Liberal Nationalism Is Not Only Possible, It's Essential

tags: nationalism

Ian Reifowitz is the author of "Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity."

"Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind." -- Albert Einstein

This is a popular sentiment in certain circles, including among some people for whom I have a great deal of respect. And, without question, nationalism has inspired many of the worst crimes human beings have committed against one another. Nationalism has often been a dangerous thing when it is directed outward, at another group defined as somehow inferior.

On the other hand, nationalism can also liberate a people from imperialism, and can encourage an end to oppression within a society. Nationalism can help overcome division and create community. That's the kind of nationalism -- a liberal nationalism, a civic (rather than ethnic/racial) nationalism -- that I want to focus on here.

What exactly is nationalism? At its most base level, nationalism is the feeling of belonging to a national community. "What kind of community"? is the key question to ask, the answer to which helps us determine whether a form of nationalism is likely to prove dangerous. In a liberal or civic form of nationalism, the community in question must not be restricted by any identity-related criteria (race, religion, culture, language, ethnic background, sexual orientation, etc.). A civic nation must include all those who reside within that nation's borders.

Civic nationalisms represent nations made up of people who choose to join them either by emigrating to or by remaining in a particular country. The members identify themselves as a community of citizens -- unified by a commitment to basic democratic ideals -- who share not only membership in a political system but who also recognize obligations to one another and to a common good that benefits the whole national community.

At this point, there may be questions popping up: What about undocumented immigrants? What about multilingualism? These and others are important policy issue that have their place. In this discussion, however, I want to examine the concept of civic nationalism itself, and explain why it is a crucial part of pushing our country in a more progressive direction.

Progressive champion Robert Reich called for the cultivation of a strong sense of national community here:

The pronouns "we" and "they" are the most important of all political words. They demarcate who's within the sphere of mutual responsibility, and who's not. Someone within that sphere who's needy is one of "us" -- an extension of our family, friends, community, tribe -- and deserving of help. But needy people outside that sphere are "them," presumed undeserving unless proved otherwise.

The central political question faced by any nation or group is where the borders of this sphere of mutual responsibility are drawn.

Why in recent years have so many middle-class and wealthy Americans pulled the borders in closer?

(....) The first step in widening the sphere of "we" is to break down the barriers -- not just of race, but also, increasingly, of class, and of geographical segregation by income -- that are pushing "we Americans" further and further apart.

There has to be something concrete that makes those of us living in the United States more than just co-residents who share little other than proximity. There has to be something that makes 300 million people into "we" and "us." That something is civic nationalism.

Now, if you recoil from the word nationalism, then fine, just call it something else. Call it national cohesion, national unity, a sense of community or peoplehood. That's fine. Coming from the academic study of nationalism, I developed an understanding of civic nationalism as something defined in opposition to the kind of exclusionary form of nationalism defined by "blood." Whatever one calls it, civic nationalism is crucial to building a healthy American society for two reasons above all others.

First, because of its inclusivity, civic nationalism directly opposes racism, hatred, and bigotry of all kinds. America is an incredibly diverse nation. It would be all too easy for our population to divide itself into tribes based on any number of different characteristics. Civic nationalism gives us a way to overcome those divisions.

A civic nationalism, or at least a liberal one, also respects diversity. Therefore, it does not demand, as early 20th century nationalists did, that people become "100% Americans," that they "melt" into an undifferentiated mass of homogeneity, or conform to a pre-existing cultural model. A liberal civic nationalism is built on pluralism, on the foundation of a multi-layered identity that is not either/or, in terms of one's ancestral heritage vs. one's Americanness, but rather one that is both/and, one in which Americanness complements rather than competes with ancestral ties.

Integration, a two-way process, is what happens in a civic nationalist society. Newcomers learn the language, sign on to the democratic social contract, and become conversant with mainstream culture, but without being pressured to abandon their traditions, language, and culture. Many become one, but without becoming identical.

Additionally, a strongly anti-racist civic nationalism built on pluralism works against not only discrimination and oppression by one group directed at others within our society, but it also works against xenophobia and a sense of superiority vis-a-vis those in other countries. A pluralist America -- one that is diverse yet still unified around democratic, egalitarian ideals -- could well serve as a model for other diverse societies looking for an alternative to various forms of fundamentalism, i.e. a belief that everyone in a society (or the world) must act and think the same way.

Inclusivity plus pluralism is what makes civic nationalism such a powerful countervailing force to the worst qualities of other forms of nationalism -- to the hate and violence that so often flows from them. Civic nationalism rejects "us vs. them" thinking because it defines everyone in the land as nothing other than, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land": you and me.

Second, civic nationalism directly opposes another highly destructive force, namely the hyper-individualism of the kind advocated, in its most extreme form, by Ayn Randdisciples such as Paul Ryan (and many others on the right). Rather than openly divide Americans along lines of race (although the racist aspects of Randian conservatism, at least in practice, are clearly evident in the rhetoric of "takers vs. makers"), this hyper-individualism peddles the myth that success and failure are achieved alone, ignoring what President Obama called "this unbelievable American system that we have," of course provided by society, that is necessary in order to build great wealth.

What civic nationalism does is get people of one economic background, race, religion, and region to identify people who differ from them on all those counts as members of their tribe, the tribe of Americans. Seeing them as part of the tribe, part of the family, part of the national community makes it much easier to be willing to share resources, to give back something -- not to strangers, but to fellow Americans. That's what Reich was talking about when he spoke of "widening" the "sphere of mutual responsibility."

Some of you may be wondering why we need civic nationalism to accomplish these goals. Why can't we just rely, for example, on appeals to common humanity. There's a simple answer: it doesn't sell. A feeling of community is not an intellectual decision that hundreds of millions of people will simply come to because we ask. There is no sense of world community strong enough to mandate a sharing of resources, at least not right now (check back with me if Martians or the Borg show up).

Furthermore, when we are talking about sharing resources in a structural, mandatory way, we are doing so through a political system of democracy in which our sovereignty is organized at the local, state, and ultimately national level. That system reflects our historical development as a political community. Americanness already exists. It is a powerful force, in particular among the people we want to reach, that we want to convince to move in a more progressive direction.

Therefore, abandoning nationalism -- even a civic form thereof -- as nothing more than a disease means that we progressives abandon Americanness to our political opponents. It means we allow the right-wing to define Americanness all by themselves, and, of course, to paint us as somehow "not American." If you think running progressive candidates for office as "not American" is a winning strategy, then I've got some Confederate bonds to sell you.

There's a reason why progressive reformers from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Harvey Milk to Barbara Jordan have all sought to place the fight for equality within the civic nationalist American tradition rather than presenting it as standing opposed to Americanism. Doing so reflects both truth and pragmatism.

Civic nationalism stands for unity over bigotry. It stands for equality over discrimination. Above all, it stands for the common good over "I've got mine go get yours." What could be more progressive than that?

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