On Gidron’s plea not to abandon nationalism – I agree

Noam Gidron makes the compelling case that the left shouldn’t abandon nationalism. I agree.  In fact, in an act of cowardice, I wrote a short piece that makes some similar points using different cases, but left it fallow after one failed submission. Since it actually complements Gidron’s (much better) essay, well, I’ll publish it here, where I know the editor:


Why We Still Need (Ethical) Nationalisms

Donald Trump campaigned for and won the American presidency on a nationalist platform, one that frequently alluded to threats posed by “others” living in our midst from the near abroad. And as president, he has stoked nationalist sentiments with his anti-immigrant policies, to the delight of various extremist groups.

Such nationalist appeals are deplorable. And they resonate uncomfortably with several infamous exclusionary endeavors, including the German nationalism of the Third Reich, and the white nationalism of apartheid South Africa. Just like the rhetoric and mobilization around the “alt-right,” these nationalisms demonstrated the dark side of human nature: that exclusion can foster cohesion among their adherents. But they were also blights on humanity, leading to the loss of life and of dignity for millions of people. And their ruthlessness sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

So should we reject nationalism – loyalty and devotion to a nation above others – as a general principle? Is the very idea of a world of “nations” or “peoples” an inherently illiberal notion that is incompatible with contemporary realities, in which people can and should move across state borders in pursuit of new opportunities and away from threatening and difficult situations?

On the contrary, we cannot ignore the need for some type of nationalisms in the modern world as it is configured today. First, we live in a global system in which we take for granted that states are largely sovereign over “peoples” or nations. The very foundation of our world order relies on coherent nationhoods: The French state governs the French people; the Chinese state the Chinese; and so on. While not all manage to be “nation-states,” the 193 member-states of the United Nations are indeed states first, and their varied legitimacy largely hinges on the extent that they can claim to represent some underlying nation.

For citizens around the world, their willingness to be governed, to make tax payments for the provision of public goods, to share in insuring against the risks of wars and natural disasters, and to participate in democratic processes, these behaviors are predicated on an explicit recognition of a shared national political community. And the most unstable corners of the planet – for example in Central Africa – tend to be places where state weakness is associated with the absence of meaningful national identities.

Moreover, as social psychologists have shown us in countless experiments, humans are hard-wired to be “groupy”: We seek out meaningful social identities, and nationhood helps to satisfy that thirst. Trump-style, exclusionary and xenophobic nationalism is certainly one option, an ugly one, but it is not the only variety available.

History shows us that it is possible to develop nationalisms that are also consistent with modern notions of human rights — that all people are created equal, and entitled to dignity. In foreign countries I study, nationalism, while never perfect, has yielded concrete benefits: Both Tanzanian nationalism, rooted in the promulgation of a shared national language (Swahili) and a common set of ideas; and a strong sense of a “Tswana” nation in Botswana, arguably helped those countries to avoid the types of ethnic conflict and division that have wracked so many African countries. In Brazil, a strong sense of national solidarity in the face of a massive AIDS epidemic helped facilitate a coordinated and effective national response, a successful effort that became a source of Brazilian pride. Moreover, all three of those countries have been among the most tolerant in their respective regions with respect to minorities, foreigners, and even refugees.

While American nationalism has been a contested idea throughout our history, our most iconic iteration embraces a shared history of resistance to tyranny (at least part of the reason everyone loves the musical, Hamilton), and celebrates a history of poor immigrants making a new life, unifying ideals of liberty and justice for all, pride in our path to independence, and success in our struggles to repair a fractured nation at various historical moments.

Nationalism can be advanced in positive terms of who we are and aspire to be; rather than in harshly exclusionary terms or rigidly rooted in “blood-line” or place of birth. A strong nationhood can still provide a straightforward and humanitarian path for outsiders to gain membership.

The challenge for nation-builders around the world – political leaders, as well as intellectuals and thought leaders –  in the 21st century will be to put forth ideas about who “we are,” that are sufficiently compelling to form a coherent sense of identity, but that leave open room for others to join that group, particularly through a due process.

For those (like myself) who have the opportunity to travel often, feel comfortable moving across borders around the world, an un-rooted cosmopolitanism may seem like an appealing alternative to a retrograde nationalism. But in the absence of truly viable institutions of global governance, global citizenship is not a serious alternative to national citizenship. And the vast majority of individuals around the world still need what national states can provide, and those states need national communities to govern. Could those governments do better? Yes, but we lack viable alternatives.

Our most enlightened leaders need to help steer us towards ethical nation-building projects – those that recognize that beyond nations, we do share human interests and we have humanitarian obligations to people around the world. And yet, we also have a special interest in helping our own. And that is how progressives ought to articulate the politics of redistribution within state borders – not a punitive transfer from the haves to the have-nots, but as the natural and right thing to do when many of “our own” can’t make ends meet.

If ethical nationhoods are not on offer, those seeking meaning in their lives will almost surely gravitate towards the exclusionary variant offered by the Trumps and Le Pen’s of the world. We need alternative nationalisms that we can live with. Compelling ideas about who is “us” are needed to stem the tide of Xenophobic nationalisms in the United States and abroad.

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