“. . . modern liberalism arose from national political frameworks. The modern nation-state . . . is, in fact, a product of the marriage of liberal democratic and nationalist values.”
—Yael Tamir, Israeli political scientist and author of Why Nationalism
The last few years have exemplified the reasons why national identity is an attractive item to offer voters at election time.
The first is quite simply that there is a natural human need to belong. Beginning with Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone, books on the contemporary crisis of hyper-individualism and its attendant loneliness are almost as ubiquitous as those on the threat to liberal democracy. Globalization, mass communication, and the newer phenomenon of social media have created what Thomas Friedman has called “the super-empowered individual.” But this individual has not lost that yearning for the familiar, and the comfort and sense of security it provides. Nationalism offers a way for people to feel anchored and tethered in an increasingly globalized world.
Besides, not everyone has benefitted from the breaking down of national boundaries and the exponential growth in globalization. This includes the frequently invoked “white working-class” who voted for Donald Trump and Brexit to voice their opposition to cheap foreign goods ruining their businesses and immigrants allegedly committing violent crime and taking their jobs. But not only them. As James Kirchick points out in his apocalyptically titled The End of Europe, the rise of these illiberal populists “has as much, if not more, to do with ‘values’ issues like national identity and social cohesion as it does economic disruption.” For many, globalization has meant the imposition of a fuzzy cosmopolitanism, diluting or even canceling out ways of life that have rooted people, connecting them to community, town, or country. Nationalism matters to such people, and it doesn’t make them bigots or xenophobes. It means they want to feel that that they have a connection to the people they call their fellow citizens.
A second way in which national identity has been an appealing electoral slogan is as a counterforce to the societal disruption of identity politics, which, as many have noted, was partly responsible for the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. Her Democratic Party had come to be seen as the party representing only a variety of minority groups, neglecting both the self-perceived “mainstream” population (white, straight, American-born men) and the idea of one united American nation. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens identified a commonality among populations of different countries electing illiberal governments. They were all protesting “the ideology of ‘them before us’: of the immigrant before the native-born; of the global or transnational interest before the national or local one; of racial or ethnic or sexual minorities before the majority . . .”
And then, finally, we have the perception of transnational “elites” working to empower and enrich each other, at the expense of “ordinary people.” Certainly, many British supporters of Brexit feel that that is a fair description of the EU—as do French supporters of Le Front National, Austrian supporters of the Freedom Party, and Italian voters who back the League. It is a perception eagerly fed by populist leaders selling illiberal nationalism: “Brussels cares about perpetuating its own bureaucracy; it doesn’t care about you, the indigenous, hard-working Brit/Frenchman/Austrian.” A variation on the same theme was enlisted by Trump’s successful Presidential campaign. In this case, the message was that traditional politicians of both parties (Trump’s initial triumph was over his fellow Republicans in the primaries) put “the elites” first; Trump would put “America First.” Here, “the elites” include Wall Street bankers, the “Washington establishment,” and a network of multinational organizations which take from the United States and exploit its generosity without giving back (note, for example, Trump’s attack on NATO—unprecedented for a U.S. presidential candidate).
In both the European and the American cases, much of this (admittedly winning) rhetoric was overblown, historically selective, or just plain dishonest. And specifically what worked was its appeal to a kind of populist nationalism. Here is Trump at his inauguration: “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” And here is Viktor Orban’s “State of the Nation” address earlier this year, enjoining Hungarians to “stand up again for our Hungarian identity, for our Christian identity, protect our families and communities, and also protect our freedom.” “Protect” from whom? From the EU’s decadent supra-nationalism and from sinister liberal globalists like George Soros (a Jew, of course).
Of all the new populist nationalists, Orban has been the most explicit in rejecting liberalism. He has himself defined his project as creating an “illiberal new state based on national foundations.” For him, as for others of his ilk, the “illiberal” and the “national” go together. Liberalism is the ideological weapon of the hated cosmopolitans, identity politics-pushers, and those dastardly “elites.”
And these associations—illiberal with nationalist, liberal with internationalist—are also parroted by many on the other side of the debate. It’s a sentiment that has gone mainstream. But it obscures a possible way out of our current political quandary. Instead, a liberal nationalist politics is possible—an approach that looks to transcend identity politics whilst safeguarding the civil rights of every individual, protecting against racial, gender, religious, or any other “group” inequality. Tony Blair, for example, has been an outspoken advocate for a second referendum on Brexit, decrying nationalism in the process. However, as prime minister, he was hugely successful at marrying liberal principles to an unapologetic British national pride. He would have called it patriotism rather than nationalism, but for our purposes, it is a distinction without a difference.
Liberalism and nationalism are distinct ways of thinking about politics and society. Today they are more often than not presumed to be opposing ideologies; the more nationalist one is, the less liberal, and vice versa. Liberal nationalism rejects this as a false dichotomy.
It does this first and foremost by recognizing that politics is not theoretical. Real politics is about tradeoffs and living with the tension of sometimes competing values. Every government must, for example, choose how to balance freedom and security; the freest societies in the world also restrict individual freedom through laws enforced by police to protect the lives and property of their citizens. Similarly, in market economies, tax policy usually boils down to where the line is drawn between two fundamental desires of the state: to ensure that working citizens can earn a fair reward for their labor and do with their earnings as they wish; and to collect taxes to fund public services and welfare provision. The balance between more nationalist and more liberal policies works the same way. Liberal nationalism does more than claim that the two concepts can co-exist; it argues that they should, that both are strengthened and given added value by the other.
In 1993, Professor David Miller, a British defender of nationalism, set out three useful propositions with which to define it in an effort to counter the prevailing notion of nationalism as inherently illiberal.
First, he posits that national identity is a legitimate, natural, and understandable component of personal identity: “A person who in answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ says ‘I am Swedish’ or ‘I am Italian’ . . . is not saying something that is irrelevant or bizarre.”
Next, he explains how nations are “ethical communities.” That is to say, national boundaries are legitimately ethical boundaries. There is nothing unnatural or unethical (and therefore decidedly not racist or xenophobic) about feeling a particular responsibility to, and connection with, one’s fellow national citizens or kinfolk. (More recently, the philosopher Kwame Appiah referred to something similar in his description of “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a universalist moral disposition that nevertheless recognizes the power and utility of “belonging.”)
Miller’s third proposition is that “people who form a national community in a particular territory have a good claim to political self-determination”—whether through a sovereign state or some other political arrangement that recognizes their distinctiveness and allows for a degree of autonomy.
What of liberalism? At the heart of liberal nationalism is the idea that nations are made up of individuals with absolute, inherent rights (or, to quote a somewhat seminal political document, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”). A liberal national state, therefore, combines an unapologetic preservation of, and reverence for, national symbols and traditions, with an absolute commitment to liberal democratic principles.
This is important particularly when we are juxtaposing it with the illiberal nationalism of Hungary or Poland—or indeed of the American alt-right ideologues who promoted Donald Trump. These “liberal democratic principles” can be broadly defined as
- regular free and fair elections;
- protections for minority rights anchored in a constitution (or equivalents, like Israel’s Basic Laws);
- the rule of law including an independent judiciary; and
- freedom of speech, worship, press, and association guaranteed to all citizens.
In Hungary and Poland, the two EU member states whose governments have moved furthest from these ideals, items (3) and (4) have been undermined (more decisively in Hungary, but Poland is moving in the same direction quite deliberately, with its principal ideologue Jaroslaw Kaczynski declaring as early as 2011 that he was “convinced that the day will come when we will have Budapest in Warsaw”). The courts have been packed with judges loyal to the regimes; journalists critical of their governments have been fined financial penalties or fired; media companies have been bought out by regime loyalists. As we will no doubt see, free and fair elections and minority protections will also suffer as part of a domino effect. Other political parties will not be able to compete fairly in the new regime-dominated media environment; minorities will not be able to rely on the protection of the judicial system or on NGOs, which have also been under assault in both countries.
The importance of an independent judiciary in a liberal democracy cannot be overstated. It stands as perhaps the single greatest obstacle to a populist overthrow of liberal democracy. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (a self-described liberal nationalist), writing 25 years before he ascended to power, described this scenario with impressive precision:
An elected parliamentary majority could be a tool in the hands of a governing clique and a cover for its tyranny. Therefore, a people that chooses free elections must establish its rights vis-a-vis the parliament lest a majority tramples those rights. This can only be achieved through the supremacy of the law—that is by enshrining civil liberties in a basic or higher law and granting a panel of judges the authority to revoke the validity of any law that runs counter to the basic law and contravenes civil liberties.
The populist claim against a judiciary is that it is unelected and therefore “undemocratic”—a definitional sleight-of-hand that ignores the need for a branch of government that is necessarily not dependent on the popular will, and that can render judgments according to the values of individual equality and civil rights without having to consider majority opinion. Nowhere is this more important in fact than in democratic nation-states where the will of the majority will inevitably at times impinge on the rights of minority citizens who are not part of the nation in question (for example, Arabs in Israel, Turks in Germany, or Russians in almost every former post-Soviet country). Their rights can only be protected by the unelected guardians of a liberal constitution.
So if we are looking to liberal nationalism to answer the question posed by illiberal nationalism, must a liberal nationalist state be a liberal democratic state? The short answer is that liberal nationalism requires democracy in order to function as it should. Liberalism itself is at its best and at its most effective in concert with democracy. The nationalism that liberal nationalists are looking to promote can only really operate in a system where citizens of a nation-state feel involved in civic life and empowered to influence politics.
Contrast this with illiberal nationalism, which manifests as an authoritarian populism. The leader presents himself as representing “the people” (“I am your voice,” Trump told his supporters at the Republican Convention in 2016). But only the leader can channel their needs and desires, and only he will determine what is the truth and what is “fake news.” “The people” meanwhile is never all the people. Those who don’t support the leader are “them,” not “us,” and specific groups in the society will be scapegoated as the archetypal “other”—ethnic minorities, opposition voices.
Further down the road, illiberal nationalism can descend into something closer to out-and-out dictatorship: The purveyors of “fake news” are the enemy and so must be closed down, independent bodies like courts and cultural institutions are perverting “the popular will” and so must be brought to heel and follow the dictates of the leader. What begins as illiberal democracy, with the leader—at least ostensibly—fulfilling the will of the masses who elected him, will become authoritarianism once the leader decides that the people who elected him will not allow him to go as far as he wishes towards his goals. By this point, the checks and balances that would have protected the people’s civil and democratic rights in the face of a lawless government no longer exist.
The rise of populism has as much, if not more, to do with national identity and social cohesion as it does with economic issues. Liberal nationalism answers the clear need for recognition of national identity as a force for communal solidarity. You do not have to be a Brexit supporter to appreciate that many Europeans reject the assumption of a pan-European identity at the expense of their national one. The Greeks do not see themselves as superior to the French, and they may well greatly value a close relationship with France, but they don’t want to be told that there is nothing unique and precious about Greek heritage, history, and language. They don’t want to be told that they are essentially indistinguishable from the French as a people.
What is critical is that liberal nationalism can foment an inclusive nationalism, one in which citizens of a country are encouraged to feel part of a shared future in a social and political project (liberal democracy), united by values rooted in their nation’s tradition. It means that Polish liberal democracy will not look exactly like Indian liberal democracy. Their traditions are different. They will celebrate different holidays; there will be differences of emphasis in the way their societies function; religion will play a different role in national life; the messy compromises that typify democracy will be resolved in different ways. But both will have free and fair elections; both will observe the rule of law; both will have constitutional protections guaranteeing equal individual rights for all citizens; and both will have freedom of speech including a free press with the right (and indeed the responsibility) to criticize the government and all elected officials.
This inclusive nationalism will not only answer the impulses associated with the right, but the identity politics coming from the left, which seek to divide citizens into their component social groups based on ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexuality. The liberal nationalist tells them that they do not need to dissolve the bonds of national identity in order to achieve equality and justice. If we look to the United States, where this response from the left is most prevalent, earlier generations of civil rights activists teach the liberal nationalist lesson rather well. One can go back 60 years to Martin Luther King, or 160 years to Frederick Douglass, and find American national values invoked as the solution to the problem of racism and (in Douglass’s case) slavery. Both men chose not to adopt the separatism of Linda Sarsour or Black Lives Matter, which in important ways helped feed the resentment of sections of the white majority that voted in significant numbers for Trump. Both men saw in the foundational document of the country, the Declaration of Independence, the founding liberal idea of equality which should be and could be the heart of an American national identity that insisted on social justice and civil rights.
If we look at Europe, where the rise of authoritarian nationalism is tied so closely to questions of immigration and the rejection of the open borders policy of Angela Merkel, liberal nationalism makes two important promises. Firstly, it acknowledges that the nation is a geographically-bounded community, and that control of borders is a very real, very legitimate part of national sovereignty. Secondly, whilst it guarantees equal rights for minorities it also demands from them that they sign up to the national values of the state in question. This latter point is crucial in the European context, where fears about the “Islamification” of European cities are stoked not just by rightwing provocateurs and white nationalists, but also by a complacent political mainstream for whom “multiculturalism” sometimes means a disastrous tolerance for bigotry and violence in the name of minority rights.
The attitudes of Muslims in Europe are frequently at odds with mainstream, western liberal positions on issues such as free speech, women’s rights, gay rights, and anti-Semitism. In Britain, one survey found that 52 percent of Muslims believe homosexuality should be illegal, 39 percent believe women should always obey their husbands, and 35 percent believe “Jewish people have too much power in Britain.” This compares to 22 percent, 5 percent, and 8 percent respectively of non-Muslim British citizens. All too often, the only politicians sounding the alarm about this anti-liberal culture within European societies are authoritarian populists—the Orbans and Le Pens claiming to be protecting “western civilization” from Islam. In Germany, voters worried about Merkel’s open-door asylum policy have turned en masse to the far-right AfD Party—particularly after the events of New Year’s Eve 2015, when mobs of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East perpetrated mass, coordinated sexual assaults on hundreds of women across the country. The AfD, previously inconsequential in German politics, it is now leading the polls in certain parts of the country. The reason is crystal clear: Many ordinary Germans feel deeply uneasy about Merkel’s decision and no one from the mainstream right- or left-wing parties had been willing to criticize it.
Contrast Germany with its northwestern neighbor Holland, where Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte successfully defeated his country’s resurgent illiberal nationalist party, the Party for Freedom, in 2017 by refusing to go along with this appeasement of anti-western cultures. He stated in the election campaign that immigrants who “refuse to adapt, and who criticize our values,” should “behave normally, or go away.” Liberal nationalism insists on precisely this kind of contract between the nation-state and citizens from minority communities. The “liberal” element means that citizens who are not part of the national majority receive all of the same individual rights and protections as everyone else in the state. The “national” element means that there is a national identity that defines the state and informs certain values and societal norms, and all citizens are required to respect those values and norms.
Nationalist leaders promise that they will “put our country first.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this notion. But the danger is that illiberal nationalists are selling an extremely narrow definition of the national interest—one that is necessarily defined against an external threat. The nationalism of European politicians such as Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, or Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland has a hatred of the European Union at its very center. Their “put our country first” is explicitly a rebuke of the EU’s alleged interference in their sovereignty. Nowhere has this line been more successful than in Britain, where it was pushed way beyond the limits of fact and accuracy by skillful rabble-rousers like Nigel Farage.
Meanwhile, Trump’s “America First” campaign slogan was an echo of earlier American isolationism. It posits globalization as the enemy of American interests, with foreign relations presented as zero-sum interactions, where if the United States “gives” its resources, someone else is doing all the taking, and the U.S. inevitably loses out. An Economist essay published shortly after Trump’s election victory contrasted “America First” with the “civic nationalism” of earlier U.S. Presidents:
At its best, [nationalism] unites the country around common values to accomplish things that people could never manage alone. This “civic nationalism” is conciliatory and forward-looking. . . . Mr Trump’s populism is a blow to civic nationalism. Nobody could doubt the patriotism of his post-war predecessors, yet every one of them endorsed America’s universal values and promoted them abroad. . . . Mr. Trump threatens to weaken that commitment even as ethnic nationalism is strengthening elsewhere.
In the American system, the President wields great power as the exclusive holder of executive authority. But even in parliamentary democracies, the leader of a country can choose to follow the whims, wishes, and all-too-human prejudices of those who elected them, or to follow, in the arresting phrase of perhaps America’s greatest President, the better angels of their nature.
As we have seen in recent years, populists whip up resentment and bigotry ahead of elections, and then inevitably look to enact the policies that will please their voters. By contrast, liberal nationalist leaders will appeal to national pride, revering the customs and memory that unite the nation, whilst ensuring that certain red lines are not crossed in the name of nationalism. This may mean standing against the will of the majority, supported by the institutions that protect the liberal values of the state, such as the judiciary (not incidentally, the same institutions demonized by the populists as “the establishment elites”).
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the quintessential liberal nationalist Zionist, believed that a country should be composed of free individuals, who might choose (and it would have to be a free choice) to surrender part of their individual freedom for the sake of their country in certain circumstances. But the individual came first. Human freedom and dignity were paramount.
What Jabotinsky also understood instinctively was that liberal countries worked best when citizens felt a sense of kinship with each other, and that therefore the ideal liberal state was a nation-state. The wisdom of this truth has become ever more pertinent since the establishment of the modern welfare state—which was perhaps also in Jabotinsky’s thinking, as he was an early advocate for universal state provision of fundamental services like healthcare and education. He would doubtless have appreciated that such a concept relies on citizens being willing to hand over a portion of their income each month in order to assist fellow citizens that they have never, and in most cases will never, meet.
Jabotinsky, like Theodore Herzl before him, was active at a time when nationalism was a profoundly progressive idea. It was the engine liberating peoples from the yoke of foreign rule and empire, and it was the unifying force that gave the freedom of sovereignty to diffuse or dispersed communities that shared a history, a language, and much else besides. But by the time the 20th century had entered its fourth decade, nationalism was becoming illiberal, exclusivist, and aggressive. What followed was unimaginable brutality perpetrated in the name of nationalist ideologies. The enshrining of liberal values by international institutions and many a national constitution in the post-war period was done with the horrors of fascism and Nazism in mind. The return of intolerant, chauvinistic nationalism in our own time, in Europe in particular, is a sign that memories are far too short. We have seen this play out before and we would do well not to underestimate the danger of the moment.
Nevertheless, that earlier, progressive phase of nationalism was liberal in the classical sense. We can best fight against resurgent authoritarian nationalism, not by rejecting nationalism itself, but by embracing nationalism’s liberal heritage. Liberal nationalism is not the contradiction in terms that it may sound to modern ears. It is the most effective manifestation of liberal democracy; it answers the clear human need for connection and solidarity, embracing the history, customs, and culture that unite a people, while guaranteeing that all citizens have individual rights. It is a rebuke to the populist nationalists of today who seek to divide their societies into “our people” and “the other,” and it denies them their authoritarian goals by insisting on independent national institutions that act as checks and balances on the governing majority, protecting essential liberal values such as free expression, the rule of law, and minority rights.
We know we must protect liberal democracy, not only because it has produced previously inconceivable prosperity and freedom (though it has), and not because it is perfect (it is not). We know we must protect liberal democracy because we have seen the alternatives offered by both right and left. And they led humanity into the abyss. There is no panacea for the new strain of authoritarianism currently plaguing so many democratic states. But a substantial dose of liberal nationalism could be the decisive element in defeating the disease.