At the height of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump declared that “America First” would be the “overriding and major theme” of his administration. For all its faults, there is a market for this sentiment.
Around 65 percent of those surveyed responded positively to his inaugural speech, which confirmed that “America First” would be the principle guiding Trump’s economic and foreign policy. Many have criticised Trump for popularising a statement that was coined by pro-fascist and isolationist pressure group, the America First Committee. Others believe that, even if Trump did not intend it to be so, an overly patriotic message from a charismatic populist leader can open the door for other aggressive and extreme nationalist sentiments.
In the bold and fairly controversial book Why Nationalism, activist, politician, and academic Yael Tamir offers an alternative interpretation of “America First”. That the American populace was overwhelmingly receptive to this message, she believes, shows that there is inherent value in exploring it meaningfully.
To this end, Tamir first profiles this populace. She identifies them as those working and middle class persons, inhabitants of non-metropolitan areas, who are able to see the benefits and opportunities presented by globalism but unable to share in them. Such populations, she explains, are left with little choice but to turn to leaders who will prioritise the interests of the nation and of nationals.
Tamir imagines nationalism not as “the refuge of the scoundrel” but as the last resort of the vulnerable. The latter part of her argument expresses the need to “return to a nationalist ethos”; here, Tamir is careful to state that her defence of nationalism is conditional. She is calling for a liberal nationalism that is inclusive, driven by rationality and reason, and motivated by an urgency to redistribute risk and opportunity among the weak and the privileged equitably.
Modern nationalism: A political puzzle
Tamir begins by presenting the reader a political puzzle.
The end of World War II brought with it the advent of liberalism. Political thinkers assumed that the birth of liberalism meant the death of the brand of nationalism that plagued a Mussolini-led Italy and a Hitler-led Germany. They hoped its demise would usher in an age of political rationality and enlightenment.
That several developed countries in the 21st century are still rife with nationalist sentiment wrestles with this hope. Why Nationalism discusses this phenomenon. Tamir attributes this surge – at least, in developed countries – to hyperglobalism, a phenomenon threatening to split their populations into those who reap its benefits and those who are forced to bear its risks. In other words, the elites and the haves versus the people, the have-nots, and “those left behind”.
Modern nationalism, Tamir says, is a nationalism of the vulnerable.
It is a demand made by those vulnerable and defenceless populations who cannot participate in the global playing field and feel that they have been “left behind” by hyperglobalism. Going global over national, she poignantly states, has been a moral and democratic mistake.
“The rest” of America
Here, Tamir sympathises with the plight of working class white Americans – rednecks, hillbillies, and dwellers of Middle America – who are routinely excluded from the global market as well as from domestic affirmative action policies. In other words, “the rest” of America.
Tamir’s argument is inspired by the work of economists Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic, who charted changes in income distribution globally between 1988 and 2008. They found that the socio-economic condition of these working and middle-classes in developed countries, including the United States, deteriorated as globalism boomed. The resentment of these classes for people unlike them – city-dwelling, leafy campus folks – grew rapidly too.
The natural step forward was for the vulnerable was to turn to an ideology that will put their interests above all else by prioritising the interests of the nation. In making this argument, Tamir also observes that the direction of nationalism has changed – it now emerges from the people rather than from the elites.
The psychology of nationalism
Bottom-up nationalism is even easier to decry, on the grounds that it is emotional, regressive, and overly nostalgic. In response, Tamir invokes theories and scholars of psychology. Compelling people to favour what is reasonable (global co-existence) over what is instinctual (formation of groups and group-based identities) is forcing them to live beyond their means, she asserts, quoting Freud.
In fact, the stark divide between the in-group and the out-group is what endows a person with their identity, and thereby their sense of worth and esteem. The desire to belong to a community, and to feel as if one is part of something transgenerational, continuous, and larger than oneself, are present in all individuals. According to Tamir, the persistence of nationalism proves that it effectively fulfils several arguably primal, but key human needs.
Indeed, Tamir excels in understanding the value and power of human sentiment (neutral to whether this power helps or hinders) and its role in the making of a nation-state. She also addresses the issue of democracy, nationalism, and whether they are mutually exclusive or not. She is constantly reminding her reader that the advent of liberalism and democracy do not necessitate the death of nationalism; nor are they the natural step forward post-nationalism, as often believed.
Democracies are legitimised by support from their citizens, for whom political membership is determined by the borders within which they’re enclosed. In other words, democrats and nationalists give equal importance to membership and borders, even if the former do so implicitly.
Similarly, liberalism needs “nation-first” sentiments to curb the influence of hyperglobalism. And a nationalism that isn’t guided by liberal principles will invariably become intolerant towards out-groups. According to Tamir, democracy, liberalism, and nationalism are part of the same conversation, and are constantly informing and shaping each other.
‘Us’ versus ‘them’
Tamir’s liberal nationalism aspires to be inclusive and attuned to diversity, while simultaneously relying on a theory of membership rooted in fate, history, a shared land, and a common collective consciousness. However, any principle of membership that depends on creating a strong sense of “us” on such ambiguous and somewhat sensitive principles is bound to create an equally strong sense of “them” on the same grounds.
Nationalist and populist leaders are notorious for selectively invoking and glorifying only those parts of history and culture that serve their interests and the interests of majority religious, linguistic, ethnic, or racial groups. The remaining parts are excluded or altogether reinterpreted. The same tools – a sense of shared history, and a common collective consciousness – that can build a national identity for one will threaten the national identity of another. These are threats that Tamir fleetingly acknowledges but does not offer substantial solutions for.
A moderate alternative
Still, Tamir’s work, true to its title, makes several novel and compelling arguments explaining not only the “why” of nationalism, but, more important, the “why now”. She recognises the power and influence of the state when nationalism is harnessed to transform it from a neutral coordinator serving its citizens to a motherland protecting her nationals.
Nationalism in India was harnessed initially to unify the diverse and scattered Indian identity under the British Crown. Now, as Indian nationalism has given way to Hindu nationalism, it is being used by saffron leaders to transform India into Bharat Mata. Thus, Tamir’s hope for a liberal nationalism may be equally pertinent in the context of India and other developing countries, as well.
Modern nation-states are torn between a nationalism often fraught with xenophobic and racist overtones and a democratic globalism that threatens to exclude the middle and working classes. Tamir offers a comparatively moderate alternative – a new national-democratic contract between the nation-state and its members that places the welfare of its members above all else.
That nationalism and democracy can and ought to co-exist is open to debate, and that nationalism has any value to modern society at all is questionable, too. Tamir establishes that both are ideas worth debating, and attempts to paint a picture of contemporary nationalism that lives more in the shades of grey.
Why Nationalism, Yael Tamir, Princeton University Press.
Kshirin Rao Eshwara is a third-year student at Ashoka University.