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Can Democracy Survive without Nationalism?
By Ewa Thompson
In modern English, nationalism has become a dirty word. It is lumped together with racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and intolerance. To accuse someone of harboring nationalistic views is a formula for exclusion. Few scholars can survive carrying such charges in their professional luggage. Accusations of nationalism are directed at politicians as well, with predictable results. In academia and the press, attempts to discredit and condemn nationalism are numerous. A recent example is "An Open LetterAgainst the New Nationalism" published August 19, 2019 in the Commonweal magazine.
It has to be emphasized that aggressiveness toward neighbors and attempts to destroy them for the sake of one's own Lebensraum are not nationalism. They are a pathology prompted by greed and arrogance. One of the shortcomings of the aforementioned Letter is unjustified attribution of aggressiveness to what I call defensive nationalism, bent on preservation of identity and history.
Nationalism was not created by the French Revolution, as some scholars maintain, nor was it a product of literacy, as Marxist scholar Benedict Anderson wanted. It has many parents. It involves defense and protection of group identity that took generations to develop. It contributes to the individual's personhood.
Liberal democracy was supposed to dissolve nationalism and bring an end to history, but even within Professor Fukuyama's lifetime, it has failed to do so. History rushed past his predictions and doled out to humanity new wars and new ways of fighting wars. It is true that Western democracies have avoided war on their territory, but they have participated in numerous proxy wars. In 2019, the world is as unlikely to erupt into eternal peace as ever. Wars are being fought, and nothing indicates that they won't be fought in the future, even though liberal democracy seems strongly embedded in first-world countries.
Nor has the territory of Western democracies become immune to challenges from abroad. This is why big money is spent on the military (and not just because of greed of the military-industrial complex). Enemies of Western democracies are powerful and real. Recent events in Hong Kong add to the large body of proof that some world powers, as well as many smaller countries, reject the democratic system and abhor liberalism. The Hong Kong example has filled the front pages of newspapers in summer 2019, but there are numerous other cases of lesser visibility and greater long-term danger to democracies. In the same year, two Russian deep-cover agents, Elena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov, were unmasked in Canada; they lived there for decades under the stolen names of Tracy Foley and Donald Heathfield. It remains unclear whether their Canadian-born children were groomed for Russian espionage. How hostile to Canada and, more broadly, to Western democracies does one have to be to institute this kind of spy network? For it goes without saying that Vavilova and Bezrukov were not the only such spies discovered on the American continent in recent years, and their task was not to ferret out recipes for the best ice cream. A bunch of similar nelegaly (as they are called in Russian) were discovered in the United States a few years ago. Like the seizures of cocaine, it did not eliminate the traffic.
What is the foundation of our defense against such hostile plans? I contend that it is the sense of nationhood, otherwise called nationalism. American soldiers in Afghanistan fight not to preserve liberal democracy. They fight out of loyalty to their nation and their military unit. When it comes to collective survival, it is patriotism and not the right to vote that is being appealed to. As an anonymous tweeter recently stated, "loving America is what holds us together and what many have fought and died for." Yes, America gives us freedom of speech and the right to vote, but so do many other countries. It is American nationhood, its long story in history, and its innumerable unique characteristics that are the object of love, not its liberal democratic format.
"We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Who are the "we" Churchill speaks about? Are they democracy's soldiers? No, they are Englishmen, and Churchill is appealing to their nationalism and not to their preferences concerning political systems. The British Army and the Royal Air Force swear an oath promising that "I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors." Here the Crown represents the Nation; again, the pledge is made not to a political system, but to a person and, through her, to the nation. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of all democratic countries.
When democracies were in direct danger in WW2, no appeal was made to their political systems. Rather, the concept of nationhood was invoked.
What if nationhood disappeared, as so many utopian scholars seem to desire? What would the leaders appeal to if their territory were under attack? If nations disappear, we are back to the jungle. We might defend our immediate family, but this would not count for much in case of foreign aggression. To abandon our nationalism while our enemies give way to their greed and hatred would be foolhardy.
Margaret Canovan has observed that "modern liberal democratic ideals depend for their plausibility on the collective power generated by national loyalties that are inconsistent with the ideals themselves (p. 137)." In other words, liberal democracies play down nationhood or become outright hostile to it, yet it is nationhood that stands between them and their potential adversaries. In case of external danger, countries are mobilized by loyalty to the nation, yet nationhood plays no significant role in theorizing liberal democracies. Fukuyama's theory was an extreme case of such blissful insensibility to what seems to be a crucial yet invisible element of a modern democratic state.
As Yoran Hazony has recently argued in The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), we weaken a key element of our security by continuing to relegate nationalism to negative characteristics of human communities. The optimism that permeates self-definitions of the so-called developed countries does not take into account the fact that many in the world wish America ill and that the sense of national identity may be the key to self-defense. Nationalism should not be relegated to the "dirty words" basket, for it may be the ultimate guardian of democracy.
LIBERTY HAS NO EXPIRATION DATEDemocrats wouldn't buy a clue if it was government subsidized.
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