Historically, a nation-state stipulated the primacy of a nation brought together by a common culture, which in turn went on to generate an overarching national identity strong enough to attenuate regional, ethnic or religious differences. In both their American and European systemic varieties, democratic institutions have preserved and protected the rights of the people, while the culturally grounded dominant national identity has given the nation-state its requisite resilience, while also imbuing it with the power to make demands of its citizens. So long as this shared national identity remained strong—call it patriotism, love of country, or belonging beyond one's immediate family and local community—the nation-state retained its cohesion, resting on a sense of reciprocity between the government and the citizen.
Today after decades of espousing multiculturalism and group rights buttressed by the politics of grievance, the foundations of a larger shared national identity have eroded such that governance—or better yet, governability—has become an increasingly scarce commodity across the West. We are at an inflection point, where a growing systemic disorder is stoked not just by shifts in the global power distribution, but by the progressive decline in governability. The dismantling of the core principle that the national homeland should be under the sovereign control of its people lies at the root of this problem.
The hypothesis that institutions ultimately trump culture has over the past quarter century morphed into an article of faith, alongside the fervently held belief that nationalism and democratic politics are at their core fundamentally incompatible. The decades-long assault on the very idea of national identity steeped in a shared culture and defined by a commitment to the preservation of the nation has left Western leadership frequently unable to articulate the fundamentals that bind us and that we thus must be prepared to defend. The deepening fight over the right of the central government to control the national border—which is at the core of the Western idea of the nation-state—is emblematic of this situation.