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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchLiberalism and Nationalism in Contemporary America

Liberalism and Nationalism in Contemporary America

Author: John J. Mearsheimer

Affiliation: The University of Chicago, Department of Political Science

Organization/Publisher: John J. Mearsheimer Personal Website

Date/Place: September 10, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Academic Lecture 

Number of Pages: 27


Keywords: Liberalism, Nationalism, Donald Trump, American Political Crisis


This paper is an academic lecture presented by the author on the occasion of winning the James Madison Prize for the year 2020, which the American Political Science Association (APSA) has been giving since 1978 every three years to an influential American scholar in recognition of his scientific contributions in the field of Politics and International Relations. The paper is based on the content of John Mearsheimer’s recent book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018). The author discusses the political crisis that the US is facing at present (after nearly three decades of hegemony) with the siege that liberalism is subjected to by the enormous rise of nationalism, which was embodied in all its meanings with Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. The author explores the reasons behind this by focusing on the US, but explaining that his analysis applies to other liberal democracies around the world. The paper is divided into three main parts. The author firstly explains the essence of both liberalism and nationalism, and then he explains how these two “ISMS” interact with each other. He applies this theoretical framework to the American case, focusing first on the golden age of unbounded liberalism and then on the nationalist backlash under President Trump. Mearsheimer maintains that the US identity is deeply linked to both liberalism and nationalism. America is a liberal nation-state, where history shows the possibility of coexistence between the two ideologies. However, it also proves that any tension that occurs between them will often lead to the triumph of nationalism, as it is the most powerful political ideology in the modern world. As for the main source of tension between the two ideologies, it is that “liberalism privileges the individual and is ultimately a universalistic ideology, while nationalism privileges the social group and is ultimately a particularistic ideology.” His core argument in this paper is that the victory of liberalism—with its global ends—in the wake of the Cold War and its absolute hegemony has undermined nationalism and led to the erosion of its ties from within, “ as acid does.” This victory has created “liberal, transnational, global-minded elites” that may find common denominators and concerns with other elites outside the state’s borders than with the citizen inside the homeland. Over time, this has provoked a nationalist backlash that considered this a threat to the nation-state itself, as nationalism “like glue” works to preserve the cohesion of the national identity and social solidarity, and no country can do without it. Nationalism gradually grew until it materialized at its peak with the election of President Trump in the United States or the vote of the British citizens for Brexit. In the American case, the election of Trump expresses the feeling of a large number of Americans of the threat posed by “radical individualism” and “hyper” liberal openness that—because of its reverence for human rights and equality—allows for a further flow of “others” to American soil. Whether these “others” are refugees, foreign companies or students, they become richer at the expense of the “rights and welfare” of the American citizen, weaken the state’s borders, undermine the state’s sovereignty, weaken the bond between the nation and the state, and even threaten the unified national vision of the country. Trump’s election was thus the embodiment of what the author calls the “revenge of nationalism” against the liberalism that had dominated for decades. The author explains how liberalism needs nationalism to continue while nationalism does not need liberalism; nationalism can also address emotions (as does religion) to convince citizens that the nation-state will exist for future generations just as it has existed in the past and exists now. Accordingly, nationalism manages to create an ingenious unified narrative that makes its members feel that they are part of a long-standing tradition. Liberalism does not have such a “glue” and does not have a similar story to tell. All of this makes the author argue that nationalism never died out during the golden decades of liberalism (even within the United States), rather it only receded and remained hidden, operating beneath the surface as previous examples have demonstrated in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the desire of many peoples to have their own nation-state. Then it became obvious since the election of Trump in 2016. The author underlines that many reasons explain Trump’s arrival in the White House, but the main reason is due to his candidacy as a nationalist leader against both Democrats and Republicans who have adopted the unbounded liberalism. After his victory, he has continued to adopt a nationalist agenda and speeches par excellence that oppose liberal globalization and all its mechanisms and institutions. Moreover, his adoption of the “America First” slogan made him immune against the attacks of his other rivals inside the US, as everyone became afraid of challenging the nationalist contents of this slogan, and even striving to show themselves to the Americans as politicians who put America above all else. In recent times, Republicans have monopolized the use of “nationalism weapon” for themselves against the Democrats. As Mearsheimer asserts, if Joe Biden wants to become president, he only has to wisely play “the nationalism card” in front of the electorate and should assure them of his good intentions towards it.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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