Liberalism Needs the Nation
Liberalism is in peril. The fundamentals of liberal societies are tolerance of difference, respect for individual rights, and the rule of law, and all are under threat as the world suffers what can be called a democratic recession or even a depression. According to Freedom House, political rights and civil liberties around the world have fallen each year for the last 16 years. Liberalism’s decline is evident in the growing strength of autocracies such as China and Russia, the erosion of liberal—or nominally liberal—institutions in countries such as Hungary and Turkey, and the backsliding of liberal democracies such as India and the United States.
In each of these cases, nationalism has powered the rise of illiberalism. Illiberal leaders, their parties, and their allies have harnessed nationalist rhetoric in seeking greater control of their societies. They denounce their opponents as out-of-touch elites, effete cosmopolitans, and globalists. They claim to be the authentic representatives of their country and its true guardians. Sometimes, illiberal politicians merely caricature their liberal counterparts as ineffectual and removed from the lives of the people they presume to represent. Often, however, they describe their liberal rivals not simply as political adversaries but as something more sinister: enemies of the people.
The very nature of liberalism makes it susceptible to this line of attack. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: the state does not prescribe beliefs, identities, or any other kind of dogma. Ever since its tentative emergence in the seventeenth century as an organizing principle for politics, liberalism deliberately lowered the sights of politics to aim not at “the good life” as defined by a particular religion, moral doctrine, or cultural tradition but at the preservation of life itself under conditions in which populations cannot agree on what the good life is. This agnostic nature creates a spiritual vacuum, as individuals go their own ways and experience only a thin sense of community. Liberal political orders do require shared values, such as tolerance, compromise, and deliberation, but these do not foster the strong emotional bonds found in tightly knit religious and ethnonationalist communities. Indeed, liberal societies have often encouraged the aimless pursuit of material self-gratification.
Liberalism’s most important selling point remains the pragmatic one that has existed for centuries: its ability to manage diversity in pluralistic societies. Yet there is a limit to the kinds of diversity that liberal societies can handle. If enough people reject liberal principles themselves and seek to restrict the fundamental rights of others, or if citizens resort to violence to get their way, then liberalism alone cannot maintain political order. And if diverse societies move away from liberal principles and try to base their national identities on race, ethnicity, religion, or some other, different substantive vision of the good life, they invite a return to potentially bloody conflict. A world full of such countries will invariably be more fractious, more tumultuous, and more violent.
That is why it is all the more important for liberals not to give up on the idea of the nation. They should recognize that in truth, nothing makes the universalism of liberalism incompatible with a world of nation-states. National identity is malleable, and it can be shaped to reflect liberal aspirations and to instill a sense of community and purpose among a broad public.
For proof of the abiding importance of national identity, look no further than the trouble Russia has run into in attacking Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukraine did not have an identity separate from that of Russia and that the country would collapse immediately once his invasion began. Instead, Ukraine has resisted Russia tenaciously precisely because its citizens are loyal to the idea of an independent, liberal democratic Ukraine and do not want to live in a corrupt dictatorship imposed from without. With their bravery, they have made clear that citizens are willing to die for liberal ideals, but only when those ideals are embedded in a country they can call their own.
LIBERALISM’S SPIRITUAL VACUUM
Liberal societies struggle to present a positive vision of national identity to their citizens. The theory behind liberalism has great difficulties drawing clear boundaries around communities and explaining what is owed to people inside and outside those boundaries. This is because the theory is built on top of a claim of universalism. As asserted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; further, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Liberals are theoretically concerned with violations of human rights no matter where in the world they occur. Many liberals dislike the particularistic attachments of nationalists and imagine themselves to be “citizens of the world.”
The claim of universalism can be hard to reconcile with the division of the world into nation-states. There is no clear liberal theory, for instance, on how to draw national boundaries, a deficit that has led to intraliberal conflicts over the separatism of regions such as Catalonia, Quebec, and Scotland and disagreements over the proper treatment of immigrants and refugees. Populists, such as former U.S. President Donald Trump, have channeled that tension between the universalist aspirations of liberalism and the narrower claims of nationalism to powerful effect.
Nationalists complain that liberalism has dissolved the bonds of national community and replaced them with a global cosmopolitanism that cares about people in distant countries as much as it cares for fellow citizens. Nineteenth-century nationalists based national identity on biology and believed that national communities were rooted in common ancestry. This continues to be a theme for certain contemporary nationalists, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has defined Hungarian national identity as being based on Magyar ethnicity.
Other nationalists, such as the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony, have sought to revise twentieth-century ethnonationalism by arguing that nations constitute coherent cultural units that allow their members to share thick traditions of food, holidays, language, and the like. The American conservative thinker Patrick Deneen has asserted that liberalism constitutes a form of anticulture that has dissolved all forms of preliberal culture, using the power of the state to insert itself into and control every aspect of private life.