Out Of Fashion

By Daniel Larison

At The American Scene, my colleague Peter Suderman has some interesting remarks on Obama's cosmopolitanism that James Poulos and I critiqued last week.  Peter doesn't think the phrase "citizen of the world" has much importance one way or the other, and characterized Obama's use of it as an expression of this "trendy sentiment":

a mildly left-leaning liberal anti-nationalism that suggests that, while one might identify as an American, that shouldn’t be the outer limit of one’s identity group.

That raises a different question apart from whether the phrase is objectionable, and this is whether holding to "a mildly left-leaning liberal anti-nationalism" can be electorally successful in a presidential race when pitted against an opponent who seems intent on deploying nationalist-Americanist rhetoric, even if this rhetoric is designed to compensate for his otherwise abysmal, aimless campaign.  One of the many important observations John Lukacs has made about nationalism is its role in the presidential politics of the United States, and he has speculated that the reason why Republicans tend to prevail in these contests in the postwar era is that they represent the more nationalist of the two major parties.  Post-1968, this was usually defined in terms of national security policies, and we saw a resurgence of this again after 9/11, and this also relied heavily on the use of nationalist language and imagery apart from any substantive policy disagreements.  While both parties are split between what Brooks has called "populist nationalists" and "progressive globalists," the Republicans remain, at least when it comes to their supporters, the relatively more populist-nationalist party.

Not surprisingly, it is on trade policy where this is least true (ask Duncan Hunter) and where there is a much larger constituency for a populist-nationalist candidate, which is what has made Obama's support for most free trade agreements (except when campaigning in Ohio) an intriguing case of how Obama has accommodated himself quite readily to global trade neoliberalism over the objections and complaints of many progressives.  Regarding Obama and trade, Peter adds:

Seems to me it’s pretty tough to tout a citizen-of-the-world ethos while fighting to make it more difficult to interact with our neighbors in the global economy.

Yet this is why it seems to me that the phrase and the general themes of the Berlin speech, in which every kind of wall comes crashing down, are unusually ill-suited for an American public anxious about the effects of globalization, because Obama clearly is endorsing economic globalization and to the extent that he is making nods towards "free and fair trade" he is framing it in terms of lifting up the poorest regions of the world.

As James Joyner has noted, McCain takes essentially the same positions and is even more ardent in his support of free trade agreements than Obama, so it might seem as if there is no danger to Obama here.  However, because of the reputations of the two parties, because of a perception that Democrats are more inclined to "a mildly left-leaning liberal anti-nationalism," there is greater risk for Obama in adopting positions that clash with populist impulses in his own party and in the general electorate.

Cross-posted at Eunomia