Toward a Renewed Liberal Nationalism?

Nationalism is currently enjoying an unprecedented revival. From the UK to the US to Eastern Europe it is being embraced by the electorate as a direct result of a political, social, and intellectual crisis of a globalist liberalism, which had dominated Western politics since the fall of the Berlin wall. Although it is often portrayed as politically to the “right,” this upsurge of democratic nationalism (often typified as “populist”) in fact cuts deep across established political divides. In the US and the UK for example, it has made significant inroads deep into working class areas that were traditional bastions of the left. Meanwhile, large sections of the establishment on the political right, including former presidents and prime ministers, reject it as anathema.

For these reasons, Yael Tamir’s Why Nationalism, making the case for nationalism from the side of liberal theory, is both important and timely. Tamir, an Israeli academic and politician, has impeccable leftist credentials. A scion of leading Labor movement families in Israel, she has been prominent on the Israeli Left in her own right for decades, between being a founder of Israel’s Peace Now in 1978 to her stint as Education Minister in 2006-2009. In between, she managed an academic career in political theory, as a disciple of Sir Isaiah Berlin (to which the book is dedicated). Considering this background, her book is a courageous attempt to challenge liberal assumptions about nationalism. Going very much against the grain of current liberal consensus, it risks alienating many among her colleagues and intellectual circles, who might accuse Tamir of abetting the forces of darkness. She acknowledges as much, remarking that: “It is not without hesitation that I set out to write this text. Taking a pro-nationalist view one faces a risk that some arguments will be used to support unworthy policies.”

Essentially, the book is a vindication of Tamir’s stubborn adherence to the value of nationalism. This goes against much of the globalist liberal discourse, which, for the best part of a generation, relegated it to the dustbin of history—until recently that is, when as if part of the growing predilection for recycling, nationalism has been lifted up from the dust and is enjoying quite a renewal of purpose. Indeed, Tamir’s description of this process contains oblique swipes at two of the iconic proponents of globalist liberalism, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992) and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat (2005): “The reemergence of nationalism has taken the world by surprise. This was supposed to be a liberal and democratic century; history was about to end and the flat world promised to bring the inhabitants of the world closer together.”

The book makes three main points: 1) globalist liberalism is destroying western democratic societies; 2) western elites are flippantly and dangerously blind to this process; and 3) a renewed nationalism is essential for a democratic, just, and indeed liberal society. Let us now look at each of these three points, which she presents convincingly.

Tamir proposes that the West’s victory over communism in the late 1980s, conduced liberals to a hubristic worldview, of which globalism is the expression. This worldview was best articulated by Fukuyama’s triumphalist tone, which argued that, in ideological terms, Liberalism in the 20th century had contended with and bested first the remnants of Absolutism, then Bolshevism and Fascism, and finally, an updated Marxism, until it emerged victorious in 1989.

After this apparent triumph, liberals adopted a two-pronged approach, which would remove the remaining detritus of the old order. On the international front, they embraced globalism, on the home front identity politics, which combined to effect a serious weakening of the authority and the powers of the national state. Liberals transformed the victory of free markets— evidenced by its adoption even by still-Communist China—into the globalist project. This project discounts nation-states as the outmoded manner of human organization, and promises that a globalist integrated economy will bring prosperity for all. Tamir shows that even in the late 1980s while liberals were busy celebrating their ideological victory, social and economic gaps were already widening in the West. The reason was, and is, basically, that the manufacturing base was being transferred from western countries to the developing world, mainly East Asia. This brought obviously benefits to corporate profits as well as to Western consumers, but also gradually eliminated opportunities for the less fortunate in the West. The result was a massive process of income equalization across the globe, at the price of growing inequality and diminishing prospects within western countries. Essentially, “globalism turned from an instrument of the state to its rival.”

Globalism went hand in hand with the liberal project on the home front, Identity Politics. From the late 1980s, liberals started to discount national identity and its agent, the national state, as instruments of oppression. The longing was increasingly for a new, civic identity, that purportedly annuls any role to culture, language, religion, ethnicity and so on, thus purportedly eliminating the possibility of exclusion or xenophobia. Ironically, to attain this goal, instead of the old liberal ideal of a “neutral” state, identity politics hands preferential opportunities to “line jumpers,” that is, groups that are deemed to be oppressed on basis of culture, language, religion, ethnicity and so on (women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ etc).

Those hurt most by these combined processes, were the more vulnerable members of the traditional majority, especially in areas where the old industrial core of the economy used to be. Globalization left these vulnerable workers behind. It decimated their job prospects, and worse, identity politics barred them from many former avenues for educational and economic betterment. As purported members of the western ruling class, they are required to apologize for “privilege” that they do not actually share in, and all this even as their social networks crumble, incomes stagnate or decrease, life expectancy drops and their children’s future looks even less promising than theirs.

Not surprisingly, these processes turned out to be self-defeating for liberals. The progressive alienation of the working and lower middle classes went unheeded for decades, until liberal progressive parties started to lose one election after the other. But the response of liberal elites was not to try to heed these signs—instead they decried an illiberal crisis of democracy, and doubled down on globalism and identity politics as the only hope for civilization.

Thus we arrive to Tamir’s second point: “The blindness I am interested in is that of the elites.” Both politically and sociologically a fully-fledged member of the liberal elite, Tamir condemns the prevalent tendency among liberals to regard the difference between nationalists and globalists as one of moral development, education, or open-mindedness. She is mystified at the apparent inability of most among this elite to try to understand the very real and serious concerns behind growing rejections of globalism and identity politics.

How then to explain then the egregious blindness of Western liberal elites? Tamir sees it as resulting in the main from a convergence of ideology and sociology. For the liberal elites increasingly live in a world that reinforces their views, but leaves them estranged from national societies. In the last generation, a globalist economic ecosystem has developed, in which for the elite, job opportunities, education, language, and status are not tied to any specific state or nation. Thus, the global economy in which they thrive also creates a bubble that seems to vindicate liberal ideals. Those who can opt for private education and health services, and can pursue a career abroad, see no problem with globalism, indeed tend to favor it. Moreover, the new, globalist elites, tend to congregate together in specific urban areas—in the US they reside on the coasts, in the UK in the greater London area—turning their back on the heartlands while cultivating ties with international markets. In such urban areas, an alliance with welfare-dependent minorities and grateful recent immigrants, provides ample cheap labor while reinforcing the elite’s own virtuous self-image and cultural dominance—while setting adrift wide swathes of their own countries.

We now come to the third point, the necessity of nationalism. Tamir regards the current rise of nationalism as natural reaction to the dominance of liberal ideals in the west during the past generation. Quoting from Benjamin Barber, she notes that liberalism is now paying the price for its great success, “the costs of victory are now being paid: the price of liberal reliance on contract and consent has been the impoverishment of its politics.” Liberal concepts of political membership like consent and contract are grounded in individual voluntarism, but as Tamir acknowledges, true voluntarism is always enjoyed by at best only a fortunate few, and at the same time of course raises the central problem of all social contract theories—the erosion of “the rationality of transgenerational commitments.”

Globalism and identity politics depreciated the benefits offered by the national state and created a democratic deficit in deliberations about economic, cultural and international matters—thus eroding both national cohesion as well as democracy. For Tamir, democracy is the only morally viable political alternative, and globalism does not offer any viable political agenda, certainly not a democratic one. Thus instead of adopting the liberal elites’ patronizingly dismissal of recent nationalist and populist political developments as “illiberal,” Tamir sides with Dutch social scientist Cas Mudde, who describes the latter as an “illiberal democratic response, to undemocratic liberalism.” Indeed, Tamir asserts that there is a vital connection between democracy and nationalism; since modern democracy was “born with the sense of nationality,” the two are inherently linked together. Democracy appeared in the world, “contained in the idea of the nation as a butterfly in a cocoon.” This is Tamir’s crucial answer to the question “Why Nationalism?”—democracy and nationalism are so interconnected, that if liberals wish to retain democracy, the only way to do so is to adopt some version of nationalism.

Tamir believes that an embrace by liberals of a moderate nationalism would not be unprecedented, but instead a return by progressives to their mainstream views during much of the 20th century. She argues convincingly that mainstream progressive politics used both to rely on and build a social solidarity that flows directly from a deep attachment to the nation. As a reflection of the left’s gradual abandonment of nationalism, Tamir points to its

change of political imagery. Whereas the older nationalist progressivism of FDR’s time celebrated the coming together of society with the symbol of two hands shaking, today’s “identity” liberalism commonly employs the image of a prism refracting a single ray of light into the rainbow of its constituent colors.

Tamir clearly believes progressives should embrace some version of nationalism that they can share with conservatives. At least some on the social-democratic end of the left are ready to rally around the necessity of the nation state, to the point where it is often difficult to guess if a certain text was written by a conservative or an old-style social democrat. Her hope is for “a Churchill… or a Roosvelt” to “encourage nations” to build a bearable future.

Thus, for Tamir, “It would be no exaggeration to say that the political stability of modern democracies depends on the emergence of such a new equilibrium” that incorporates the care, loyalty and belonging brought about by nationalism while taming its more extreme sides. She thus calls on “Open minded liberal democrats, social democrats and justice-seeking individuals” to embrace nationalism. Specifically, she proposes a “Liberal Nationalism,” which would preserve liberal principles alongside national ones: other peoples have similar rights of national self-definition; secure the place of minorities; instill in all citizens feeling they are being fairly treated; revive a sense of social and political optimism and collective pride.

Some readers might rightly object that Tamir’s views remain too committed to social contract theories, and too confident in the capabilities of the state to address complex social and economic challenges. However, she presents a trajectory by which her views have moved gradually to the center, from a Labour then to a left-liberal approach, until her current empiricist, small-c conservative political approach, akin to her mentor’s Isaiah Berlin. Thus her call “to rebuild societies on the basis of a mélange of values and ideas borrowed from different schools of thought” may not fit aspirations of theoreticians, but certainly is something that conservative nationalists could and should cooperate with.

Tamir’s book is important first and foremost as a serious internal challenge to liberals to reassess their globalist rejection of nationalism, but it is still very much an open question if it will be heeded by them.