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What conservatives get wrong about cosmopolitans

‘Citizens of the world’ aren’t so elite after all.

- July 26, 2019

In a July 2019 session at the Edmund Burke Foundation’s inaugural National Conservatism Conference, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) gave a controversial speech decrying an elite leadership class that “lives in the United States, but they identify as ‘citizens of the world.’ ” This class, which he said is based in Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood and is positioned on both the political left and right, has sold out the “great American middle” to global cultural and economic interests.

He followed the speech with a series of tweets.

This is provocative stuff. But although Hawley clearly understands the concept of cosmopolitans, he, as well as many other conservative critics of cosmopolitans, get three important things wrong.

Let’s start with what Hawley gets right. He is right that cosmopolitans are self-identified “citizens of the world.” The word “cosmopolitan” derives from ancient Greek — “kosmos,” meaning world, and “politês,” meaning citizen — and Hawley’s use of it is in line with mainstream academic work.

In other respects, however, Hawley is mistaken.

1. Most cosmopolitans don’t reject their home country.

First, Hawley mischaracterizes cosmopolitans as lacking attachment to local communities or nations, arguing that “the cosmopolitan elite look down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith.” In contrast, he offers a Roman parable with the moral “home is worth defending.”

But in a recent article, we found that relatively few cosmopolitans lack attachments to their home or community. Based on data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), we considered anyone a cosmopolitan if they agreed with the statement “I consider myself a world citizen.” We then looked at whether self-described world citizens really lacked attachments to their community. This wasn’t true. In the WVS, 92 percent of self-identified world citizens say they are proud to be a member of their respective nations. In the ISSP, 66 percent of world citizens say they would rather be a citizen of their country than any other country in the world.

In the United States, the same was true: Eighty-eight percent of world citizens say they are proud to be an American, and 77 percent of world citizens say they would rather be American than any other nationality.

Moreover, the commitment of many cosmopolitans to their home is readily evident among groups like Iraqi Kurds. When they were surveyed in 2012, 87 percent of Iraqi Kurds said that they saw themselves as world citizens — the highest rate of any ethnic group in the world. Yet clearly Iraqi Kurds believe that their home is worth defending.

Part of the reason that even cosmopolitans love their country is that, for many, love of country is about deeply held principles. Many Americans base their patriotism on the inclusive threads running through America’s history, including the country’s openness to immigrants. For these Americans, national pride coexists with openness to difference and a broad definition of what it means to be “truly American.”

2. Cosmopolitans are more likely to be repressed minorities, not elites.

Second, although urban elite cosmopolitans certainly exist, most world citizens do not fit this description. In fact, people in poor countries and repressed minorities, like the Iraqi Kurds, were more likely to identify as world citizens than were people in wealthier countries or members of more privileged social groups. These non-elites are the most numerous group of cosmopolitans.

In the United States, according to the ISSP, Americans with a household income of less than $100,000 a year are almost twice as likely as those in households making more than $100,000 a year to identify as world citizens (32 percent vs. 18 percent, respectively). Looking at the data, it appears that Hawley’s “broad middle” is more cosmopolitan than is his “leadership elite.”

3. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t break nations apart. It rises when nations are already broken.

Third, and perhaps most important, Hawley errs in thinking that cosmopolitanism has fragmented the nation. In fact, we have found that the opposite is true: Cosmopolitanism thrives when governments do the fragmenting, such as by designating certain ethnic or racial groups as the “real” members of the nation while marginalizing other groups. Marginalized and repressed people may then turn to the outside world for protection from perceived hostility at home. For them, world citizenship offers the hope of security and survival.

Our finding implies that many of the same people who decry cosmopolitanism also practice the sort of exclusionary politics that promotes cosmopolitanism. A key example would be President Trump himself. A wealth of social science suggests that his embrace of exclusionary politics, exemplified by the “send her back” chants at his rallies, will only intensify the country’s divisions.

And, of course, the word “cosmopolitan” and its frequent synonym “globalist” have been used explicitly to foment divisions and demonize minorities. This is how the likes of Stephen K. Bannon or Richard Spencer use these terms.

Ultimately, many of Hawley’s concerns are shared among politicians of different stripes — for example, that globalization has left many behind and that increasing inequality threatens the social fabric of the United States. Unfortunately, as our and other research shows, attempts to bind the nation together against an imagined cosmopolitan elite are destined only to foment more division. If and when such attempts fail, it will likely not be the elite that suffers but the “broad middle” and the truly “unheard, disempowered, and disrespected” among us.

Brandon Gorman (@brandoncgorman) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Charles Seguin (@charlieseguin) is an assistant professor of sociology and social data analytics at Pennsylvania State University.