The best democracies need a touch of nationalism

Nationalism is resurgent, says Gideon Rachman in a recent column for the Financial Times. This is surprising, he argues. Not long ago we were contemplating a new age of globalization: “In a borderless world of bits and bytes the traditional concerns of nations – territory, identity and sovereignty – looked as anachronistic as swords and shields.”

Quite the opposite, it turns out. As Rachman says, consider the separatist drive in Scotland, or Catalonia; the growing strength of right-wing populism in England, France and elsewhere in the European Union; Russia’s moves to reclaim its empire; the electoral success of Hindu nationalism in India; the mutually antagonistic strands of chauvinism in China and Japan. Almost wherever you look, those supposedly anachronistic concerns are driving politics.

Not just surprising, this is also disturbing, Rachman goes on – because nationalism is divisive and therefore dangerous. Resurgent nationalism is a sickness and we need a cure.

Well, yes and no. Having argued that Scotland should have voted for independence in its recent referendum, and that Britain might be right (depending on the circumstances) to quit the European Union, I may need to stifle the suspicion that I’m allied to the forces of darkness, a secret Vladimir Putin admirer, or a champion of ethnic purity. I plead not guilty. On the other hand, I do think that, just as democracy needs a morsel of populism, it also needs a judicious measure of the right kind of nationalism.

Partly, this is just a matter of bowing to the inevitable. Ties of history, culture and ethnicity are surprisingly durable. Pretending they don’t exist is foolish, and trying to eradicate them is an unavoidably totalitarian project. When historians blame various 21st-century conflicts on the propensity of colonial rulers of an earlier era to draw straight lines on maps regardless of the loyalties of the people affected, they have a point. Kith and kin aren’t to be denied.

Moreover, the tenacity of group loyalties isn’t such a bad thing as far as politics is concerned. To a point, it’s desirable as well as inevitable – because democracy can’t work well in a unit not bound by some kind of shared identity.

Collective choice in free societies involves winning some and losing some; it requires give and take. The more intense this interaction, the greater the demands on free individuals’ sense of community. As a general point, of course, that applies to every level of society, from the family at one extreme to the planet as a whole at the other. Within that spectrum, though, the modern nation-state would seem to serve a useful purpose: It offers the possibility of consensual interaction on a scale conducive to good government.

Within the European Union, the principle of “subsidiarity” recognizes this truth. Why is it a good thing to push government down to the lowest feasible level, as that principle requires, so that decisions are made as closely as possible to the people affected? Because democracies prize participation and consent. The nation state is a convenient, deeply entrenched and probably indispensable platform for both. The recent success of anti-EU parties reflects, in part, not purblind tribalism but the persistent failure of the EU to honor its own commitment to subsidiarity.

I said “a judicious measure of the right kind of nationalism.” What does that mean? Each democracy needs enough nationalism – call it patriotism if you like – to bind its people together but not so much as to set them at odds with outsiders.

It’s worth remembering that friendly relations among countries are the norm, not the exception, despite the trend that Rachman points up. I favored independence for Scotland partly because I could easily imagine Scotland and the rest of Britain as close friends and allies, just as patriotic Americans get on well with patriotic Canadians.

That’s right, U.S. nationalism exists – and thank heaven it does. America would be weaker without it and much less use to the rest of the world. Canadian nationalism exists as well. Find me a Canadian newspaper columnist who hasn’t reflected, again and again, on What It Means to Be Canadian. If you ask me, Canada is unduly concerned with what it means to be Canadian – but it’s a fine neighbor and an upstanding global citizen nonetheless.

Nationalism turns toxic, and patriotism becomes chauvinism, when it’s belligerent and sets foreigners up as the enemy. That’s true, no doubt, of many of the cases Rachman highlights – but it would be wrong to assume this goes with the territory (as it were). Toxic nationalism isn’t the typical case.

Note too that nationalism comes in different flavors as well as different intensities. A useful, if over-emphasized, distinction is between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. The U.S. exemplifies civic nationalism – its idea of nationhood defined by a constitutional design and shared political culture, open (in principle) to newcomers without regard to race or creed. Ethnic nationalism sees nationhood as a matter of tribe or religion or language. It’s exclusionary by nature. That makes it far more prone to perversion into forms that see neighbors as rivals or enemies.

Ethnic nationalism is much more to be feared. Civic nationalism, at levels commonly observed, is a good thing. In the rise of the Independence Party, which wants Britain to leave the EU, I see some of both – a point I'll come back to.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.