Smith: Celebrate independence, but beware nationalism’s perils

As we celebrate July 4th, we need to keep this in mind: Nationalism is a dangerous political card.

We saw its impact on our retirement accounts when Britain decided to exit the European Union. We are seeing it in China, where leaders are at odds with their neighbors throughout the South China Sea. We see it played out each day on the American political stage. We see it in Russia, where the oil economy is tanking.

Former President Harry Truman once said: “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”

Nationalism rises for different reasons, but usually has an economic root. The outcome is universally poor.

After World War I, America used its economic power to prop up a defeated Germany with hopes that the support would stabilize Europe. But the depression came, the help ended and the German economy collapsed.

It was in those dark days that Hitler came to power, in essence, to make Germany great again.

Today’s American economy is not in a desperate situation, but it is changing dramatically. Large swaths of the workforce are being left behind – note, for example, miners in West Virginia and Missouri.

No politician can change reality – despite what you hear on the campaign trail.

But smart government can help workers retrain, invest in strong public schools and community infrastructure. That can mean new plants and opportunities.

I saw it happen in my lifetime when the South saw the disappearance of the mill economy in the early 1970s as clothing manufacturing moved to cheaper locales in Central America. A number of states invested in vocational schools, among other things, and that’s one reason that the South is now home to so many automotive factories.

In China, my belief is nationalism is being fueled by gender imbalance. According to statistics, there will be 30 million more men than women in China by 2020. That’s due in part to the now abandoned one-child policy and a cultural preference for a male heir in a family. New technology has made aborting female children easier. The fear of economic instability led to the one-child policy.

In columnist Nicholas Kristof’s book, “Half the Sky,” there are innumerable examples that demonstrate the importance of gender balance – one of them being the emphasis on the importance of education and the sustainability of the family.

As Mao said himself: “Women hold up half of the sky.”

In Europe, there are plenty of problems with the European Union. EU policymakers have horsed around with trying to regulate everything from eggs to vacuum cleaners. Much of the EU’s attention is on lifting up Eastern Europe – not on returning services to established countries like Britain.

Some voters were captured emotionally by the immigrant crisis, and the hatefulness spawned by those arguments. Others were left hopeless by the same economic transitions that we face in America.

For whatever reasons, voters chose to not work to fix a system that’s designed primarily to halt future armed conflict. They voted to leave because they’re angry.

Many of those Brits are what I term “the born frees.” They were born free of the tyranny and horror that two world wars brought to Europe. While they understand that the EU was created to promote European cooperation, few dodged bombs and bullets.

The vote may mean that Great Britain will no longer be great. Scotland could choose the EU over Britain. The British pound faces an uncertain future.

Nationalism and its accompanying friend “anger” have done to Britain what all of the armies of Europe failed to do for over 500 years.

“Me” beat “we.”

Sound familiar?

The challenge of democracy is to set aside ourselves and to think of the bigger picture: What kind of country do we want? What kind of values do we believe in? What kind of freedoms do we want to guarantee?

That’s what our forefathers did during the furious battles of 1776. They were willing to give up their own lives in order to build the world’s greatest democracy. There’s so much more to our freedom than a divisive political ad or a fireworks display.

So to my friends on the left and right, my July 4th recommendation is that we all take a moment and remember the importance of being charitable to each other. Nationalism will not make us great.

Randall Smith

Randall D. Smith is the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and is the founder of Missouri Business Alert. He can be reached at





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