President Trump’s supporters were quick to challenge the patriotism of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the alarmed National Security Council official who testified Tuesday about the July phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Vindman was born in Ukraine, when it was part of the Soviet Union; his family left when he was 3 years old, as Jewish refugees from Soviet persecution. “I don’t know about his concern [for] American policy,” said CNN commentator Sean P. Duffy. “. . . We all have an affinity to our homeland, where we came from.” After the New York Times reported that Ukrainian officials had turned to Vindman for advice on how to deal with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, Giuliani himself tweeted: “A U.S. gov. employee who has reportedly been advising two gov’s? … End of impeachment.”
Trump and his supporters often suggest that first- or second-generation Americans — from federal judge Golanzo Curiel, whose parents were Mexican immigrants, to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a former refugee from Somalia — are really loyal to their ancestral countries. Supposedly, these people possess “dual loyalty,” a charge that historically has most often been lodged against Jews. The slander that Jews prioritize Israeli interests over American ones has come from politicians in both parties this year. Omar herself suggested that American Jews “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” and Trump bizarrely complain ed that they demonstrate “great disloyalty” to Israel by not loyally supporting him.
These views are spurious and bigoted, and some Republicans have risen to Vindman’s defense. (Omar apologized for her comments; Trump didn’t.)
Dual loyalty doesn’t have to mean disloyalty. In denying these false accusations, it is easy to concede too much to an overly rigid, nationalist conception of belonging. But people in complex modern societies have loyalties to their religions and identity groups, their families, their cities and states, their parties and political causes, their associations or unions or professions. Theybalance these all the time. Political membership in a nation-state doesn’t — and shouldn’t — eliminate subnational, transnational and international attachments of many kinds. These loyalties may require trade-offs, but they rarely come into real conflict.
The perspective that rejects such pluralism maintains that we must prioritize one membership, one attachment, absolutely and unconditionally over all others: We cannot be American and Catholic, British and European, Muslim and French. It casts free-traders and supporters of liberalized migration policies as sinister “globalists” who undermine the countries to which they should be loyal — a supposed ideological dual loyalty that is often used as a dog-whistle for anti-Semitism.
This error rests in part on worries about extreme cases of conflict: When the sacrifice that loyalty calls for is killing or dying in the national defense, which side are you on? But these instances are exceptionally rare. Most of the time, people make complementary choices and sacrifices for their plurality of allegiances.
The notion that disagreement and pluralism are problems, diseases of the body politic, has been dressed up in various ideological languages over the centuries. Some political theorists, like Locke and Rousseau, conceived of politics as resting on a social contract that requires unanimous consent, a pre-political “people” that is so naturally unified that each and every person will endorse the same terms of constitutional founding. Nationalists cling to the idea that each sovereign state naturally shares a homogeneous ethno-cultural community. And recently, we’ve seen a resurgence of populism, which limits who counts as the real national peopleand casts political opponents as invaders, elites and parasites.
Eighteenth-century civic-republican thinkers, including many of the American founders, thought political parties contributed to something like dual loyalty; they distinguished the “common good” from the interests of “factions.” George Washington’s farewell address denouncing parties and partisanship included an attack on “excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another,” such as Democratic-Republicans’ tilt toward revolutionary France and the Federalists’ toward monarchical Britain. The imagined connection between domestic division and something like treason outlasted that particular dispute.
This skepticism of political differences wasn’t exactly the same as 19th-century ethnic and cultural nationalism, but the concepts blended easily enough. We can hear the combination in the Pledge of Allegiance, created in 1892 to teach immigrant children loyalty to both “the [political] republic” and “one [cultural] nation, indivisible.” The author of the pledge, Francis Bellamy, was concerned about the ideas of “fanatical” immigrants such as anarchists and about the arrival of members of “races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard” — that is, southern and eastern Europeans.
Political experience quickly taught Americans that Washington was wrong, that democratic government in modern states requires parties. They organize different groups’ interests and ideas into competing perspectives on the common good; they make opposition, disagreement and contestation normal parts of a political system. But as the Harvard political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has shown, the founders’ anti-party spirit persists in the obsession with independent voters and the perpetual fantasy of an unaffiliated president riding to the rescue (Ross Perot, Michael Bloomberg). And anti-partyism provides an ideological weapon that can be used against the other party: Since our side is obviously in the right, the other side must be a divisive special interest, opposed to the common good — a view Trump has embraced with zeal. Democrats are “bad people,” he said at a rally in October, “on a crusade to destroy our democracy.”
In addition to parties, a healthy pluralistic democracy draws on its citizens’ diverse attachments to religions or causes as sources of different perspectives and knowledge. Socialists and Catholics can disagree with a particular government, not because of “disloyalty,” but because they bring distinctive ideas about what the right thing for America is.
This holds true even when the attachments are transnational. An environmentalist, free-trader or human rights activist might criticize her country’s actions around the world, arguing, for instance, that the United States is wrong to abandon the Kurds in Syria or withdraw from a pact to slow global warming.
The sympathy and attachment that many Americans have to their ancestors’ countries is another source of such perspective. Such attachments don’t prioritize some other part of the world over American interests but offer varied insights on what those interests are. They provide knowledge, understanding, moral motivation and reasons for advocacy for a wide range of positions: that the United States should boycott Cuba, defend Taiwan, accept refugees from Venezuela or Honduras — or take seriously the Russian threat to Ukraine. Emigres from tyrannical regimes can bring a particular understanding of those regimes’ injustices.
This was commonly understood during the years when Irish Americans pressured politicians with respect to British policy in Northern Ireland, but the same understanding is too often denied to American Jews making the case for the alliance with Israel. Trump’s defenders seek to deny it to Vindman as well. While there’s no evidence that Vindman cared about anything other than U.S. interests, it’s certainly possible that he felt a special commitment to work on Ukrainian affairs because of his past. If so, surely that perspective improved rather than diminished his contributions to the National Security Council. Perhaps it strengthened his willingness to make the hard choice to speak up on behalf of a security relationship Congress had endorsed, in the face of a president trying to undermine it.
Transnational and ideological commitments provide distinctive perspectives on a country’s interests and ideals. The monist view attacks them both. This is perhaps most obvious in the ways that suspicion of Jews’ transnational sense of cultural community has gone hand in hand with denunciation of the transnational political causes — socialism, liberalism, globalism — Jews are imagined to dominate. Embrace of such causes is often painted as secret, illegitimate, foreign.
The point is not that there’s no such thing as a traitor. Confederates turned on the United States from within to defend slavery, and Julius Rosenberg betrayed his country to the Soviet Union. But the extremes of war (civil or international, hot or cold) are not the normal conditions of democratic life. The nationalist always exaggerates how homogenous we are, and how different we are from them outside our borders. Those of us who reject that pernicious image shouldn’t accept the terms of debate that it sets. We will be better off when the phrase “dual loyalties” ceases to be an epithet — but instead a simple recognition of the pluralism all of us bring to political life.
Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson professor of political theory at McGill University, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and the author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.