Why Nationalism, by Yael Tamir

Many people probably associate nationalism with aggressive and reactionary xenophobia. This is not what nationalism needs to be. In her book Why Nationalism, Yael Tamir offers an analysis of the rise of our contemporary populist nationalism and argues that liberals ”must learn to harness nationalism to their cause” (p. 182).

In Tamir’s analysis, the ”hyperglobalism” of the last decades has benefited a well-educated urban elite, leaving the rest of the Western world’s population vulnerable to social and economic forces that are beyond their control. This has caused the vulnerable to reevaluate their risks and opportunities and led them to assume that putting their nation first will serve their interests.

Populists have exploited this development. They offer the vulnerable a xenophobic and reactionary nationalism building from ethnic and cultural homogeneity, targeting pluralism.

Tamir suggests that the time is ripe for ”a new kind of nationalism that is rational and well calculated” (p. 126). The normative details are vague, but she offers a guiding account of the history and nature of nationalism that is useful for independent analyses.

On this account, nationalism is necessary. ”Democratic regimes require a pre-political partnership that turns citizens into a collective entity that has a common past and a common future” (p. 6). But nationalism is also a resource. It is a system of interpretation that allows us ”to understand the world and choose a way of life” (p. 45).

This optimism is historically well-grounded. Nationalism first appeared as a political force during the French revolution. It was then not directed outwards against external threats, but inwards against the privileged; nationalism was an alternative to feudalism, offering political rights to the many instead of the few.

Nationalism minimized the differences between high and low cultures and brought the classes closer together (pp. 85–6). The modern nation-state ”invited individuals to partake in the political, ethical, and cultural sphere” (p. 29).

The development toward nations and nation states was not ”natural,” but often a controlled process of construction. For instance, nations such as France, Italy, and Germany were originally divided both linguistically and culturally, and had to be actively constructed. The United States of America begun their nation-building process after the revolution, not before. Tamir argues that nations not only can, but must continuously be made and remade (p. 52).

The belief is common that nationalism is always backward-looking, but this is not the case. Tamir argues that nationalism was originally progressive, not conservative or reactionary. At the beginning of the 20th century ”the only historically justifiable nationalism was that which fitted with progress that ‘enlarged rather than restricted the scale on which human economies, societies and cultures operated'” (p. 27). Nationalism is thus ”integral to modernity and progress; it was born in the bosom of the industrial society” (ibid).

What is the nature of nationalism? Nations are ”mental structures existing in the minds of their members” (p. 58). Nationalism ”molds our culinary preferences; shapes our architecture and decor; orchestrates the soundtrack of our lives; and fashions what we wear, how we talk, and what we dream about” (p. 72). By offering common reference points it links the past, present, and future, substantially influencing behavior (p. 39). Nations are both real and imagined.

Tamir argues that nationalism need not be a dormant evil force, but can be a constructive power (p. 5). It ”allows individuals to expand their self to the collective sphere, thus endowing their life with meaning and allowing them to feel as active authors of their lives” (p. 55). The real power of nationalism ”is grounded in its ability to promote processes of modernization and industrialization that go hand in hand with the universalization of education, information, and technology” (p. 28). This power, Tamir argues, should be harnessed.

Instead of fighting the human tendency to gather in groups we should join forces to combat social inequality and injustice (p. 51). Four moves must be taken ”to tame the new nationalism and make it more liberal and tolerant” (pp. 178–180):

  1. The demand to put one’s country first should not be grounded in a sense of superiority but in a belief that others have the same right (and duty) to pursue their goals.
  2. As no country is culturally, ethnically, or religiously homogeneous, the place of minorities must be secured.
  3. The desire to reduce animosity and allow the different social classes and national groups to live together despite inevitable tensions demands that all citizens feel they are fairly treated.
  4. It is important to revive a sense of social and political optimism and collective pride that allows individuals and societies to envision a better future.

Tamir’s book is well-argued (I have here ignored a number of straw men and other problems that are of lesser importance for a complete picture of it). She is probably right that some form of nationalism is unavoidable, at least given a realistic political outlook.

However, I am skeptical to her view on globalization. Sure, the elite, if society is understood in terms of ”the elite” and ”the masses,” has gained much from it. But globalization has also benefited the masses; they share the fruits of global economic growth and enjoy the opportunities that come with rights to freedom of movement. Perhaps we should reform social and economic institutions to better protect the vulnerable instead of creating more restrictive nations.

Moreover, if we would engage more actively in nation-building, there is a risk that the nations built will be the elite’s; tolerant, pluralist, and progressive. Perhaps nation-building, not globalization, will create the rift between the elite and the masses that Tamir wants to curtail.

Nonetheless, I think of Tamir’s book as a valuable contribution to the political and ideological debate. Many of us need to reconsider our views on nationalism. Most importantly, we have to learn how to harness its power instead of fighting it. Or someone else will.

Update 2019-11-20: In a new working paper, economists Andreas Bergh and Anders Gustafsson study the connection between globalization and populism. The results challenge Tamir’s argument:

Using data on vote share for 267 right-wing and left-wing populist parties in 33 European countries 1980–2016 […] we find no evidence of a positive association between economic globalization and populism. In many cases, the partial correlation is significantly negative.

Tamir, Y. (2019). Why Nationalism. Princeton University Press.