In 2004, American political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote an essay titled “Dead Souls: The Denationalization Of The American Elite.” In it, Huntington described the trend among many elites to identify more with the cosmopolitan world than with their individual countries. Huntington also described how much the elites’ views were differing from those of the rest of the public who still identified with their countries.
Eleven years later, Justin Trudeau told the New York Times that Canada was the world’s first “post-national” state, one without a “mainstream” or a core identity.
Over the next two years, the world saw everything from Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President to the United Kingdom supporting Brexit, to a backlash against international agreements like NAFTA. But there were signs earlier than that. In 2014, Forbes Magazine noted that NAFTA was widely loathed by the American public. Journalist Paul Wells noted how similar Rob Ford’s election in Toronto was to Brexit and Trump’s election, being a backlash against elites the public didn’t agree with. American liberal Anthony Bourdain laid much of the blame for Trump’s win on arrogant elites who looked down on people living in the American “red states” as stupid and ignorant, a point repeated by conservative William McGurn.
Why is there such a backlash now?
Part of the problem is that both cosmopolitan liberals (as noted by American commentator Stephen Walt) and cosmopolitan conservatives (as noted by British journalist Nikil Saval) underestimated the broader public’s attachment to local identities and countries, and the public’s reaction to the disruptions the elites’ policy changes would cause. The elites showed the disconnect Huntington warned about in 2004, and actions such as the Brexit vote, the election of Trump and the backlash against NAFTA are in many ways a public reaction to the elite disconnect.
What does this mean for Canada?
As political blogger Matt Burgess noted, progressives might benefit from rediscovering their patriotism. Christian Larsen wrote in Policy Options magazine that it’s important not to confuse ethnic nationalism with civic nationalism, which is based on local patriotism rather than ethnic identity. McGill history student Luke Devine, writing about the emptiness of “post-national” values, stated that the values Trudeau described ought to be framed within Canada’s national story.
This is what cosmopolitan elites have forgotten, whether they be activists who want everyone to be “citizens of the world”, or business people who don’t want national governments getting in their way. It’s human nature to want to belong to specific groupings, from countries to cities, that include some people and exclude others. People can move between different groups, and those groups will have disagreements among themselves, but they also have their own specific histories and values that distinguish them from each other.
Contrary to what Trudeau believes, Canada is not post-national. Like all countries, we have our own distinct history and identity, which play a critical role in informing our lives.
If there is a backlash against “elite wisdom”, it’s because the advocates of a borderless world forgot this.