In The American Democracy and Its National Principle, Herbert Croly makes an eloquent and poignant case for adopting a nationalistic frame of mind. According to Croly, we are rapidly approaching a junction where we must choose between the traditional values, measures and mind set of our past or embrace the opportunities of the future. As a people we should realize that the future holds great promise, and that is why we should focus on empowering a centralized system of governance that replaces the antiquated approach to governance: regional centricity whose players are driven by their self-interest rather than the common good. This may sound like nationalism but this is an inadequate assessment. To Croly, nationalism is a much grander thing. Nationalism requires substantially more than “merely” centralizing the government; there must be a shift in how people see themselves, from a collection of states into a single American people. Nationalism is a philosophical ideal that far outstretches any tangible thing. Nationalism requires a unified frame of mind focused on a single point of governance.
Croly’s opinion, while not revolutionary, was still regarded with suspension by many people in 1909 (the year Croly’s essay was published). People who were wary of a nationalistic government and a unified frame of mind had a good argument against Croly’s essay. Much of this essay focuses on this argument against Croly’s presuppositions regarding the “progressive” outcome of nationalization.
First off, Croly bases everything in his argument on the claim that the “national interest” is predicated on democratic principles (as cited in Eisenach, p19). This is why people should have nothing to fear from a nationalistic government: it embodies their own personal ideal of democracy. It is this fact that makes the argument against nationalism an erroneous endeavor as the one thing people will be uniting under, the democratic principle, is the source of their unification. Croly believes that the traditional fear of a strong centralized government is unenlightened and antiquated. Clearly, Croly is placing a lot of faith in the “democratic principles” that will guide the unified nation. It is interesting then that Croly’s own opinion regarding the average person’s abilities is so low. He states that “the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate” to comprehend or understand “his responsibilities (as cited in Eisenach, p23).” His pessimistic view of the average person is perhaps well founded, but it does lead into an argument that undermines some confidence in nationalism and democracy.
If the premise of the argument for nationalism lies in the embodiment of the democratic principle, and democracy is a form of government by and for the people, then is nationalism merely a new way to project the ignorance of the masses? If the people are ignorant and inconsistent in their opinions, then how is a democracy capable of...