter on his Muslim neighbours analogous to the fresh-in-mind Rwandan genocide, a tragedy that no colonial European country or the United States had intervened to halt. In Iraq, surely the major U.S. error is to have “tilted” toward Saddam in the 1980s on the realist rationale that the enemy of my enemy (Saddam as enemy of the Iranian ayatollahs) is my friend. By 1990, the war Saddam had launched against Iran had caused a million deaths. Saddam had gassed Kurdish villagers, invaded Kuwait and butchered 50,000 Iraqi Shia who revolted against him. He was a dictator in the same league as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot.

Poorly prepared diplomatically, poorly executed militarily, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq nonetheless came close to victory by 2010. Obama’s opposition to the war led to the United States pulling out and leaving in power a sectarian Shia leader beholden to Iran, who in the 2010 election had won fewer seats in parliament than the Sunni-Shia moderate alliance. Nouri al-Maliki alienated Iraq’s Sunni elites sufficiently that they allied themselves with the Islamic State. What would Judis want Reagan to have done in the 1980s, George H.W. Bush to have done in Iraq in 1990, Clinton to have done in Serbia in the mid-1990s, or George W. Bush to have done about the decade-long no-fly zones established post-1990 to preserve lives among Kurdish and Shia Iraqis? Was Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq post-2010 wise?2

What About Canada?

Among OECD countries, Canada’s foreign-born ratio is near the top; our immigration/population ratio is also among the highest. Why have we not experienced an equivalent Somewhere-vs.-Anywhere conflict? Perhaps because, historically, our major domestic conflict has been reconciliation of francophones and anglophones. Perhaps because, relative to the United States, our social services are of higher quality. Universal Canadian medicare is not the only difference. Probably more important is that our ranking among OECD countries of 15-year-old secondary school student performance (based on the Program for International Student Assessment) is consistently near the top, whereas U.S. ranking is mediocre. And unlike most OECD countries with large immigrant populations, Canada and Australia stand out in terms of high performance among children of immigrants.

Australia is surrounded by two oceans, Canada by three oceans and a land border with a high-income neighbour. Thanks to geography, both countries can readily impose a points system heavily weighted to education and language skills, and thereby restrict immigration by those with poor education and no ability to speak English (or French).

In 2018, Angus Reid undertook a comprehensive survey of Canadian attitudes on immigration. Since 1975, pollsters have asked whether Canadians want higher or lower immigration levels. Prior to 2000, the average wanting lower levels was about 40 per cent, from 2000 to 2014 about 35 per cent. The 2018 result was 49 per cent. The dramatic rise in the share wanting lower immigration is presumably due to 40,000 illegal immigrants crossing from the United States in recent years. And, as elsewhere, differences in attitudes toward immigration are essentially determined by education levels. Among those whose highest education level is high school or less, about 60 per cent favour an immigration level lower than at present – twice the rate among those with a university degree.

Canadians should not be smug.


1 This review has benefited from the sceptical reading undertaken by co-editor Gareth Morley. He is not responsible for the dubious features of the review resulting from my having refused some of his suggestions.

2 This account implies a qualified defence of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. This is a decidedly minority conclusion on the second Iraq war. For anyone interested, see my review of Emma Sky’s The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities. Inroads, Winter/Spring 2016.