For some reason, national identity is still thought to be the primary basis of political loyalty throughout the world. One sometimes wonders why. Globalization has greatly complicated the idea that each nation is somehow separate from other nations, or the notion that states have unchallenged “sovereign” control over the economic and cultural destinies of the specific “peoples” they purport to rule over. Political movements increasingly challenge loyalties to established nations whether as a result of he Sunni-Shia split in the Middle East, or in ethnic tensions challenging existing political loyalties in places as diverse as Pakistan, the United Kingdom and much of Africa.
Given all of this, is “nationalism” a good thing? Or is it outmoded, or a mere euphemism for ethnocentrism, religious bigotry, or narcissistic smugness?
In her celebrated work on The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that the triumph of the “people” (as expressed in the Declaration of Independence) in the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century betrayed its earlier promise by supplanting the notion of an inclusive democratic republic with nationalist ideas based on racial exclusion and inclusion. Emerging “nations” in Europe and elsewhere showed little hesitancy in asserting their own self-proclaimed superiority over what they conceived as non-national minorities within their own societies, contributing to a mindset that resulted in huge refugee populations, segregated social orders, and genocide. Self-proclaimed democratic “nations” also went on to exercise imperial domination over Africa, the multiple peoples of Southern and Southeastern Asia, and the Middle East. Racial ideology, encoded in assumptions about the superiority of western civilization, replaced an earlier democratic vision of “peoples” working out their own separate collective destinies.
As a refugee from rabid anti-Semitism expressed through nationalist exclusionist rhetoric in Europe, Arendt believed that the United States retained enough of its commitment to an inclusive democratic republic to overcome what she saw as a regimented racial order within its own society. But she did not assume that this was due to the superiority of American “nationalism.” She emphasized instead the “lost treasure” of political engagement in the American Revolution which, unlike in France, established a viable state which demonstrated how to build new public commitments which could overcome the issues of race and “possessive individualism” that dominated such a large portion of American history.
Arendt promoted the rather odd idea that “politics” itself could be form of glory and dedication, pulling people out of their private ethnic fantasies and narrow loyalties. This could happen only if citizens relied upon promises kept to each other as a result of political struggle, rather than some imagined inner meaning of nationalist identity which too often evaded or subordinated the capacity of individuals to define their own place in the world by engaging others in the establishment of a “public space” where everyone could live and be recognized. Only when citizens could think and speak freely without resorting to nationalist dogmas could they understand each other enough to build a world where freedom had any meaning.
Arendt’s perspective is expressed in unique ways, but reflects a broader political understanding which many in the American civil rights movement and the nonviolent shift to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe found congenial. Distrust of nationalism is deeply embedded among a large portion of the European population, despite recent nationalist rhetoric, precisely because of the negative consequences of the shadowed past which so deeply influenced Arendt’s outlook.
Nonetheless, many people today retain a deep commitment to nationalism as a potentially liberating force. Many examples are cited, from the anticolonial movements of the post-WWII period to the dramatic democratic shift of the 1980s and afterwards in Latin America, Southeast Asia, much of Africa (especially South Africa), and Eastern Europe, In these cases, nationalist movements did initially provide support for ideals based upon equal rights and solidarity in a common purpose that helped to create a common public world where all within the nation were theoretically represented, Yet, in most of these cases, there has been a pronounced backsliding from these ideals, often involving ethnic and religious exclusiveness which sometimes veers closely to what happened in Europe in an earlier century, with predictable consequences, including at the most extreme genocide.
Nationalism faces the problem of determining who rightly belongs to the “nation,” and hence deserves its protection, while in its more inclusive form holding on to the idea of equal rights for everyone. This contradiction creates huge problems. The need to define who truly belongs easily leads to pernicious ethnic fantasies. Historically, the purportedly “universal” ideals of the American nation descended for decades (arguably, centuries) into systematic exclusions in law and policy toward non-whites, or non-protestants, or non-Christians, which had its moments of social exclusion., domination, and even occasional genocide. Such exclusionist notions were vetted in thousands of speeches, scholarly treatises, and sermons in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and still finding purchase on some talk radio and other media. Today’s racial incarceration policies, continued patterns of housing segregation, and prevailing assumptions about who deserves and does not deserve government help suggest a retention of age-old national habits–constant reiteration of who belongs and who doesn’t. Somehow, even the current president seems to many to be un-American, born in some other country, or at least loyal to his absent father’s country, or even practicing an exotic and often despised religion, simply because he is black, and therefore doesn’t fit what a “true” American really is.
Martin Luther King could proclaim a faith in the original idea of universal equality as the defining meaning of the American “nation,” but insisted that this promise could only be obtained through the “creative tension” found in political struggle. He certainly couldn’t claim that is reflected the dominant belief system from the country’s start, or in his own time, or even that it reflected the proud ideal of a numerical majority. Instead, as Arendt explained, it represented a promise which must be kept if the nation was to represent itself as “free.”
The notion of the “nation” creates a moral circle that it is very hard for most people to challenge. And that moral circle keeps shrinking as many find it convenient or satisfying to begin to exclude people who are not thought to truly belong, even if they are part of the same society. Is it even possible to always overcome this constant threat to our freedom and security?
Perhaps democratic nationalism can work some of the time, but only if we acknowledge that it may be more promise than reality if it is not open to the world and maintained through endless struggle.