More on healthy nationalism

Professor Andreas Wimmer, of Columbia University, authored the third of the Foreign Affairs series of eight essays on nationalism. Professor Wimmer says that “Nationalism has a bad reputation today. It is, in the minds of many educated Westerners, a dangerous ideology. Some acknowledge the virtues of patriotism, understood as the benign affection for one’s homeland; at the same time, they see nationalism as narrow-minded and immoral, promoting blind loyalty to a country over deeper commitments to justice and humanity. In a January 2019 speech to his country’s diplomatic corps, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put this view in stark terms: “Nationalism,” he said, “is an ideological poison” … [and, Professor Wimmer explains that] … In recent years, populists across the West have sought to invert this moral hierarchy. They have proudly claimed the mantle of nationalism, promising to defend the interests of the majority against immigrant minorities and out-of-touch elites. Their critics, meanwhile, cling to the established distinction between malign nationalism and worthy patriotism. In a thinly veiled shot at U.S. President Donald Trump, a self-described nationalist, French President Emmanuel Macron declared last November that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism” … [but, he says] … The popular distinction between patriotism and nationalism echoes the one made by scholars who contrast “civic” nationalism, according to which all citizens, regardless of their cultural background, count as members of the nation, with “ethnic” nationalism, in which ancestry and language determine national identity. Yet efforts to draw a hard line between good, civic patriotism and bad, ethnic nationalism overlook the common roots of both. Patriotism is a form of nationalism. They are ideological brothers, not distant cousins.

This is because, Andreas Wimmer says, “At their core, all forms of nationalism share the same two tenets: first, that members of the nation, understood as a group of equal citizens with a shared history and future political destiny, should rule the state, and second, that they should do so in the interests of the nation. Nationalism is thus opposed to foreign rule by members of other nations, as in colonial empires and many dynastic kingdoms, as well as to rulers who disregard the perspectives and needs of the majority.” That means, as far as I am concerned, that there is a wholly acceptable, healthy sort of nationalism which is anything but “an ideological poison.” There is not, cannot be anything poisonous in believing that:

  • “First, that members of the nation … [the people] … understood as a group of equal citizens with a shared history and future political destiny, should rule the state; and
  • Second, that they should do so in the interests of the nation.”

Quebecers, in other words, can, properly and honestly, consider themselves a nation based on their “shared history” and equally shared “future political destiny” and they can insist upon their right to rules their ‘state,’ the province of Québec, in their own interests, as the Québecois nation and, at the same time, Canadians, a larger, more diverse (and therefore weaker) nation, but a nation none the less, quite distinct from, say, the Americans or Australians, can require the Québecois nation to submerge some of its interests in the broader, deeper interests of the Canadian state. Nations within nations and sub-states within sovereign states are not remarkable: see, also, the Basques in Spain or the Sikhs in India. One can accept the existence of Basque or Sikh nations without ever agreeing that either India or Spain are anything other than full nationstates in every sense of both words; the same applies to Canada ~ it, too, is a nation-state with its own unique national identity which includes the existence of more than on nation in the single state.

I think we need to see the current debate over la laïcitéin Québec in this light. I think that Premier François Legault is right to want appease those (very many) Quebecers who want to protect their “shared history” but I think he, and they, are very wrong, morally ethically) wrong to want to do so by denying the fundamental rights on minorities to help shape Québec’s “future political destiny” as a liberal, pluralistic nation. I do not dispute that Premier Lagault has a mandate to propose active discrimination against minorities in Québec, against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and so on, who, for whatever reasons, want to express their religious beliefs in a visible manner, but I think he is wrong to surrender to those impulses.

Professor Wimmer says that “Over the past two centuries, nationalism has been combined with all manner of other political ideologies. Liberal nationalism flourished in nineteenth-century Europe and Latin America, fascist nationalism triumphed in Italy and Germany during the interwar period, and Marxist nationalism motivated the anticolonial movements that spread across the “global South” after the end of World War II. Today, nearly everyone, left and right, accepts the legitimacy of nationalism’s two basic tenets. This becomes clearer when contrasting nationalism with other doctrines of state legitimacy. In theocracies, the state should be ruled in the name of God, as in the Vatican or the caliphate of the Islamic State (or ISIS). In dynastic kingdoms, the state is owned and ruled by a family, as in Saudi Arabia. In the Soviet Union, the state was ruled in the name of a class: the international proletariat … [but] … Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world has become a world of nation-states governed according to nationalist principles … [and that means that] …  Identifying nationalism exclusively with the political right means misunderstanding the nature of nationalism and ignoring how deeply it has shaped almost all modern political ideologies, including liberal and progressive ones. It has provided the ideological foundation for institutions such as democracy, the welfare state, and public education, all of which were justified in the name of a unified people with a shared sense of purpose and mutual obligation … [and he says, and I agree fully, that] … Nationalism was one of the great motivating forces that helped beat back Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. And nationalists liberated the large majority of humanity from European colonial domination. Churchill was as much a British (and Imperial) nationalist as Hitler was a greater German nationalist, but their focus was different: Hitler wanted his nation-state/empire (reich) to dominate while Churchill wanted his nation/empire and the Anglosphere to resist domination by a foreign power. One was unhealthy, the other was an entirely healthy form of nationalism.

Andreas Wimmer provides a brief, half a dozen paragraph, history of nationalism from 1750, when vast multi-national empire were the norm, until the fall of the USSR at the ned of the last century. We are all nationalist, now, he opines.

He goes on to explain that “In countries where the nationalist compact between the rulers and the ruled was realized, the population came to identify with the idea of the nation as an extended family whose members owed one another loyalty and support … [this is, of course, the modern, liberal model which includes e.g. Australia, Belgium, Canada and Denmark and so on, and he says] … Where rulers held up their end of the bargain … citizens embraced a nationalist vision of the world. This laid the foundation for a host of other positive developments … [and] … One of these was democracy, which flourished where national identity was able to supersede other identities, such as those centered on religious, ethnic, or tribal communities … [that was, most notably, the case in Britain in the 17th century. Some of the transition from tribal (ethno-religious) to national status had to be imposed, but it all came out in the end, and] … Nationalism provided the answer to the classic boundary question of democracy: Who are the people in whose name the government should rule? By limiting the franchise to members of the nation and excluding foreigners from voting, democracy and nationalism entered an enduring marriage.

He also explains that “At the same time as nationalism established a new hierarchy of rights between members (citizens) and nonmembers (foreigners), it tended to promote equality within the nation itself. Because nationalist ideology holds that the people represent a united body without differences of status, it reinforced the Enlightenment ideal that all citizens should be equal in the eyes of the law. Nationalism, in other words, entered into a symbiotic relationship with the principle of equality. In Europe, in particular, the shift from dynastic rule to the nation-state often went hand in hand with a transition to a representative form of government and the rule of law. These early democracies initially restricted full legal and voting rights to male property owners, but over time, those rights were extended to all citizens of the nation—in the United States, first to poor white men, then to white women and people of color.” In . the case of Québec, in 2019, a substantial number of people, quite likely a majority, want to restrict the rights of some citizens, to make them less uncomfortable to the majority. I am pretty sure that Premier legault has many supporters in other, less illiberal, provinces, too.

Of course, he also notes that “as any student of history knows, nationalism also has a dark side. Loyalty to the nation can lead to the demonization of others, whether foreigners or allegedly disloyal domestic minorities.” He also says that “Globally, the rise of nationalism has increased the frequency of war.” He . might also have discussed the idea that the sheer number of states that now exist may be a factor in the arithmetic.

Professor Wimmer uses to examples to illustrate a healthy, inclusive nationalism ~ “Switzerland, for instance, integrated French-, German-, and Italian-speaking groups into an enduring power-sharing arrangement that no one has ever questioned since the modern state was founded, in 1848. Correspondingly, Swiss nationalist discourse portrays all three linguistic groups as equally worthy members of the national family. There has never been a movement by the French- or the Italian-speaking Swiss minority to secede from the state” ~ and an unhealthy, exclusive nationalism ~ “Contemporary Syria offers an extreme example of this scenario: the presidency, the cabinet, the army, the secret service, and the higher levels of the bureaucracy are all dominated by Alawites, who make up just 12 percent of the country’s population. It should come as no surprise that many members of Syria’s Sunni Arab majority have been willing to fight a long and bloody civil war against what they regard as alien rule.” Canada is closer to the Swiss model but we, like Spain and India have had our bouts of tribal (ethnic, linguistic and religious) unrest and violence ~ all three factors were present in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, for example.

Andreas Wimmer concludes with a brief statement of the challenge that face the world, including Canada: “it is difficult,” he says, “especially for outsiders, to promote inclusive ruling coalitions in countries that lack the conditions for their emergence, as is the case in many parts of the developing world. Western governments and international institutions, such as the World Bank, can help establish these conditions by pursuing long-term policies that increase governments’ capacity to provide public goods, encourage the flourishing of civil society organizations, and promote linguistic integration. But such policies should strengthen states, not undermine them or seek to perform their functions. Direct foreign help can reduce, rather than foster, the legitimacy of national governments. Analysis of surveys conducted by the Asia Foundation in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2015 shows that Afghans had a more positive view of Taliban violence after foreigners sponsored public goods projects in their districts … [thus, he says] … In the United States and many other old democracies … [including Canada] …  the problem of fostering inclusive ruling coalitions and national identities is different. Sections of the white working classes in these countries abandoned center-left parties after those parties began to embrace immigration and free trade. The white working classes also resent their cultural marginalization by liberal elites, who champion diversity while presenting whites, heterosexuals, and men as the enemies of progress. The white working classes find populist nationalism attractive because it promises to prioritize their interests, shield them from competition from immigrants or lower-paid workers abroad, and restore their central and dignified place in the national culture. Populists didn’t have to invent the idea that the state should care primarily for core members of the nation; it has always been deeply embedded in the institutional fabric of the nation-state, ready to be activated once its potential audience grew large enough … [and he says] … Overcoming these citizens’ alienation and resentment will require both cultural and economic solutions. Western governments should develop public goods projects that benefit people of all colors, regions, and class backgrounds, thereby avoiding the toxic perception of ethnic or political favoritism. Reassuring working-class, economically marginalized populations that they, too, can count on the solidarity of their more affluent and competitive fellow citizens might go a long way toward reducing the appeal of resentment-driven, anti-immigrant populism. This should go hand in hand with a new form of inclusive nationalism. In the United States, liberals such as the intellectual historian Mark Lilla and moderate conservatives such as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama have recently suggested how such a national narrative might be constructed: by embracing both majorities and minorities, emphasizing their shared interests rather than pitting white men against a coalition of minorities, as is done today by progressives and populist nationalists alike … [but, sadly, that ~ pitting a coalition of ethnic and linguistic minorities against the amorphous White-Anglo community ~ is almost exactly what Justin Trudeau is doing in 2019, but, Professor Wimmer says] … In both the developed and the developing world, nationalism is here to stay. There is currently no other principle on which to base the international state system. (Universalistic cosmopolitanism, for instance, has little purchase outside the philosophy departments of Western universities.) And it is unclear if transnational institutions such as the European Union will ever be able to assume the core functions of national governments, including welfare and defense, which would allow them to gain popular legitimacy … [thus, he concludes] … The challenge for both old and new nation-states is to renew the national contract between the rulers and the ruled by building—or rebuilding—inclusive coalitions that tie the two together. Benign forms of popular nationalism follow from political inclusion. They cannot be imposed by ideological policing from above, nor by attempting to educate citizens about what they should regard as their true interests. In order to promote better forms of nationalism, leaders will have to become better nationalists, and learn to look out for the interests of all their people.” There is a vital task, in those last few sentences, for Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party of Canada.

I believe we, Canadians, developed a healthy nationalism in the late 1940s and ’50s, and we almost kept a good hold on it until, in the 1960s, Québec nationalism became violent. Canada’s response to Québec separatism was, to be charitable, incoherent, in some large measure because Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau could not make a good, believable case for national unity, because, in his heart, he didn’t believe in the Canadian nation. He did not, I think, understand ‘le Canada hors de Québec, nor did he believe that the Canada that existed beyond the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal axis could ever be a “home” for French speaking Quebecers, but he did believe that he could protect French language rights and he hoped that fiscal federalism (which, in his hands amounted to bribery) would keep Quebec in Confederation. I don’t blame Pierre Trudeau for feeling that way; I am absolutely certain that many, many French speaking Canadians, Québecois and Frano-Ontarians and all others, too, experienced real prejudice and lost opportunities and worse because they wanted to live and work in their native language, as they understood that they were, legally, entitled to do in Canada. Some, many French speaking Canadians rose above those challenges, others did not and some seethed with anger at the injustice of it all. Those Canadians did not share the healthy nationalism that I believe Louis St Laurent helped to foster.

I am persuaded that Andreas Wimmer is 100% correct to say that we, Canadians, must “renew the national contract between the rulers and the ruled by building—or rebuilding—inclusive coalitions that tie the two together. Benign forms of popular nationalism follow from political inclusion.” The rulers are not, must not be, in Canada any social, cultural, racial or linguistic elite; the rulers must be those we elect, freely, to govern our cities, provinces and the country; the ruled must, always, without fail, include the rulers, too. We must all believe, because it must always be true, that the ruled are, ultimately, those who select the (always very temporary) rulers.

The “benign forms of popular nationalism” about which Professor Wimmer writes include that which the Liberal Party of Canada supported in the post war years of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. It was a healthy nationalism that welcomed immigrants and encouraged both individual and community level productivity. It reduced linguistic barriers, albeit not quickly enough, and it built the consensuses needed for great national projects like the Trans Canada Pipeline, but the use of closure to restrict the debate about building the pipeline actually led to the downfall of the St Laurent government in 1957. Healthy nationalism began to seem, in the 1950s, to be too little and too late; aggressive and violent Québec nationalism provoked anger, fear and calls for appeasement, none of which were helpful.

Getting that balance right, again, is, I believe, THE challenge of the early 21st century. I believe that Québec is getting it wrong, right now, but I suspect that Canada will get it less wrong as the century progresses … François Legault is promoting an unhealthy sort of illiberal nationalism in a country that wants to be liberal and tolerant and multicultural, too.



Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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