As unvetted migrants from the third-world pour over the United States southern border in droves, executive leadership refuses to acknowledge the developing border crisis, let alone address it. Nor should this be surprising. There is a respectable opinion among educated people today (and especially among those on the intellectual left) that nations are no longer relevant and that there is no need to uphold and defend national sovereignty. While they may acknowledge that the nation-state was efficacious at a point in history and gave us a handle on our social and political obligations, the partitioning of landmasses into nations has been a source of unnecessary discord and conflict. For those who advocate this view, in today’s newly interconnected and globalized world, the nation-state has become obsolete, destined to be replaced by more enlightened and universal forms of jurisdiction.
This argument is compelling and persuasive and underlies many contemporary efforts to create a borderless world inhabited by an international community. But it overlooks perhaps the most important and fundamental truth, which is that democratic politics requires a “demos.” Democracy means rule by the people and requires us to know who the people are, what unites them, and how they can form a proper government. Taking inspiration from the late great Roger Scruton, government requires and indeed relies on a “we,” a pre-political allegiance that makes neighbors who voted in opposing ways treat each other with respect, for whom government is not “theirs”—belonging to some distant and anonymous bureaucracy—but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. After all, democratic politics inevitably requires us to accept outcomes for which we did not vote. The politics of compromise, or the capacity to “agree to disagree,” which is necessary for a democratic order, depends on an allegiance that marginalizes racial, tribal, and religious identities and allows strangers to more easily find common motives and act on behalf of their shared fate and future. This pre-political loyalty is also that which enables us to be effectively governed. “We” denotes those who are subject to the rules and regulations of our particular jurisdiction and, in turn, those who are obliged to follow those rules and regulations, take part in civic processes, and are duty-bound to our shared political enterprise. The United States Constitution makes this abundantly clear, opening with the phrase “We the People“—referring, in this instance, to the particular group who earned their independence from Great Britain, and whose historic tie was to be transcribed into law. The nation-state, as we today conceive it, is a byproduct of human neighborliness. It is shaped by a spontaneous order from the countless agreements over time between people who speak the same language, share similar customs and values, and live side by side. It results from compromises drawn after many conflicts and reflects the slowly forming agreement among neighbors both to grant to each other space and to protect and defend that space as common territory. The loyalty of a people is directed towards their highest collective asset—their shared territory—which is theirs by virtue of the fact that they have always lived in it, defended it, protected it, and loved it.
While a nation’s stability is doubtless enhanced by economic dynamism, it depends far more on the sense that we belong together and that we will support one another in times of emergency. It depends, in short, on a legacy of social trust between neighbors. This trust is the best guarantee of peace and tranquility in our world. Hence the importance of social and cultural integration—to introduce all comers without an expectation of studious assimilation is to jeopardize the trust on which social harmony relies. For this reason, American conservatives have advocated the fortification of national borders (which are not arbitrary or imaginary but instead designate the territory which is “ours”) among other reforms to ensure that those seeking entry into our country will assume the duties of good citizenship. Today, those who bridle against the nation-state are also those most ardent in their commitment to free association across national lines. They argue that migrants fleeing perpetual violence and political unrest should be met only with hospitality and charity and ought to be rescued. However, today’s trans-national jurisdictions make this all but impossible. A call on citizens to welcome strangers and outsiders into their shared commonwealth presupposes the very national loyalty and attachment so much of modern politics seems to deny. You cannot ask Americans (or any national people) to accommodate mass migration into their country of people whose culture, language, and social goals and aspirations are at odds with theirs unless you tell them it is their duty as good citizens to do so. Hospitality is futile if there is no home from which to offer it. In other words, hospitality can be offered, only where there is also loyalty.
Regarding the immigration debate, it is often suggested that creating for migrants a “pathway to citizenship” through amnesty is a panacea. In doing so, we maintain our commitment to international free association while at the same time casting a gentle burden on migrants to adopt the posture of good citizenship. But good citizenship always presupposes membership in the first-person plural. Indeed, citizenship goes much deeper than mere legal residence in a shared territory. For this I will turn to the authoritative word of Aristotle, who argued that good citizenship is the knowledge and ability “both to rule and to be ruled” in turn. In Book III of his Politics, Aristotle stresses that good citizenship is premised above all upon the necessity of learning the discipline of being ruled: he writes, “a ruler must first learn through being ruled, just as one learns to command cavalry by serving under a cavalry-commander and to be a general by serving under a general, and by commanding a battalion and a company. This too is a healthy saying, namely that it is not possible to be a good ruler without first having been ruled. Not that good ruling and good obedience are the same virtue—only that the good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to rule and be ruled. That is what we mean by the virtue of a citizen—understanding the governing of free men from both points of view.” Aristotle continues by discussing how it is precisely this synthesis or combination between two seemingly opposite virtues that distinguish “the good man.” For Aristotle, the good man and good citizen converge in their ability to abridge their narrow inclinations and curb their immediate passions and rule others with consideration to their welfare, one that has been deepened by means of training in being well-ruled by others. This form of mutual self-governance in the polity can arise only by the collective trust of which I speak, which allows us to form common cause with strangers, and in those matters on which our common destiny depends, with conviction proclaim “we.” In the end, democratic self-governance relies on a trust that, if and when I cede political control to my neighbor, they will use it responsibly and to good effect.
As I have defined it, a good citizen is one that integrates his or her interests with the universal interests of the nation; and the will of the nation, as I have remarked throughout, always takes the form of “we.“ Alas, the first-person plural cannot find a voice in our international bureaucratic order. Today's trans-national political bodies are typically formed by treaties, which derive their legitimacy from the entities that sign them, i.e., the nation-states that choose to sign on, from which the loyalties of the people derive. Hence global political enterprises, which set out to transcend these loyalties, naturally suffer from a permanent crisis of legitimacy. Ultimately, what meaning do political principles hold if there is no political community with an interest in obeying them? There is a clear distinction to be made between governments that are imposed from the outside, like an alien force, and governments that are organized from the bottom-up. With the political ascendance of Donald Trump in America (who ran on the promise of restoring America's national sovereignty) and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom (in which the British people stood against rule by bureaucracy in the European Union and reclaimed the first-person plural), this distinction is ostensibly becoming all the more clear and significant. In sum, the nation-state is the only viable form of political organization. Theoretical prospects of transcending the authority of the nation have only lamentable applications in practice.