The American historian Jill Lepore wrote recently that much of US history can be understood as a battle between two kinds of nationalism — one liberal and civic, grounded in claims about the equal rights of citizens, and one illiberal, ethnically based and exclusionary. A nation such as the US, “founded on revolution and universal rights”, she wrote, will always be struggling with the forces of chaos and “particularism”.
Anyone who has watched the uglier manifestations of American patriotism at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies will know just how unsettling and threatening these forces can be. And it is idle, indeed dangerous, to suppose that the battle can ever be won once and for all. For the time being, in the era of “America first” and presidential promises to make the country “great again”, it appears that the illiberals described by Lepore are in the ascendant.
Three new books — by the American writer John Judis; the Israeli political theorist and former politician Yael Tamir; and her conservative compatriot, Yoram Hazony — explore in different ways the predicament that Lepore was describing. It is one that most developed nations, not just the US, currently find themselves in. All three grapple with what Judis calls the “nationalist revival” — think Trump and Brexit, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the Alternative for Germany — that has dramatically raised the political temperature in the world’s largest democracies. But they also engage with something the great Scottish theorist of nationhood, Tom Nairn, recognised in the 1970s: that “all nationalism is both healthy and morbid” — fundamentally ambivalent, Janus-faced.
Tamir’s Why Nationalism is the successor to an earlier work of hers on the topic, Liberal Nationalism, published in 1993. That book had begun life as a doctoral thesis supervised by Isaiah Berlin. This one is dedicated to Berlin, her “great teacher and mentor”.
The influence of the late philosopher and historian of ideas is discernible in two key claims on which Tamir’s argument turns: first, that without the constraining power of liberalism and democracy, nationalism soon turns nasty, or “morbid”, to use Nairn’s terminology; and second, and conversely, that modern states depend for their legitimacy on a form of national sentiment strong enough to sustain feelings of mutual obligation. Without the sense that “we are all in this together”, as someone once said, the bonds of liberal democracy begin to fray — as we are discovering to our cost.
The “untidy compromise” between liberalism and nationalism that she proposes echoes a distinction that Berlin was fond of making between nationalism as a form of belonging based on shared customs, language and institutions, and nationalism which sees the nation state as a kind of organism in which the interests of the collective take moral precedence over those of its individual members. For Berlin, the best historical examples of this phenomenon were Nazism and fascism. (In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony seeks to rescue nationalism from the condescension of posterity, and so insists that the Third Reich was an “imperialist” project, rather than a nationalist one.)
Berlin also distinguished between what he called “mere national consciousness” — the sense of belonging to a nation, which needn’t imply any judgment about the merits of other states — and nationalism proper, which he thought does entail a belief in the “value of our own [nation] simply because it is our own” and also in the supremacy of its claims over those of others.
The two forms of nationalism that Tamir sees as resurgent today fit Berlin’s classification, more or less. On the one hand, there are the territorial, secessionist claims for national self-determination made by, for example, Catalan or Kurdish nationalist movements. Liberals tend to think of these as healthy, since the principle of self-determination itself is an artefact of the enlightenment, which transfers the idea of individual liberty from the person to the nation.
And then there is the “nationalism of the less well-off, those left defenceless by the process of hyperglobalisation”. Tamir characterises this form, which many commentators have seen as driving both the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the US — not to mention the recent eruption of the gilets jaunes in France — as consisting in an appeal to cosmopolitan elites, the beneficiaries of transnational capitalism, “to come back home from their global voyage and put their nation first”. The distance between this and the most pathological, xenophobic species of nationalism is much shorter, Tamir suggests.
One of the frustrating things about Tamir’s book, and Judis’s too, is a certain fuzziness over categories. Sometimes they seem to be talking about mild national sentiment in the first sense, where it is often indistinguishable from fellow feeling or social solidarity, and sometimes about forms of self-assertion that are more explicitly based on appeals to national exceptionalism or distinctiveness. Nor are they as careful as they might be about drawing the line between the nation, understood as a people with a common ancestry or tradition, and the state, which is a political community governed by laws. These may seem like fairly fine-grained distinctions, but analytical clarity matters here.
A significant portion of Judis’s The Nationalist Revival is devoted to exploring the causes of the revival of nationalism in the second, “exceptionalist”, sense. Tamir too offers an explanation of this. Her previous book was also in part a response to a historical moment: it appeared during the proliferation of self-determination movements in central and eastern Europe in the early 1990s, when new nation states were born from the ashes of the Soviet Union and its satellites — just as many of the older European nation states were midwifed by the collapse of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires in the early 20th century.
Judis’s accounts of the causes of the re-emergence of xenophobic nationalism is fairly conventional, and summarises more detailed work done by other political and social scientists on the connection between de-industrialisation, globalisation, income inequality and wage stagnation, on the one hand, and popular susceptibility to “explicit nationalist appeals”, on the other.
The Nationalist Revival is largely descriptive. Tamir, though, is more ambitious, and the conclusions she draws from this by now familiar story are much more interesting and provocative. She makes two important points — one philosophical, the other political.
The philosophical point is echoed by Hazony in The Virtue of Nationalism, though pressed into the service of a very different argument about what he sees as a world-historical conflict between nationalism, and related ideas of national sovereignty, and “imperialism”, one of the principal vehicles of which, in his view, are supranational institutions such as the EU. Unsurprisingly, members of the Trump administration seeking to recalibrate US policy towards Europe have given Hazony’s somewhat fevered vision an enthusiastic reception.
Tamir’s philosophical point has to do with what she sees as the limits of liberalism, which, with its emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy, downplays the importance to flourishing human lives of “specific identities” — that is, attachments to things bigger than ourselves. This recognition, borrowed from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, that personal freedom is a mean or etiolated thing outside of a larger “meaning-providing system” is an important one. But it’s not obvious that the meaning-providing system in question need be that of a nation or national tradition. After all, human lives are made meaningful by attachments to all sorts of things — my allegiance to the football team I support is at least as powerful as my feeling of national identity (more so, if I’m honest).
The political point Tamir makes is more persuasive and follows from the historical story she tells about the ravages of globalisation. One significant effect of the changes wrought in the political economy of advanced western societies over the past 30 years or so, she argues, has been to undermine the idea of the nation state as a common project. And this has far-reaching consequences for, among other things, the future of social-security systems, which depend for their legitimacy in part on the belief that there are some things that fellow citizens from different rungs on the social ladder have in common.
Tamir deals glancingly, and somewhat gingerly, with the role that immigration has played in the unravelling of social solidarity. While she suggests that it is time to ask “how much diversity can be taken in while retaining social cohesion”, she does not go as far as the British writer David Goodhart, who has written: “Greater diversity, almost by definition, eats away at a common culture and feelings of mutual obligation, yet a strong common culture is required to sustain a generous welfare state.”‘Gilets jaunes’ protesters gather at the Place de la République in Paris, February 2 © EPA-EFE/Yoan Valat
Tamir is not as fatalistic as Goodhart. She does not appear to believe that greater diversity eats away at a common culture by definition. But asserting that the “nation state . . . must be brought back into play” if the “cross-class coalition” that underpinned the postwar success of western welfare states is to be revived rather begs Goodhart’s question about what he called the “progressive dilemma”.
The political project she sketches out in the final section of the book is highly ambitious. As far as concrete policies are concerned, her proposals are drawn from a familiar social-democratic menu of higher taxes and wider public ownership. They also depend on the emergence of politicians of the calibre of Franklin D Roosevelt, whom she praises for his understanding of the “emotional underpinnings of social solidarity”. Such leaders are not yet in evidence.
None of these books entirely succeeds in fully explaining the current revival in nationalism. But they at least remind us that the nation state hasn’t quite had its day. An inclusive state patriotism of the sort Tamir envisages requires, as she acknowledges, that nationalism be “tamed” and be made more “liberal and tolerant” — and that, as all three authors show, is easier said than done.
Why Nationalism, by Yael Tamir, Princeton, RRP$34.95/£19.95, 176 pages
The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization, by John Judis, Columbia Global Reports, RRP$15.99, 157 pages
The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony, Basic Books, RRP$30, 285 pages