In the spring of 2022, speculation in the commentariat that partisan rivalries were bringing the United States to the verge of actual civil war abruptly came to an end. With few exceptions, Americans of left, right, and center rallied around the national colors. Postmodern multiculturalism and anti-Enlightenment paleoconservatism suddenly were marginalized by romantic nationalism of the 19th-century variety. As war fever swept America, progressives and conservatives joined in denouncing not only the enemy government but also the enemy people and their enemy music, enemy literature, and enemy cuisine. Americans displayed the national flag in every imaginable form and pledged undying hatred of the nation’s foes.
The nation that Americans celebrated was not their own, but rather Ukraine, following the brutal Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic. Liberal Americans who would have thought it vulgar if not fascist to wave the Stars and Stripes took selfies with the blue and gold of Ukraine’s national flag. Democrats and Republicans who routinely demonize the leaders of the rival American party engaged in a kind of sentimental, uncritical hero worship of Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelensky, which would have been mocked had its object been Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Neoconservatives and centrist liberals used the Ukraine war as an opportunity to settle scores by accusing opponents in the rival party and rivals in their own parties of moral if not legal treason for less than total and uncritical support of a foreign country with which the United States does not even have an alliance.
Whether the war in Ukraine is a final aftershock of the first Cold War or the first major proxy war in Cold War II remains to be seen. The sudden outburst of vicarious Ukrainian patriotism on the part of many Americans—as well as people in similar North Atlantic democracies—seems like a Freudian “return of the repressed.” Taught that celebrating their own national traditions is racist and xenophobic, and deprived of opportunities to play a meaningful role in national defense, many Americans and Western Europeans have found an outlet for a lost sense of belonging by borrowing the national pride of another nation.
Long before the United States began selling green cards—the tickets to U.S. citizenship—to rich foreigners by creating the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program in 1990, American citizenship had been devalued. From the days of the Greek city-states and the Roman republic to the city-republics of the Renaissance and the cantons of Switzerland, citizenship in the fullest sense originally involved active participation of citizens—a group not only male but also usually smaller than the population as a whole—in the government of their communities, as electors, office-holders, jurors, and citizen-soldiers.
In practice, the ideal of the amateur, omnicompetent citizen—a member of the militia today, a town or county council member tomorrow and a juror next week—could be realized only in small, relatively undeveloped communities. The ideal of the self-sufficient family farmer with a musket and a copy of the Constitution on the fireplace mantle was a casualty of economic centralization and modernization. Most Americans are proletarians who live from paycheck to paycheck, and a majority of American workers are employed by firms with more than 500 employees and supervised by salaried corporate bureaucrats.
The ideal of the male citizen-soldier who earns his civil rights by contributing to the defense of the republic survived for a while by being transferred to the colossal modern nation-state, whose citizens, mostly unknown to one another, are united by common culture, institutions, location, or some combination of the three. For a time, the mass national conscript army and its reserves were thought of, however implausibly, as the heir to the local militia. The older tradition of civic republicanism inspired the linkage of military service to government benefits like the GI Bill and other privileges for veterans. That link was all but eliminated by the abolition of the draft in 1973. Today’s American military is a professional force, more like those of premodern European bureaucratic monarchies than frontier militias.
The right to vote remains, but its power has been diluted, even as it has been extended in law and practice—first to white men without property, then in law to all men and later to all women, although turning voting rights into reality for all nonwhite citizens was achieved only by the civil rights revolution. In a world of industrialized nation-states, in which even small countries are vastly more populous than the city-republics of antiquity and the Middle Ages, scale alone ensures that the influence that any one individual can exert by voting periodically in free and fair elections is negligible.
While the positive duties formerly associated with citizenship have gradually been discarded, there has been a trend to establish government requirements for the provision of positive rights or benefits, from public or publicly funded education and public retirement spending to guaranteed health care. As a result, in the United States and other Western democracies, it is widely accepted in the 21st century that national citizens have a right to various public goods and welfare services without any need to earn the benefits at all, purely on the basis of their status as citizens of a particular nation-state.
Already by the 1960s and the 1970s, the link between a citizen’s personal contribution and a citizen’s right to government benefits was being questioned. Ever since the free market champion Milton Friedman proposed a negative income tax in the 1960s, many libertarians as well as progressives have supported the idea of a universal basic income, an idea which became the basis of Andrew Yang’s unsuccessful campaign to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020. Support for a UBI tends to be strongest among rentiers in Silicon Valley and the financial sector. Opposition tends to come from the dwindling ranks of old-fashioned, pro-union labor liberals, for whom dignified work is a positive good, and conservative traditionalists warning against neo-Roman “bread and circuses” that would demoralize and pacify the population.
One by one, then, the requirements and duties historically associated with republican citizenship—such as property ownership, a degree of economic independence, and service in the citizen-military—have dropped away, leaving citizenship finally as a mere right to government welfare, along with just treatment under the law. But even this is unsatisfactory to ethical cosmopolitan thinkers. After all, a purely national system of government-guaranteed health care or other national welfare programs benefit only those who happen to be citizens of particular nation-states. In a world characterized by extreme inequality among nations, and not merely within them, this seems unfair. Why should being born on one side of the southwestern border of the United States entitle you to a much better life than being born on the other side?
The classic nationalist answer is that national citizens either belong to, or aspire to belong to, a single people (if you approve of nationalism) or a single tribe (if you don’t approve of nationalism). Note that this is the answer of modern, post-18th-century nationalism, which holds out legal and political if not economic equality within the nation as an ideal. It was not the answer of the premodern city-state republics, in which the citizens were often a privileged minority or aristocracy within a population consisting mostly of peasants, serfs, or slaves, and had to earn their special civic privileges by special civic duties. Without any obligation on the part of citizens to earn their legal privileges or welfare benefits by serving the political community, the modern nation-state based on common culture or ethnicity becomes a tribal trust fund, rather like those managed by the U.S. federal government on behalf of Native American nations.
From this it follows that much of the debate about immigration in relatively affluent Western democracies has to do with the effect on national welfare state programs. Populists on the right often fear that their countries are becoming international welfare magnets and worry that they will have to compete with immigrants for government welfare programs, public services, or public housing. With tragic exceptions like Ukraine, most Western nationalists view excessive immigration, or immigration of the wrong kind, as a greater danger than armed invasion. “Fredonia for the Fredonians” has been replaced, in the 21st century, by “Fredonian Health Care for the Fredonians!”
In response, anti-nationalists on the left denounce “welfare chauvinism”—a pejorative term for the all-but-universal practice of limiting a country’s welfare programs to its citizens and, in some cases, legal immigrants. Absent a global government, there is unlikely to be a planetary version of Social Security or Medicare. Even on the radical left, few nowadays advocate world federalism of the kind many progressive intellectuals dreamed of in the era of the League of Nations and the early United Nations. Instead of attempting to replace the system of nation-states, many on the left advocate blurring the borders of nation-states by making illegal immigrants as well as legal immigrants eligible for publicly funded national welfare programs.
Aiding in this effort is the tendency of the mainstream press in the United States and other English-speaking countries—which is to say, the elite center-left press—to erase any distinction between legal and illegal immigration. Increasingly, the words “immigrants” or “migrants” are used to describe both authorized and unauthorized immigrants.
On March 4, the Miami Herald used a similarly innovative rhetorical technique in both the headline and the text of a story on immigration: scare quotes. In order to imply that there is something controversial and possibly illegitimate about the distinction between illegal and legal immigration, the story, “[State] Senate passes bill seeking to keep ‘unlawful’ migrants from being brought to Florida,” reads:
The proposal—approved by the Senate on Thursday along party lines—seeks to cramp the flow of undocumented immigrants into the state by targeting companies that transport people who are “unlawfully” in the country into Florida. Unaccompanied migrant children, who under federal immigration law have “no lawful immigration status,” would be included, according to immigration attorneys ... Republican lawmakers tried to quell concerns that the proposal would have an impact on children by narrowing the definition of who would be considered an “unauthorized alien” under state law.
How many “scare quotes” can you “put” into one “story”? Distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants are in fact a matter of federal law, not questionable characterizations motivated by bigotry, as the article implies.
With the euphemism “undocumented” immigrant, the distinction between citizenship and noncitizenship completely collapses. A foreign national who violates immigration laws by sneaking into the country or overstaying a temporary visa becomes someone “without papers,” reducing citizenship—once an honor to be fought for—to a matter of paperwork, with no moral or political significance.
With the erasure of even the limited and banal definition of citizenship as the right of a citizen of a nation-state to receive welfare benefits that are denied to foreign nationals, we have come—in theory, though not yet in practice—to the erasure of the nation-state and its replacement by something else. Call it the charity-state.
If the premodern republican city-state is a limited local self-help club for active members with duties as well as benefits, and the modern democratic nation-state, minus military conscription, is a tribal trust fund, the postmodern charity-state is a country conceived of as a philanthropy or a nonprofit. Its purpose is not to selfishly serve its members, but to help the needy, wherever they might be in the world. If various rights, including positive rights to taxpayer-funded welfare, are universal human rights, not merely perks of membership in a city-state or nation-state, then it makes no sense to limit the spending of treasure or blood to the formal citizens of the charity-state. The country becomes merely the arbitrary headquarters of a global charity—a global charity that may have an army, navy, and air force to help it do good anywhere and everywhere in the world, by invading other countries and replacing their governments, if necessary.
Nothing could be further from the ancient origins of citizenship in neighbors vowing mutual self-help than the crusading charity-state, whose propagandists dismiss narrow civic or national self-interest as mere selfishness in favor of global humanitarian altruism. The Latin word “republic” is derived from “res publica,” that which is held in common by a community with limited membership. The phrase “commonwealth” expresses the same idea. The republic or commonwealth is like a credit union whose members pool their savings to better help themselves. If the managers of the credit union, out of genuine altruism or social status-seeking, decide to donate the assets of the credit union to this or that noble humanitarian cause, they have betrayed their fiduciary duty to the depositors and looted the institution they were hired to manage.
Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.