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Liberalism and the National Question

This America: The Case for the Nation
by Jill Lepore
Norton, 2019, 160 pages

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
by Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 240 pages

Why Nationalism
by Yael Tamir
Princeton University Press, 2019, 224 pages

Three recent books provoked by the Trump presidency grapple with identity and nationalism, drawing radically different conclu­sions.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian and staff writer at the New Yorker, wishes that “nation-states didn’t already exist.” She finds them abhor­rent. Nevertheless, she allows that as long as the world is organized into nations, it is probably necessary for the United States to be one, with the caveat that ours must be a dry, creedal affair, based on a commitment to democracy and the Constitution with no ethnicity involved. Except, that is, for ethnicity-related duties to acknowledge the wrongs done to Americans of non-European ancestry, honor the “sovereignty of native nations,” and allow unrestricted immigration.

Francis Fukuyama, meanwhile, is confused. He knows that a pure­ly creedal identity of the type proposed by Lepore “is not a sufficient condition” for successful democracy, and that the United States “cannot build its national identity around diversity.” He argues that the culture that “Anglo-Protestant settlers” brought with them “was critical for the successful development . . . [of] successful democracy,” and that it is this “culture that is important, not the ethnic or religious identities of those who take part in it.” Indeed, he points to Syria’s recent fracturing along ethnic lines as “a clear example of what happens when a country lacks a clear sense of national identity.” Yet his remedy, like Lepore’s, is to create “creedal national identities . . . based on adherence to basic liberal democratic principles.” It is impossible not to feel that Fukuyama is a political scientist afraid to endorse the argument made by his own work.

Yael Tamir, by contrast, argues that creedal nationalism is an oxymoron. She recognizes that nations need common identities to hold them together. An Israeli scholar who not only talks the talk—notably in her 1993 book Liberal Nationalism—she has walked the walk as a Labor member of the Knesset and cabinet minister, holding first the immigration portfolio, then education. Her concept of liberal nationalism envisions the self-government of a stable nation that shares a culture, language, history, and territory, and which is com­mitted to individual rights and freedoms, fair courts, and democracy—a model that has been remarkably successful. But Tamir understands that “when the elites lose their desire to nurture the nation . . . others fill their place,” and that the current wave of “nationalism of the vulnerable” has the potential to turn atavistic and violent. She knows that in the post–World War II decades, when the populations of the world’s liberal nation-states were monochrome and immigration was low, it was popular to view small islands of foreign culture and language as charming, to take pride in diversity. But she also recognizes that when diversity increases, a tipping point is reached at which “social cohesion collapses.” And she knows that this process accelerates in hard economic times.

These three books offer three very different perspectives. But only Tamir’s offers a realistic portrait of the interaction between diversity and a liberal political order.

Lepore’s Reluctant Support for the Nation

Jill Lepore finds the history of nationalism littered with “fiends and frauds . . . [who] prop up people’s sense of themselves . . . with a tissue of myths.” This has led her to conclude that scholars have a duty to produce histories of the nation, because when they fail to do so, “fiends and frauds” write the histories, and nationalism, instead of dying, will eat liberalism. To support her conviction that “A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders” and—not incidentally—to com­pete with the sort of partisan histories produced by Howard Zinn and Bill O’Reilly, Lepore has written not only the essay-length This America but also the 932-page These Truths: A History of America.

This America opens with a history of nationalism, presents a sum­mary of American history, and concludes with a prescription for turning the United States into a multicultural creedal union. Nationalism, in Lepore’s account, is “less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries” and of ethnic minorities in one’s own country. Lepore rejects both overly celebratory right-of-center histo­ries as well as left-of-center histories that can only see darkness in America’s past. She writes in the hope of replacing illiberal nationalism, liberal nationalism, and identity politics with a creedal patriotism, defined as “a devotion to equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry, justice and fairness,” devoid of a unifying identity, language, or culture. This new America would “uphold the aspirations of every­one.”

Lepore is so fearful of the voices coming from the political ex­tremes, and so eager to present a clear path towards an ethnicity-free future, that she carries her arguments beyond the evidence. To assert, for example, that “in 1776, the world began all over again,” by argu­ing that an unprecedented event happened in Philadelphia, is to ignore long-standing egalitarian self-government in several American colo­nies and the fact that 1776 was preceded by the Glorious Revolution in 1688—to say nothing of Athenian self-government.

Lepore premises her argument that we should not base our na­tional identity on a shared culture on the assertion that America is “a nation of immigrants.” We are not. We are a nation of the descendants of settlers, immigrants, Amerindians, and enslaved Africans, but after the early settlement period, immigration was low and America ex­panded by natural increase. Immigration surged with the Irish po­tato famine and the advent of steamships. The foreign-born population reached 14 percent in 1910, and in 1921 America closed the door, gradually resuming its status as a nation of English-speaking descendants of long-ago immigrants. It was only in the 1960s, after mass immigration had faded into a rose-tinted memory, that Congress re­opened the door, with Senator Ted Kennedy promising that “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually . . . the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.”

A country’s response to immigration depends on the numbers of immigrants, how similar they are to the nation to which they migrate, and whether they assimilate. There is less tension when migrants share a religion, language, or physical characteristics with the native-born. The small numbers of Catholic and Jewish immigrants in America’s early years roused little resentment, but when they began to arrive in numbers, attitudes shifted and immigration was ended.

During the mid-twentieth century, after decades of very low im­migration saw the children and grandchildren of immigrants become English-speaking Americans, the United States began to speak of itself as a Judeo-Christian nation. This was the image that Martin Luther King Jr. projected in photographs of his wife and children on their way to church. Coretta dressed in the same suit, hat, and gloves that other well-dressed women wore on their way to Catholic, Pro-testant, and Jewish houses of worship. Black Americans in the civil rights era demanded their right to be American, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts.

Lepore appears to believe that ethnicity and national identity are indelible and intrinsically exclusionary, skating dangerously close to the racial essentialism she deplores. But ethnic and national identities not only evolve and change, they are layered. If you happen to be standing in New York when you are introduced to a man from ’s‑Hertogenbosch, he will tell you that he is from the Netherlands. But if you were introduced to the same man in Rotterdam, he would say that he hails from Brabant. Similarly, Americans think of our­selves as Texan or Californian, or as Italian, Irish, or Hispanic. But when more than two million of us poured through Albion during the Second World War, the Brits had no trouble identifying these diverse Yanks as a distinct American nationality. One of the classic American experiences is for an American-born child or grandchild of immigrants to form a strong attachment to the old country, to love its music and literature and think of herself as Italian or Irish, only to finally take her dream trip and be shocked to discover how thoroughly American she is. Ethnicity is only partly a question of ancestry; it is equally a matter of culture and can be acquired as the generations pass.

In 1900, Brazil was a land of opportunity, but Japan was a poor country, and so a quarter of a million Japanese immigrated to Brazil. By 1990, Japan had become a rich country, somewhat obsessed with ethnic purity, and was experiencing a labor shortage. It decided to fill this shortage by inviting the great-grandchildren of the migrants to Brazil to come home, where it was discovered that, despite being pure‑blooded Japanese, they were thoroughly Brazilian. By 2009, Japan was offering to pay them lump sums if they would go back to Brazil and promise never to seek work in Japan again.

Immigrant cultures in the United States have persisted only in self-isolated enclaves like the Amish, or when communities receive ongo­ing flows of new immigrants, a process Tomás R. Jiménez calls Replenished Ethnicity (2009). When the great fin de siècle wave of mass immigration ended, the children of immigrants left their ances­tral languages and cultures and assimilated to American ethnici­ty, reshaping, in turn, what it means to be American. The World War II buddy movies in which Italian, Irish, Jewish, and Anglo soldiers bonded as Americans while defeating the Germans captured a reality.

Lepore’s argument that a purely creedal nationalism can sustain a large, multilingual, multiethnic democracy would be more persuasive if she identified countries where it has done so. On the contrary, maps of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries are lit­tered with places where multiethnic democracies have failed. On the other hand, they show a substantial number of democratic, liberal nations mainly populated by a single ethnic group. Norway is at the top of the Economist’s Democracy Index, followed by nineteen other “full democracies,” mainly old ethnic nations, contra Lepore’s asser­tion that no one can point to any place on the map where “liberal nationalism” has actually existed.

The ideas Lepore presents in This America are especially puzzling given that her 2002 book, A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States, and her 1998 work, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, focus brilliantly on important moments in the formation of American national identity. I can only account for her departure from this earlier work by pointing to what Fareed Zakaria once described as “hatred of President Trump so intense that it impairs people’s judg­ment.”

Fukuyama Goes to Denmark

Fukuyama’s exploration of identity begins with Martin Luther’s radi­cal valorization of the uniqueness of the encounter between God and each individual human soul. It was, of course, no coincidence that the Reformation happened just as a significant middle class began to fill the chasm separating nobles from peasants. Protestant theology of­fered common people personal dignity, a commodity previously available only to individuals who belonged to the knightly warrior class or to the priesthood.

Fukuyama argues that true dignity entails the right to exercise political agency. In premodern Europe, political agency was the province of princes regnant, princes of the Church, great noblemen, and a small number of wealthy burghers. But in addition to offering dignity to individual Protestants, the Reformation offered political agency to citizens of Protestant republics. It is not very surprising that the first modern war of national liberation was fought—and won—by the middle-class, Calvinist cities of the Dutch Republic. Enduring republics in places larger than a city-state followed in Massachusetts, Virginia, and the other seaboard colonies in the early 1600s. England itself had a rockier course until Parliament definitively took the reins of power following the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

The American Revolution inspired attempts to broaden the fran­chise in Geneva and in the Netherlands, where the Republic had been captured by a small oligarchy of wealthy Amsterdam families. These revolutions failed, while the French Revolution of 1789 quickly gave way to the Napoleonic empire. And the democratic rhetoric and constitutionalism of Spanish America’s wars of independence soon descended into oligarchic rule by landowning elites in agrarian re­gions without a substantial middle class. Liberal, democratic nation-states would not be created in numbers until the mid-nineteenth century, when Europe industrialized and the middle classes grew. The twentieth century would see so many nation-states created worldwide that by 1989 it seemed plausible that the end of history had arrived in the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” Instead however, Fukuyama ruefully observes, we got identity politics—along with the resurgence of autocracy, oligarchy, and even theocracy as the twentieth-century middle class has receded in recent dec­ades.

In his The Origins of Political Order (2011), Fukuyama coined the phrase “getting to Denmark” to describe the achievement of stable, accountable democracy, along with rule of law and prosperity. He knows that a shared culture is essential to liberal, democratic govern­ment. Yet no single ethnic, religious, or cultural tradition has a mono­poly on producing liberal democracy; countries as culturally different from one another as Uruguay, Taiwan, Greek Cyprus, and Spain have all gotten fairly close to Denmark.

These nation-states, like almost all of the world’s liberal democracies, are bound together by a national culture. In Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (1995), Fukuyama described proponents of multiculturalism as arguing “either that the United States never had a single culture beyond its universalistic political and legal system, or else that the dominant European culture of generations past was oppressive and should not be a model to which all Americans must conform.” He criticized multiculturalists for propos­ing that the United States “ought not to have a dominant culture to which diverse groups can assimilate.” This is precisely the argument that Lepore makes in This America.

Fukuyama argues that it was the culture of America’s English founders that produced, sustained, and expanded liberal democracy to include new groups, and that it is the successful assimilation of immi­grants to the English language and to American culture that has sus­tained our liberal democracy. Diversity, he argues, can strengthen a country, but “Past a certain point [diversity] erects new barricades to communication and cooperation with potentially devastating econo­mic and political consequences.”

In Identity, Fukuyama explores how things fell apart, beginning with Rousseau’s counter-assertion to Luther that individuals are pre­vented from realizing their inner goodness by the bad moral rules imposed by society, and that they can only achieve true freedom through the social contract on the one hand, or (in some cases) by freely expressing the feelings and emotions of their inner selves. In the centuries since Rousseau, the religious and moral codes of Western societies have been displaced by the idea that, since no moral idea is intrinsically superior to any other, all choices must be respected as equally valid.

As Fukuyama points out, however, many people have difficulty uncovering the unique inner core that Rousseauian expressive indi­vidualism demands. Infinite choice can produce “intense insecurity and alienation because they do not know who their true inner self is.” Far from finding the opportunity to construct unique selves as liberating, many of the men and women who flocked to the new factory towns of nineteenth-century Europe chose to join socialist and nationalist movements that offered dignity and pride in new identities as workers, Marxists, and nationalists. Despite the fact that Marxism is anti-religious and anti-national, the actual workers of the world have regularly chosen to be socialist-nationalists, joining mass movements that have nothing to do with the ideology of Hitler’s National Socialism. The best known socialist-nationalist party is Gandhi’s National Congress, but it is only one of many, and new socialist-nationalist parties such as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) continue to be created.

Fukuyama notes that a new paradigm arose in the United States in the 1960s, according to which “each marginalized group . . . could demand that society treat its members identically to the way the dominant groups in society were treated, or it could assert a separate identity for its members and demand respect for them as different.” The progressive Left has since rejected Martin Luther King’s demand for equal treatment in favor of defining identity by skin color, and demanding that the ethnic and racial groups somewhat arbitrarily de­fined as black or brown be offered reparation. The result has become what George Packer has described in the Atlantic as “a new, moral caste system.” At times, Packer continues, the “illiberal politics” of progressivism “carries the whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts . . . public shaming,” and because it is “actively hostile” to the principal of equal standing before the law, we have “lost the Enlightenment to pure tribalism.”

Fukuyama agrees with Lepore that the ideal state would be a liber­al democracy based on a purely creedal nationalism with no ethnicity involved. And yet Denmark is a decidedly ethnic state that had never allowed significant immigration until a recent influx from within the European Union. Despite the existence of the bi- and tri-ethnic federated states of Belgium and Switzerland, almost all of the world’s liberal democracies are ethnic states, of which France offers an espe­cially relevant example.

Despite the fact that the French language replaced Latin by order of Francis I in 1539, and the fact that France has been governed from Paris within more or less its current borders since the late 1500s, it was not until just over a century ago that a majority of the population of France knew how to speak French. In regions other than Île-de-France, the common people spoke local tongues, until a wave of patriotic enthusiasm and government funding under the Third Re­public sent phalanxes of schoolteachers into the provinces to offer free public education. Families who spoke Basque, Breton, Provençal, and other languages were not forced to send their children to these new schools, which were designed to turn “peasants into Frenchmen,” as Eugen Weber phrased it. They chose to do so, as did the hundreds of thousands of mainly Italian-speaking immigrants who poured into France in the decades before the First World War. The descendants of the large, ethnically distinctive regions that spoke di­verse languages a century ago did not form violent independence movements like ETA of the Spanish Basque country—because they had become French.

There is a hoary historian’s joke about a reader who asks the librarian where copies of the French constitution are shelved, only to be told that the library does not stock periodicals. It used to be funny because repeated attempts to produce a stable democratic government failed, spectacularly, from 1791 until 1875. But French constitutions began to endure as the nation coalesced around a common French language and identity. Multiethnic states have a very hard time getting to Denmark—witness the Persian Constitution of 1906, the Turkish constitution of 1908, or the 2005 Constitution of Iraq.

Tamir’s Liberal Nationalism

Yael Tamir argues that “a borderless world . . . can be neither demo­cratic nor just,” and that “for a democracy to work individuals need to be able to form an ongoing union, allowing members to test and trust one another’s intentions over a considerable span of time.” The Constitution of the United States was hammered out by men who had shared the experience of being self-governing, Christian, anglo­phone, British colonists, and who had learned to rely on one another during an eight-year war of independence. They had sufficient ideas and interests in common not merely to write a constitution, but to ratify and sustain it. Democracy requires a people, and the act of de­fining a people often overlaps and interacts with the act of organizing self-government, giving individual citizens the dignity of political agency.

Keenly aware that nationalism can take dark turns, Tamir focuses special concern on “the nationalism of the vulnerable.” Liberal nations have been able to draw on their sense of peoplehood and shared destiny to provide public services including health care, retire­ment, and social safety net benefit schemes. Among the earliest and arguably the most effective of these was free, universal education. It began in Calvinist places: Scotland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Brandenburg-Prussia, a Lutheran country ruled by the Calvinist Frederick William I. His remarkable reign is described in Philip Gorski’s 2003 book The Disciplinary Revolution. Frederick William whipped his army and subjects into shape and more or less created the tidy, self-disciplined, economically efficient German national culture. He liberated the serfs, made his kingdom not merely power­ful but prosperous, recruited immigrants to repopulate regions devas­tated by the wars of religion, and built hospitals, orphanages, and teacher-training colleges. Prussia introduced compulsory public edu­cation in the mid-eighteenth century. Nationalism, like Calvinism, has a bad reputation, but has often produced better conditions for the less privileged citizens of the countries where it thrives.

Tamir believes nationalism is a key part of “getting to Denmark,” to building societies that enable the great majority of the population to lead productive, middle-class lives under stable and liberal govern­ments. She is concerned that Britain, the United States, and other countries that got to Denmark—or pretty close—have seen their political and economic systems falter. Not that the Danes are perfect: they, like we, are content to allow migrants from poor, war-torn countries to mop their floors. In Denmark’s case, however, the Øresund Bridge opened twenty years ago, enabling the low-income service workers of Copenhagen to commute daily from Sweden, which has been far more welcoming to migrants.

In 2001, political scientist Robert Putnam published a data set gathered in Sweden during a time of large-scale immigration. The data made him extremely uncomfortable. In 2007, he published a paper based on those discomfiting data, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” He explained to the Financial Times that he had used the years since 2001 to “develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” His data showed that when ethnic diversity increases, social trust decreas­es, making communities less functional.

Fukuyama writes in Trust that “Past a certain point [diversity] erects new barricades to communication and cooperation with poten­tially devastating economic and social consequences.” He knows that the world is littered with ethnically diverse states that have written elegant, liberal constitutions only to fall prey to dictatorship, oligar­chy, or civil war. But, like Robert Putnam, he is unable to draw the conclusions that his own work on identity and social trust support. Tamir boldly draws them, noting both that mass immigration dispro­portionately burdens the native working class and that “multi-ethnic democracies have a very bad track record.”

Watching Sweden and the United States fracture along ethnic and racial lines, one cannot help but think that Putnam’s 2001 data set got it right. For many years, Sweden led the developed world in the numbers of refugees it accepted per capita. Migrants now make up a fifth of Sweden’s population, and relatively few of them have acquired the skills needed to earn wages in Sweden’s knowledge economy. By admitting an enormous population unequipped to be economically productive, immigration policy broke Sweden’s long-standing social contract. As the Swedish economy has stalled (for reasons thought to be unrelated to migration), social benefits have become less generous and the efficiency of government health care has fallen to the point where Swedish corporations now lure employees with private health insurance. Tamir points out that when diversity increases, voters be­come reluctant to support social benefit programs. She is hardly alone in viewing the rise of illiberal, nativist movements as a response not simply to immigration, but to the reality that globalism, the mobility of both capital and highly educated people, has broken the national compacts that once offered the middle class not only a social safety net, but a future.

The Nation in an Era of Oligarchy

A “politics of identity replaced a politics of nationality. In the end, they weren’t very different from each other,” according to Lepore. There is a great deal of truth to this comment, though perhaps not in the way Lepore intended it.

The rudderless graduates of elite colleges who move to the magnet cities where they edit a website, tend bar, live in cramped apartments, and join an identity movement are not so different from the workers who moved to the factory cities of the nineteenth century and sought meaning in Marxist and nationalist movements. Nor is their yearning for identity very different from the yearnings of their peers who grew up in lousy school districts, face bleak futures, and join anti-immigra­tion nationalist movements.

These identity and nationalist movements make a lot of noise. But set alongside the fact that the mega-rich have a greater voice in American politics than at any time since the Gilded Age—while the egalitarian economy of opportunity of the postwar decades is nothing but a fading memory—the identity wars can seem like little more than a side show. Indeed, a street fight in Portland with milkshakes as the weapon of choice is trivial. But the larger immigration debate is not.

There are many ways to run a government. Compared to such perennial favorites as oligarchy and autocracy, liberal nationalism is something of a novelty item. The wise, calm heads of the Renaissance were well aware that democracy works rarely, only at a very small scale, and briefly, due to the fatal tendency of democracies to fall into warring factions, or to succumb to oligarchy or dictatorship.

The remarkable thing about the liberal nationalism of the modern period is that it has produced and sustained stable, democratic gov­ernments in culturally coherent nation states of every size, on every continent. It has pulled off this trick successfully over sustained peri­ods in non-wealthy countries, including Costa Rica and Botswana, and in formerly fascist Germany and Japan. It has even worked pretty well in the United States. We might, therefore, want to pass up the idea of running a grand experiment in open borders and focus, in­stead, on restoring national middle classes—which are the foundation of liberal democracy.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 4 (Winter 2019): 173–84.

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