How liberals can reclaim nationalism.

Mar 8, 2018

In this article in the New York Times International Edition of 5 March 2018 Yascha Mounk argues that ‘instead of exhorting their fellow citizens to live out their nations highest ideals, many activists seem content with denouncing past and present injustices.. This has enabled the bigots and racists to bend the meaning of the nation to their own sinister ends’.  

At the turn of the millennium, it was easy to hope that much of the world might leave nationalism behind in the century it so cruelly shaped. Today, though, it is enjoying an astonishing resurgence. President Trump casts himself as a nationalist doing battle with globalists. He’s not alone. From Russia to China to Poland to Venezuela, populists exploit nationalism to disable democracy. Institutions like the European Union are on the back foot.

For the foreseeable future, nationalism is likely to remain a defining political force. A lot thus depends on the shape it is going to take. Instead of indulging in dreams of a post-national future, liberals should strive to make nationalism as inclusive as possible.

There is nothing natural about the idea of the nation. Its modern form took shape as a result of deliberate political choices and the construction of elaborate myths. But by the time nationalist leaders threw the world into two cataclysms of destruction, the emotional power of the nation had been firmly established. This shaped how democracies saw themselves.

In most countries, membership in the nation has long been thought to depend on common ancestors. And so 50 years ago, it would have seemed obvious to the average European that somebody who was black or Muslim could never become a “true” German or Swede.

Decades of immigration are starting to change that. Many Germans and Swedes now recognize — and some celebrate — the fact that their fellow citizens can have any skin color or religion. But the attempt to turn countries with monoethnic identities into truly multiethnic nations is a historically unique experiment, and so it should hardly come as a surprise that it has encountered some fierce resistance.

The situation in Canada and the United States, despite their histories as countries of immigrants, has important similarities to that in Europe. Both have historically had rigid racial hierarchies. And in recent decades, both have made real steps toward overcoming these injustices: African-Americans, for example, are better represented in business and government than ever in American history. This has made opposition to a more equal, multiethnic society more fervid among those who feel their privileges threatened.

So long as nationalism is associated with one particular ethnic or religious group, it will exclude and disadvantage others. The only way to keep the destructive potential of nationalism in check is to fight for a society in which collective identity transcends ethnic and religious boundaries — one in which citizens from all religious or ethnic backgrounds are treated with the same respect as citizens from the majority group.

To effect this transformation is one of the great political challenges of our age. It requires principled resistance to right-wing nationalism, but it can succeed only if those who are most open to diversity abandon their hostility to nationalism. In reaction to the dangerous excesses of nationalism, some have decided to forgo the need for any form of collective identity, exhorting people to transcend tribal allegiances.

But for better or worse, it’s easier to be moved by the suffering of people with whom we have some form of kinship. That is why nationalism remains one of the most powerful vehicles for expanding our circle of sympathy.

Another common reaction to the resurgence of nationalism has been to celebrate more narrow forms of collective identity, such as race or religion. At a time when many minority groups are under attack, it is, of course, crucial to defend them against discrimination. But it is also important to remember that such groups, too, are capable of oppressing their own members, for example by enforcing restrictive moral codes. That’s why the only way to allow individuals true freedom to lead their lives is to preserve some form of political identity independent of the interests of particular cultural groups.

Convinced that they would be unable to redirect nationalism toward their own ends, many of the most openminded segments of society long ago gave up on the fight to determine its meaning. In countries like Germany and the United States, advocacy for the victims of prejudice has increasingly bled into a belief that the dark chapters of those countries’ history make any form of nationalism deeply suspect.

Instead of exhorting their fellow citizens to live up to their nations’ highest ideals, many activists seem content with denouncing past and present injustices. This has allowed the bigots and racists to bend the meaning of the nation to their own sinister ends. It’s time to fight back.

Nationalism can, and should, be reclaimed for liberals. A few political leaders have made a valiant start. Barack Obama has been an especially persuasive advocate of the idea that Americans should focus on what unites rather than what divides us and that the symbolism of the nation can inspire hope, even as we reckon with the injustices of American history. “What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished,” Mr. Obama said as he stood on the spot in Selma, Ala. where civil rights protesters were beaten in 1965, “that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”

Campaigning for France’s presidency last year, Emmanuel Macron also expressed a powerful vision of inclusive patriotism. “I see Armenians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians,” he said at a rally in Marseille, a diverse city in southern France, “But what do I see? I see the people of Marseille! What do I see? I see the people of France!” This, he added in an explicit repudiation of the nationalism of the far-right National Front party, “is what it means to be proud to be French!” American — and to a lesser degree European — political culture is pregnant with the symbols of inclusive patriotism.

But while we have plenty of history to build on, we must also recognize that we are fighting to establish a kind of society for which there is no clear precedent. Nonetheless, its contours should be obvious. It is a state in which all members have the same rights and opportunities irrespective of the group into which they are born. It is a society in which people feel that they have something important in common because they seek to govern themselves together, pledge to help one another in an hour of need and recognize that these shared commitments are ultimately more consequential than any difference of color or creed. And it is a culture that does not shy away from celebrating the nobility of this collective identity — embracing the nation’s flag not because we claim never to have failed our compatriots in the past but because we aspire to realize a common future fair to all.

It may be tempting to say that this kind of patriotism has little in common with the nationalism that is now ascendant around the world. Patriotism, some philosophers argue, is an innocent love of country that is inclusive at home and cooperative abroad. Nationalism, by contrast, excludes and competes with other nations.

But it is wrong to pretend that we can’t stoke the good aspects of patriotism without running the danger of exacerbating the worst aspects of nationalism. For the kind of patriotism I am proposing is not a completely different form of collective identity; it is, rather, one that proudly stands in competition with the exclusionary politics on display from Washington to Moscow to Beijing.

Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use. But if we abandon it, others are sure to step in, prodding and baiting the beast to bring out its most ferocious side. For all the well-founded misgivings about it, we have little choice but to domesticate it as best we can.

Yascha Mounk, the New York Times International Edition of 5 March 2018 

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