Is White Nationalism Our Nation’s Herpes?

It’s not a cancer we can cut out. It’s a socially transmitted disease that we must deal with.

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Several months ago Robert Bowers, fearing the “genocide” of white Americans and wishing “all Jews to die,” murdered 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synogogue in Pittsburgh, PA. A few weeks ago, a self-declared white nationalist, U. S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson, was arrested for stockpiling weapons and explosives, which he had planned to use to launch a series of massive domestic terror attacks. Just days ago, in New Zealand one of the white nationalists responsible for murdering 49 Muslims claimed that he had been especially motivated by right-wing commentator Candace Owens and that Donald Trump was “a symbol of renewed white identity.” Alas, none of this is new.

Within American history lie virulent, sometimes dormant, strains of anti-immigrant, xenophobic, misogynist, and racist socially transmitted diseases. Many of us did not recognize the prevalence, depth, and resilence of these strains until the campaign and election of Donald Trump, though the right’s reaction to the presidency of Barack Obama provided some symptoms of the diseases’ full outbreaks to come.

White nationalism, a particularly nasty strain, is the “herpes” of our politics. For the individual sufferer as well as the body politic, the first outbreaks are always excruciating. We saw this in our country, for example, in the genocide against Native Americans and then again in our Civil War, when an entire region of the Union attempted to maintain a way of life built on slavery. Like herpes, white nationalism laid dormant after these initial outbreaks, only to break out again episodically, for instance, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the defeat of the Confederacy, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and at the founding of the American Nazi Party in 1960.

Trump and the alt-right are signs of the latest white-nationalist outbreak, manifested in anti-ethnic sentiments, anti-immigrant policies, and a longing for a traditional hierarchy with white men at the top and minorities and women preserved in amber below. All of this is symbolized by the ubiquitous red “MAGA” hats worn by Trump supporters. “Make America Great Again” is not so much a symbol of a political trajectory as it is a declaration of identity and solidarity—“Make America White Again.” The Republican position on this was put succinctly by comedian Trae Crowder, the self-proclaimed Liberal Redneck: “They [Republicans] stick together. They know what they like, and what they like ain’t brown.”

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Unfortunately for white nationalists, making America white again runs counter to the demographic evidence. America is ineluctably turning browner. The white backlash to this is not just itchy. It’s painful, even deadly, as we have seen in Charlottesville, Charleston, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.

Equally unfortunate, this backlash is nothing new. For years the goal of the white leadership of the Republican Party has been to gain and to maintain power. But these changing demographics indicate that maintaining power seems to require increasing skullduggery: suppressing the vote, especially among minorities, in the name of fraudulent claims of voter fraud; closing electoral polling facilities used predominantly by minorities; limiting the voting hours at the same or similar polling places; gerrymandering electoral districts to guarantee victories by Republican nominees; and even hiding, altering, or destroying absentee ballots, as we saw in 2018 in North Carolina.

All such actions stem from the white nationalists’ view that historically America has been built and therefore ought to continue to be built around white identity. If so, then the “edifice” of white nationalism rests on a foundation of blind ignorance, a fiction-accepted-as-fact born from the wish for a national homogeneity that never existed. This fiction itself rests on another fiction that white nationalists have contracted: that white skin is somehow indicative of a natural fellowship, indicative of some notion of essential moral character and talent, or, far worse, indicative of some biological basis for racial superiority.

This not-so-subtle fiction is where white nationalism bleeds into the even more abhorrent strain of white supremacy: “We are superior and should rule because we are white.” To clarify: White nationalists think that whites should rule because of our nation’s history—our country was founded and thus should be ruled by white men; their manifestation of herpes makes us itch. White supremacists think whites should rule, regardless of history, because whites are superior. Its virulence makes us squirm in pain and discomfort.

Arguments abound today that the latest manifestations of white nationalism and white supremacy arose as a reaction to the left’s focus on minority rights and on women’s rights; its concern with the multicultural identities of marginalized groups; and its championing of inclusion, diversity, and cosmopolitanism. These positions threaten the white male-power hierarchy and provide an enemy to combat in the face of the decline of the middle class, increasing job precarity, and the declining status of working-class white men in general.

Liberalism hardly seems the ideology to look to to help us navigate if not transcend these painful times, since liberal ideology is the alembic in which the left has distilled its mix of positions and proclivities. Yet liberalism provides, I think, the antidote to this scourge in the form of cultural pluralism. Cultural pluralism rests on a crucial distinction within liberalism between universalism and particularism that can help us mitigate the ravages during the current outbreak of this national socially transmitted “dis-ease.” 

The Salve of Cultural Pluralism

 Liberal democratic politics today is not just a place for discussion and cooperation to try to arrive at compromises to advance the common good; it is also an environment for expressing and deliberating about differences that run beyond political interests and into issues related to race, gender, culture, religion, ethnicity, and class—in other words, differences within and among identities.

Modern liberal democracies therefore permit and promote differentiated identities, which we readily recognize in their most familiar forms: Chinese-American, African American, Native American, Italian-American, Irish-American, and the like. In doing so, these identities address what American psychologist and social philosopher George Herbert Mead called honoring the “I” and the “me” of each of us. That is, our polities can provide a citizenship that is the same for all—equal rights and responsibilities—which covers our “I.” But these polities must also assure persons that the particularities of their identities—for example, the ethnic or cultural practices to which they adhere—will also be honored, and not simply tolerated, in political practice. This assurance covers what each “I” considers her “me’s.”

We might describe, therefore, two levels of political identity: a level of citizenship, which is a level of equality and universality extended to all, and a level of political agency, which is a level of difference, differentiation, and particularity. An emphasis on this two-level political identity might help us get past this era of Trumpian division and decay.

One obvious problem today is that within our liberal democratic polities some of the differentiated groups have been and are oppressed.[1] Just glance again at the short list above of differentiated identities and add to it such groups as women; Chicanos and other Spanish-speaking Americans; gays and lesbians; working-class poor; the elderly; mentally and physically disabled people; and people of various religious persuasions, for example, Muslims. This, of course, leaves entirely unmentioned different occupations that might be identified with and oppressed.

The possible oppression of such groups points to an important issue for liberal politics: Although the liberal boundary that separates the public sphere from the private sphere may relax—thus enabling such oppressed groups to press for political redress of their grievances or for the granting of, say, compensation for past discrimination—that boundary does not, and ought not, to disappear. All identity groups need the right to privacy to practice ways of life that others, perhaps a majority, find objectionable. This is part of the liberal assurance that each “I” can live as her desired “me’s.” Included here would even be such heinous white supremacist groups as the Aryan Nations or the White Aryan Resistance.

One crucial issue to bear in mind is that the universality of citizenship can itself be used as a form of oppression. This is the focus, if not the mission, of white identity: To create a two-tiered society where being white is the basis for the placement and treatment of all persons. Thus a particular identity, in this case being white and male, eclipses if not eliminates the universality of citizenship by denying those who aren’t white or male the full exercise and protections of their rights and duties. Universal in this case ceases to mean “pertaining to all persons” and comes to mean “pertaining to all white persons” or even more particularistically “pertaining to all white men.”

The danger, then, lies in the creation of a dominant (white and male) national culture that represses and oppresses differences or particularities other than the dominant one. Deepening the danger, such a dominant culture might well seek to eliminate altogether the differences and particularities that threaten it. The antidote to this danger, to this dis-ease, is a flourishing cultural pluralism that lives within liberalism and that militates against the rise of such a national culture.

How does cultural pluralism do so? How does it work? The word “culture” derives from the Latin word colere–to celebrate, to dwell, to take care of, to tend and preserve. When we ask what one’s culture is, we are asking what it is that they cultivate; where they dwell; what they take care of, tend to, and wish to preserve. In short, we ask them about all those things that they find important about how they live and about how those aspects help constitute the self. All those things could presumably amount to just one thing–their sexuality, perhaps, or race or class or neighborhood. Often, however, those things are “plural,” which reflects the multiple and different things that we value or how we value the same things but in multiple and different ways.

Both “pluralism” and “culture” are collective. What does the group cultivate, take care of, value, and the like. “Cultural pluralism” is also collective in the sense that it encompasses quite a lot: the beliefs, practices, standards, traditions, values, goals, symbols, and language shared by the group and over some time.

Does cultural pluralism applied to the United States thereby imply the presence of multiple distinct cultures? If so, does that, then, make us multicultural?

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The Great Seal would seem to indicate that we are. E pluribus unum pays tribute to the idea of unity deriving from diversity, even if the slogan originally pertained only to the discrete nature of the thirteen states. For these states themselves represented diverse and conflicting interests and loyalties, out of which came thirteen united states, both individual or “particularistic” and united or “universal.” For individuals today, our common citizenship unites us; our various cultures diversify and differentiate us.

In other words, and as I have emphasized, persons are both universal and distinct. All persons, as Kant said, share an “inherent dignity” by virtue of being human. This is the legacy of liberal universalist egalitarianism, which we understand to be liberal democratic citizenship. At the same time, all persons are individually distinct and build identities from the constituents, as already noted, of race, gender, sexual orientation or family, clan, tribe, or nation—that is, from “culturally pluralistic” shared values, beliefs, goals, traditions, and practices. Cultural pluralism carries within the term a normative claim: that each diverse cultural group has something to contribute to a polity’s identity and its political conversations.

Politics of Dignity

We might describe, then, following Kant, a “politics of dignity” that recognizes our dual constitution. Citizenship is the recognition of our universal egalitarian side; we all have equal rights as citizens. Cultural pluralism refers to the recognition of our differentiation through unique identities. In this context, liberal democracy means that all citizens have the right to participate fully and that no particularistic views are necessarily to be bracketed or put aside when exercised in the public arena.

It is important when thinking about the politics of dignity and these two sides of identity not to conflate the equal rights guaranteed to all citizens with a possible identity as a citizen. That is, no one must be required to identify with her citizenship in order to enjoy the citizenship rights to which she is entitled. Certainly no one should be forced to take on a citizenship identity,

As long as persons can construct, modify, assert, and protect particularistic identities from outside interference—that is, as long as they are not forced into citizenship identity because the range of options has been foreclosed—then a politics recognizing the universality of rights and dignity for all persons can be the condition that fosters and embraces the formation of particularistic identity and the expression of difference.

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At the same time, if a particular culture or way of life is threatened with extinction, those who live that way will be forced by circumstances to seek a new way of life and, possibly, a new identity. Persons, for example, who had chosen to live together in a remote spiritual commune may find that that way of life and identity, as membership declines, can no longer be sustained. That choice is closing for them. They can no longer be that kind of person. Although they can no longer be that kind of person, there are other kinds of worthwhile persons they can be, including identifying with their citizenship.

An identity as citizen is one option open to those losing their particularistic way of life, but they ought not to be forced to take it. A worse circumstance is that pushed by white nationalists. They insist that full citizenship should be made available only to whites and that most particularistic identities—those that are often considered today as marginal—should be eliminated. In this view, citizens are not simply those who identify as citizens but only those who can identify as citizens—whites and often only white men.

Of course, as I have been saying, liberal democratic citizenship means the accommodation of the many possible identities any single person might bring to res publica, because citizenship itself, and the rights accompanying it, are not captured by those identities. On this view, liberal citizenship is a package of universal rights; it is simply the framework for structuring the democratic procedures of and for a heterogeneous public. White nationalism, on the other hand, is the attempt to eliminate this distinction by declaring that the particularistic identity of, predominately, white males is determinative of citizenship rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

The way to undermine white nationalism and white supremacy is to bolster our cultural pluralism. It is not by trying to outlaw or eliminate white nationalism as a basis for a particularistic identity. However loathesome we may find that specific identity, it is and must be permitted under the umbrella of a politics of dignity. But the boundaries of a politics of dignity, found in the rights of all persons and the laws that protect and preserve them, serve to attenuate the ill effects of the white nationalist dis-ease.

So, under this umbrella, our politics must abide the divisive scourge of white supremacy and white nationalism, though always within the rule of law, which provides protection against the contagion. Over time, however, as with herpes, the dis-ease will lessen in intensity, as our multicultural voices first drown out the slogans and calumnies shouted by the howling alt-right. Later, and perhaps sooner, those alt-right outbursts will atrophy to the point where they can barely be heard, let alone felt, at all. White nationalists will never disappear, but they can be contained so that they do no harm and perhaps can grow out of their narrow perspective.

Because our politics today, however, does not bring us together often enough—that is, because there are insufficient deliberative opportunities to meet together to deal democratically with political issues and problems—we do not often enough get to share and appreciate our mutual citizenship and our differences. Thus we are tempted to fall back into our differences and to retreat into our particularistic enclaves. This is what white nationalists and white supremacists want—to separate and divide us. Controlling the disease—attenuating socially transmitted herpes—depends on increasing the active practice of deliberative democracy, where citizens acting together and expressing their diverse, particularistic identities can rule.

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[1]By oppression I mean the exploitation of one’s labor to others without reciprocal benefit; marginalization or exclusion from participation in significant settings; denial of autonomy and living under the yoke of the authority of others; denial of group experience and group voice; and subjection to random violence and harassment motivated by fear or hatred.

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