‘How Liberals Can Use Nationalism for Good’ – Book review by Isaac Chotiner, THE NEW YORKER

'In the political scientist Yael Tamir’s view, a liberal version of nationalism is one of the only hopes of averting nationalism’s most destructive features, and entrenching support for welfare states.'


Yael Tamir’s new book, “Why Nationalism,” looks at an old idea through the prism of our newly nationalistic world. She examines how nationalism was used both to make war and (often after those wars) to build welfare states, and she argues that progressives once again need to harness nationalism for their own interests. “Liberals like to believe that social diversity breeds tolerance and open-mindedness, but research does not support this,” she writes. In Tamir’s view, a liberal version of nationalism is one of the only hopes of averting nationalism’s most destructive features, and entrenching support for welfare states.

I recently spoke by phone with Tamir, a political scientist and a former member of Israel’s Knesset from the Labor party. She currently is the president of Shenkar College, in Israel, and teaches at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how nationalism went from an élite project to an anti-élite one, and how liberals might make use of it.

What is it that you thought needed to be said about nationalism?

The reason I was interested in nationalism is the realization that people need, in their lives, more than liberty or opportunity or things that liberalism cherishes. They need meaning, they need a context, they need to be rooted. And not allowing people to live in a meaningful environment may be a very painful and damaging thing for people’s lives and self-fulfillment.

And you felt that this was not being talked about enough?

It has not been talked about enough for a while. Nationalism was the project of the élites. The people joined in later. It has now become the project of the people. And that is due to the fact that globalism, hyper-globalism, separated the interests of the people from the interests of the élite. I think the emergence of populism right now is not a coincidence. It is not as if people became less reasonable or more violent. I think they are presented with new challenges and fears and reasons to be worried about their future. I am not sure they are bringing about the right solutions, but they are voicing concerns that have been repressed for a long time.

What makes you think that élite solutions, by which I assume you mean membership in international organizations and trade deals, were not in the ultimate interest of people?

My book is only about the developed world. But in the developed world, if you look at what happened to the middle classes, they have been losing control over their lives. This feeling—and not just a feeling but a fact—the prospects of having a stable income, are fading away. These feelings are now very strong, and they are not an illusion spread by people with bad intentions. These are the realities of a large chunk of the population. We are paying the price for that right now.

What makes you think nationalism is something people need?

I think nationalism of one kind or another will always be part of the modern state. When you think about the way people describe themselves, their language, their country, their traditions, it always has a nationalist [flavor]. And that is an important part of the formation of the modern welfare state. It’s this feeling that we, for some reason, care for each other more than we do for other people, and that we share something in common from generation to generation. There is something very strong that liberalism borrowed from nationalism that allowed the welfare state to develop and become a society that is more caring than other political entities.

You describe two kinds of nationalism in your book, one being the nationalism of people like the Scots or the Catalans. Then you write, “The second kind of nationalism is the nationalism of the less well-off, those left defenseless by the process of hyperglobalization.” If you look at America, or Israel, where you live, it seems like both countries have very nationalist leaders with real support not just from people left behind but from people who are more well-off. It seems to be a much broader phenomenon than people left behind.

The social contract says we work together and share costs and benefits and we do not allow people to be left alone to their misery without paying attention. It’s not, obviously, a hundred per cent of the voters. But I think it’s a large chunk, and you can see the mass of the [nationalist] voting is more inland, is more the places where jobs have disappeared.

Is that true in Israel?

In Israel’s political system, religion is a much larger player. And also, we have Arab citizens who are twenty-five per cent of the population, whose class and identity interact in different ways. It would be the case among Jewish voters who are not ultra-Orthodox. This is why I don’t use the Israeli case very often. I think we have a very special set of circumstances. But if I look at Germany, if I look at France, if I look at Italy, this is the trend. Even in Turkey, it is very similar. We should again be starting to worry about class differences because they motivate people and make them less [trusting] of the state when the state offers them solutions.

In all these capitalist countries, conservative élites are riling people up about globalization, even though they themselves have often been the winners of globalization. Take the Murdoch press, for example. To what degree do you think the anger of “average” people is less an innate hunger for nationalism than it is about élites telling people what they should be angry about?

Obviously, élites try to shape the way people think about reality. But I think the feelings are much deeper than that in many, many places around the world. We cannot just ignore them and say it is just a manipulation. It is too easy and it frees us from the obligation to change things. If it is all manipulation, then we just need to change the language. I don’t think that will work, because I think some of these concerns are true, and they are not deluded, because they are poorer and sicker and more addicted to drugs and less able to find work. Why shouldn’t they be angry? Everyone has told them that progress is happening and things are going great and the world is getting better every day. And they heard it and said, “Not for me, not for me, not for my neighbors.” That’s the thing people want to say to the élites.

I’m not convinced people are angry because they have been manipulated by élites, but I do think the solutions they identify are often the result of élite manipulation. They often lash out in specifically nationalist ways having to do with race or ethnicity or religion. That does seem manipulated by élites.

I think we should be honest and say that no one is offering a lot of solutions. But people are searching, and this is something nationalism and religion and identity are very good at, having something that is more than an economic solution. They feel a lack of status and they feel a lack of place. It’s a difficult feeling for a person to feel displaced in your own country.

So, what is the solution and how does nationalism play into it?

It’s not that I have the solution. That would be great. I don’t have it. But I think the solution is to start creating new kinds of social bonding that really can convince people to work together and redistribute opportunity, and redistribute costs and benefits and risks. The welfare state was built on the assumption that we had something in common and cherished it, and that we were ready to sacrifice something—whether it is wealth, or something in our lives—for this thing we have together. Unless we re-create this, the collective-action problem we have in democratic life has no answer. On each and every level of private and public life, you need some sort of commitment. It should not be a commitment for here and now. It needs a continuity that nationalism brings with it, because you want to worry about the next generation, and you want to worry about the things that will happen in the future, and convince people that there is a meaning over time. And that is where nationalism is extremely effective. It is not the solution. It is part of the solution. But it gives the nation-state a reason to exist.

One of the things that’s so challenging is that, as you acknowledge in the book, nationalism has many downsides, and many of the institutions, such as the European Union, that were created as a response to the downsides of nationalism are now sparking a nationalist backlash. It’s hard to give people a sense of nationalism while keeping in place global institutions like these.

Nationalism is not about breaking all international institutions. It’s about the ordering of priorities. You asked me at the beginning: Why now? I think the more social democratic forces in society are losing out and handing over this powerful tool to people who are abusing it. Every ideology, from socialism to nationalism, is easy to abuse. The fact that people abuse an ideology is not evidence it is a bad ideology or a good ideology. What I am saying is that this was a powerful tool in the twentieth century and I think it is still relevant. And we should be aware that if we don’t use it someone else will, and we need to be cautious that we have just surrendered an enormous amount of power to people using it for the worst.