Magazine | June 24, 2019, Issue

An Israeli Academic’s Case for Liberal Nationalism

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with President Donald Trump at the White House, Washington, D.C., March 25, 2019. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Why Nationalism, by Yael Tamir (Princeton University Press, 224 pp., $24.95)

The left-leaning Israeli political theorist Yael Tamir has written a book decidedly provocative to those who are left of center. Not only does she sing the praises of nationalism, but she exhorts her fellow liberals to embrace nationalism as a unifying force to overcome ethnic, religious, and class divisions that plague the modern nation-state. However, the book’s arguments about nationalism are not provocative at all, or should not be, to those who are right of center. In fact, conservative intellectuals from Aristotle and Joseph de Maistre to Robert Nisbet and Paul Gottfried have recognized that the market alone is wholly deficient at combating alienation among its citizens and providing the ideological glue to unite the disparate parts of the nation-state. Ironically, in exhorting liberals to reconsider the virtues of nationalism as a noble and enduring political orientation, Tamir makes a compelling case that should be appreciated by serious conservatives.

Why Nationalism consists of 21 short chapters, which mainly revolve around the topics of immigration, identity, and the integrative function of national narratives.    

Tamir’s experiences of having served in two Israeli governments — as minister of immigration from 1998 to 2001 and as minister of education from 2006 to 2009 — taught her that the liberal argument for “open borders, free trade, and free movement” is class-based. Whereas conservatives emphasize a shared history and inherited rights and responsibilities in the formation of the nation-state, liberals emphasize voluntarism, the principle that an individual’s actions are freely chosen rather than forced. Voluntarism leads to seeing one’s identity too as chosen and not necessarily related to that of one’s compatriots, which leads one to identify with members of one’s class, of whatever country, rather than feeling solidarity with fellow citizens. Such voluntarism, argues Tamir, enables the wealthy and well connected to form networks among coastal or transnational elites, often at the expense of their compatriots.

Between the conservative’s preference for a shared history and inherited rights and responsibilities, and the liberal’s preference for voluntarism, Tamir makes the case for liberal nationalism. She offers her version of nationalism as the sensible alternative between the nativist’s blood-and-soil nationalism, which she rejects outright, and the abstract and legalistic rhetoric of civic nationalism. Unlike civic nationalism, which assumes that America is a creedal nation and promotes a creedal identity, liberal nationalism advocates harnessing the resources of the state to enforce the collective identity of the nation. The formation of a collective identity does not begin with lofty propositions. Rather, Tamir argues, it begins in a particular geographic location, among a particular culture, and among a particular people. Therefore the role of language, religion, ethnicity, and race should become the focus of public policy designed to foster a citizenry that embraces a common past and common future. Among the many complicated issues the nation-state grapples with, immigration serves as a litmus test for the type of nationalism Tamir advocates. She readily acknowledges that without borders, there is no nation-state. Simply drawing boundares is not enough, though; closure should be a given, and exceptions to the rule should be determined. She emphasizes that globalists uncritically promote free trade and open borders, but nationalists recognize “what is in” and “what is out.” Those who seek to get in — refugees and asylum seekers for instance — are, by definition, exceptions to the rule of closure. As Tamir puts it, “all solutions presuppose closure and some restricted degree of free movement — hence no society is a voluntary association of people gathering together out of their own free will.”

In the chapter “Living beyond Our Psychological Means,” Tamir argues that citizens have a psychological need for membership in a particular place. Particular places imbue their citizens with “thick,” as opposed to “thin,” identities. Thin identities have weak cultural reference points; they are not grounded in any sort of particularity. Individuals with such identities aspire to be citizens of the world but instead become citizens of nowhere. Tamir describes thick identities as having been formed from the relationships, culture, and norms that each citizen internalizes simply by being American, French, or Norwegian. The formation of thick identities begins at the local level of family, neighborhoods, and community, and it is these intimate gatherings that meet our need for “systems of interpretation that will allow us to understand the world and choose a way of life as well as [our] creative need for means of interpretation, exchange, and expression.”

It is not only particularity that defines identities. The formation of identity also requires a broad narrative that integrates the particular — home, neighborhood, and community — into a country’s national narrative. In the chapter “Nation Building,” Tamir illustrates the simplicity and effectiveness of narratives in conferring a sense of naturalness on the state and its cultural particularities. National narratives can be construed broadly or narrowly. Alongside broad narratives such as Washington and the cherry tree or “All men are created equal,” narrow narratives are communicated by institutions at the local level — through schools, museums, movies, and books — that disseminate the national story. Tamir is quick to point out that such national narratives need not be accurate in a strict sense. To be powerful, national narratives need most of all to appeal to the emotions and the human need to belong to something more than oneself. Just as significant, effective national narratives prevent the growth of antagonistic identities within the nation-state, whereas weak national narratives encourage their growth. Tamir does not mention it, but in the United States, a more compelling narrative might be more effective at promoting integration and assimilation. New immigrants to America, for example, need a narrative that supersedes the old narratives and identities that once defined them in their respective countries. The more positive American narrative would tell a story about the role that faith, family, and tradition have played and continue to play in the evolution of the country, both politically and culturally.

Tamir’s argument for liberal nationalism is designed to appeal to the Left. That is, it attempts to make nationalism palatable to liberals by claiming that in a 21st-century globalized economy, the divide between winners and losers makes some version of nationalism inevitable. The type of nationalism Tamir sees in the rise of politicians such as Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Jörg Haider is blood-and-soil nationalism. Unfortunately, the implementation of Tamir’s version of nationalism, what she refers to as the “New Social Contract,” requires massive government intervention. Her proposals read like progressive boilerplate. From state planning to economic redistribution to Medicare for All to free tuition to federal job guarantees, Tamir’s liberal nationalism seems to depend on the very heavy-handedness that she decries in her criticism of blood-and-soil nationalism.

Tamir’s nationalism ultimately rejects the non-interference of the minimal state that allows citizens to make the best use of their accumulated human capital for their own benefit. Accordingly, liberal nationalism is not the sensible position between blood-and-soil nationalism and civic nationalism. Nationalism as it is conventionally understood does not have to be rooted in blood-and-soil rhetoric and practices to be unifying. It also doesn’t have to advocate an active government to be effective. It must hold, however, that the formation of citizens’ identities does not begin with propositions. Instead, as Tamir rightly observes, it begins in a particular geographic location, among a particular culture, and among a particular people. Americans no longer have a common ancestry, but we certainly have a common culture that goes beyond mere propositions. Tamir’s liberal nationalism supposedly recognizes that the abstract rhetoric of civic nationalism is insufficient, but her policy prescriptions say otherwise. It is to be expected that the proposals advanced in Why Nationalism will have a receptive audience in Western Europe. But on these shores, they seem rather foreign.    

This article appears as “What Makes a Nation” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Andre M. Archie — Mr. Archie is an associate professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Colorado State University and the author of Politics in Socrates’ Alcibiades: A Philosophical Account of Plato’s Dialogue Alcibiades Major.

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