‘Why Nationalism’ Book review by Ian Reifowitz, DAILY KOS


Why nationalism, indeed? The concept is problematic enough, given that most nationalist movements and most governments that identify as nationalist have discriminated, oppressed, or even exterminated minorities within their borders. Furthermore, nationalist chauvinism has been a contributing factor in many cross-border conflicts. Nationalism only became more controversial when, last October, the person who has done more to advance hate in America than anyone in decades—from the White House no less—declared that he was “a nationalist.”

Yael Tamir is a scholar, founder of Israel’s Peace Now movement, and a onetime Labor Party member who, as minister of education, approved the use of a history textbook for Arab children that, in a discussion of the war that led to Israel’s independence in 1948, referred to the outcome using the Arab term “nakba” (i.e., the disaster). At the time, Tamir was attacked by Benjamin Netanyahu and others on the Israeli right, and she defended her decision as follows: “The Arab public deserves having us give expression to its feelings as well.”

She doesn’t sound like a nationalist. And if nationalism was defined solely by the likes of Trump and Adolf Hitler (no, I’m not equating them. I’m simply stating that both are self-identified nationalists), then clearly she is not one. Nevertheless, Tamir has written this book. So the term must be a bit more complicated.

Tamir’s goal is to explain “why nationalism is a permanent political force―and how it can be harnessed once again for liberal ends.” Her argument is that democracies need nationalism of one form or another, so they’d better make sure they cultivate the liberal kind.

So what is this liberal nationalism Tamir talks about? In 1993 she wrote a book called Liberal Nationalism, a work of philosophy and intellectual history in which she laid out the concept. In her new book, Why Nationalism, Tamir examines why nationalism—defined essentially in its broadest terms as “solidarity” felt by a group of people who see themselves as a national group for whatever reason—has experienced a resurgence, as well as what those who want a more progressive society and world need to learn from that resurgence.

To be fair, this broad definition of nationalism is the one scholars use, which is why they distinguish between various forms: ethnic/racial nationalism, cultural nationalism, civic nationalism (i.e., an inclusive sense of national feeling that explicitly includes all citizens). Tamir juxtaposes nationalism with globalism, and what she argues is that the nation-state has to take a stand in favor of its own citizens rather treat non-citizens as equally worthy of its concern.

Globalism, as Tamir defines it, is essentially the ideology of the well-off, calling it the “selfish choice” of “elites” (p. 199) who “defend free trade and free movement.” She notes that many “ignore the strong correlation between social class and political preferences” (p. 25). Tamir also contrasts nationalism with a version of multiculturalism that rejects any sort of cultural, linguistic, or national content that is shared by members in the group with which the nation-state defines itself.

Tamir wants nation-states to embrace a nationalism that “endows a state with family-like feelings,” and which develops among its citizens a commitment to “mutual dependencies and responsibilities and invigorates the will to jointly pursue common ends” (p. 60). This is the liberal nationalism, she argues, of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy (or, in more recent days, Bernie Sanders). Tamir quotes FDR, and characterizes this nationalism as “asking the haves to look beyond their immediate interests,” (p. 204) and doing so in ways that are:

Justified not only on universal terms but as the national (American) thing to do. This redefinition of committed nationalism is desperately needed now. It is the nationalism of mutual responsibility that places fellow nationals at the top of one’s social priorities. And it bases this responsibility in some things we have in common: norms, traditions, way of life, habits of the heart, a common past and a desire for a better future. (p. 205)

Tamir further argued:

Promoting solidarity is easier said than done. In order to develop and implement policies that foster justice and fairness, one must convince individuals, especially the more powerful members of society, that the price of compromising their privileges and sharing their wealth and power, is worth their while. No social and economic change can happen if the haves are not ready to level-down their power, wealth, and expectations. (p. 203)

One can argue that this concept doesn’t represent nationalism at all, and should be called by another name. But the fact remains that Tamir connects her decidedly left-of-center economic views to the idea that states have an overriding obligation to create a more just distribution of resources among members of the national community—not to their fellow human beings at large, but to their fellow nationals. That’s different from patriotism alone, which is a feeling of connection to one’s country. Nationalism, on the other hand, is a feeling of connection to one’s fellow countrymen and women.

The dangers of nationalism are clear to Tamir. She issues a series of stark warnings about them, emphasizing in particular that nationalism must reject “a sense of superiority” (p. 209) regarding one’s nation compared to others. Nevertheless, it is crucial to develop the feeling of community, what she calls a “political we”—without which “states disintegrate.” Tamir further points out that the state must play a leading, active role on this front, because such a feeling has nowhere been “a natural phenomenon, it must constantly be created, nurtured, supported, and reinvented.” (p. 21)

Liberal nationalism, Tamir explained, can and must:

creat[e] a more just social order, closing socioeconomic gaps, while providing people with a cultural and normative framework to live by….The political stability of modern democracies depends on the emergence of such a new equilibrium that makes room for care, loyalty, and belongingness without succumbing to ethnocentrism and xenophobia….offering a social contract that balances human rights and freedom on the one hand with social solidarity and group identity on the other. Historically, the right balance has rarely been found but there is no task more important than its pursuit. (p. 213)

I have some criticisms of Tamir’s analysis, including that she, to a degree, exaggerates the support for “free borders” among most left-of-center politicians. There is a big difference between, to get specific, arguing in favor of “no wall” and “no border.” Some of her arguments, in particular about cultural minorities (i.e., members of groups living in a culturally defined nation-state who are not members of the majority culture) and how they fit into her concept of liberal nationalism, make less sense in predominantly immigration-based (whether forced or voluntary in nature) societies like ours than in ones where the majority culture is (or defines itself) as indigenous.

Finally, Tamir is too quick to dismiss the notion that a multi-ethnic population, such as ours for example, can create thick bonds of peoplehood without excluding members of groups she might define as national minorities. While we have not achieved complete success on that front, and are currently in a period of backlash, we have come quite a ways from where we once were, and I for one am not ready to accept defeat.

Nevertheless, Tamir’s work makes an important contribution by forcing us to recognize that national feeling, however defined, isn’t going away. Her argument is that the resurgence in nationalism derives in part from a reaction against an economic structure whose benefits flow mostly to those at the top, those who have rejected any responsibility for helping their fellow members of the national community. That is an argument progressives can and should incorporate into their presentation. But we can’t do that if we reject the very idea of a national community, what Tamir defines as the “political we.”

Now let’s be clear, Democratic political leaders generally do not do this. As I’ve arguedmany times, in many forums, Barack Obama put forth a vision of a strongly inclusive, yet strongly unified sense of American national consciousness—one that stands diametrically opposed to that put forth by Donald Trump. Many other Democrats do as well.

What I’m talking about is the recoil some on the left express or even feel regarding the notion that there is and should be some kind of cultural and linguistic content that accompanies membership in the American community. This recoil is understandable. Some people want to be so welcoming and inclusive that they see any acceptance of such content as, by definition, exclusionary.

However, that need not be the case—if that content is reasonably culturally representative and inclusive (for example, we can’t change who the Founding Fathers are, but they don’t need to be the whole of our history), and people are asked not to give up their native, ancestral language and culture, but instead to add to it the ability to communicate and participate in the majority American language and culture. Furthermore, while people are still in the process of making those changes, their fellow Americans must recognize them as exactly that: fellow Americans. Achieving that kind of cultural fluency is in no way a precondition for full membership in the American community. And study after study shows that, overwhelmingly, immigrants of every background (yes, Mr. Brokaw, including Latinos) not only want to do so, they are doing so.

Likewise, people living in America should not be asked to abandon an affiliation with members of their ancestral communities, or any other community, and become “only” Americans. Instead they can be asked to identify as Americans in addition to being something else, and, in terms of ultimate political loyalty, to place that American affiliation first. Here’s how President Obama put it in his final State of the Union address:

I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those…voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.

Some see America as a mosaic, in which each tile remains distinct from one another, and indeed do not even touch let alone blend with each other. In their separateness they make a beautiful picture. Obama, however explained why he specifically rejectedboth the melting pot and the mosaic as metaphors for America: “I think the best analogy I’ve heard is a sort of gumbo. It’s not a thin soup. It‘s got these big chunks of stuff in it. But those things are seasoning each other. It’s not tomato soup. It’s something thick.” In The Audacity of Hope he described how a: “constant cross-pollination is occurring … Identities are scrambling, and then cohering in new ways.”

To go back to Brokaw, his problem was that he had his facts wrong about what Latino Americans are doing and are committed to doing going forward. In overall terms, they share his goal—whether you want to call it assimilation, integration, or something else, the concept is the same: being able to communicate in the mainstream language and culture and identifying as members of the American national community.

For those who have a problem with that notion of immigrants joining the mainstream, arguing instead for a mosaic-style society, I would argue that rejecting the mainstream American culture as “white” means abandoning it to those who want it to be that way. When Kamala Harris, Ted Lieu, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez communicate with one another and with voters, and talk in terms of American history and political values, they are doing so in the mainstream American culture—so how exactly is it “white”? Was President Obama acting white by embracing America is his own? America and Americanness belong to all of us, so we should all stake our claim to it.

Interestingly, Tamir’s argument about globalization spurring right-wing nationalism is one Obama himself echoed in his speech last summer in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday:

From their board rooms or retreats, global decision makers don’t get a chance to see sometimes the pain in the faces of laid-off workers. Their kids don’t suffer when cuts in public education and health care result as a consequence of a reduced tax base because of tax avoidance. They can’t hear the resentment of an older tradesman when he complains that a newcomer doesn’t speak his language on a job site where he once worked. They’re less subject to the discomfort and the displacement that some of their countrymen may feel as globalization scrambles not only existing economic arrangements, but traditional social and religious mores.

[snip] Within the United States, within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements — which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing government constraints on their business interests — these movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside of the urban cores; fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.

A country can have many cultures and languages, but there must be a common one through which its members communicate. In order to be inclusive, there must be some thing into which people are included, integrated. The world’s population is diverse. But the world is not a community. Tamir’s argument, which fundamentally resembles Obama’s in broad terms, is that economic liberalism—a demand for some degree of economic justice and, yes, redistribution of resources rather than allowing market forces to run amok—does not work without a strong sense of national identity.

If the people living across town from one another are nothing other than strangers, with whom one feels no more connection than one feels with someone living halfway around the world, then why share at all? Certainly there’s no reason for the kind of large-scale, structured sharing called for in progressive economics. But a national identity can create consensus for such sharing, and it also satisfies a real need people have to, in Tamir’s words, “live a meaningful life that stretches beyond the self, the need to belong, the desire to be part of a creative meaningful community, to feel special, find a place in a chain of being, and to enjoy a feeling (or illusion) of stability and cross-generational communities” (p. 191). Call it liberal nationalism or call it something else, but we need it in order to achieve the kind of America progressives envision.

For the other kind of nationalists, those who would reject some of us, who would relegate some Americans to being less than full members of the community—they are the ones who don’t understand what America is supposed to be, and what we must aspire to be. A robust, inclusive sense of American national community emphasizes that no American is less American than any other. It stands diametrically opposed to hate, bigotry, divisive rhetoric and, above all, discrimination and oppression.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (forthcoming in May 2019).