Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together; artwork by Thornton Dial

Indianapolis Museum of Art/© 2020 Estate of Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Thornton Dial: Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together, 2003

In 1989, at the end of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay on “the end of history,” which he expanded in 1992 into the best-selling book of that name.1 Even then, skeptics were noisily dubious that history had come to an end with the joint triumphs of liberal democracy and a controlled capitalist economy. Events proved the skeptics right. Far from bringing about an era of peaceful, if boring, post-ideological politics, the collapse of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991 unleashed a surge of nationalist passion. The most alarming case for European observers was the former Yugoslavia, which dissolved into its component states, which in turn were ravaged by genocidal ethnic cleansing. It was as if the ethnic hatreds of pre-1914 Europe had simply been repressed after 1945 and then sprang back into ugly life.

We perhaps should not have been surprised. Decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s was driven more often than not by movements of national liberation, and even where these were led by professed Marxists or marxisant socialists, it was clear that nationalist sentiments were what gave them mass appeal. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism almost everywhere except China and Cuba, what remains in the developing world is nationalism. Even in China and Cuba, the Marxism seems skin-deep and the nationalism heartfelt. In Europe, nationalism had an evil reputation after two world wars, which explains a good deal of the impetus behind the creation of the multinational European Union. And yet most people in most modern states have a strong sense of national identity, even if it is unclear just what constitutes it.

The three books under review have one thing in common. They each revisit territory their authors have explored before, indeed a quarter of a century before. Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism: A Short History returns to themes she first discussed at greater length in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992). The earlier book received mixed reviews, but the analytical categories that she employed have stood up well. Amitai Etzioni is a familiar figure in the communitarian movement, the loose grouping of philosophers and social theorists who emphasize our indebtedness to society and repudiate what they see as the extreme individualism of many forms of liberalism. Unlike some communitarians who see liberalism only as the solvent of community cohesion, Etzioni has always called himself a liberal communitarian; his earlier work insisted that we must not simply sacrifice individual rights in the name of social solidarity, and now he calls himself a patriot rather than a nationalist.2 Yael Tamir published Liberal Nationalism in 1993. She was one of the founders of the Israeli Peace Now movement and is a committed social democrat. Just what liberal nationalism is remains a question to be answered, but it is at any rate clear that it is not “blood and soil” nationalism, even though Tamir follows Isaiah Berlin in emphasizing the importance of our attachments to place and the indispensability of possessing a culture we can call our own.

Greenfeld’s short history gets off to a good counterintuitive start by invoking five of Shakespeare’s historical plays, beginning with Richard II and ending with Richard III. Given Shakespeare’s notorious unconcern with historical accuracy, one might wonder what he is doing in a sober book on nationalism. The answer is that he is cited not as an authority on the English civil wars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but as a voice expressing the late-Elizabethan worldview: to know what national sentiment was at the end of the sixteenth century, read Shakespeare. Greenfeld argues that the civil wars had destroyed the old aristocracy, leaving a vacuum of authority; filling the vacuum was the task of a new national consciousness. The growth of such a sentiment was not a given; it might not have happened. Just what the content of this new consciousness was, besides a strong sense of the difference between the English and all foreigners, is not clear, but Greenfeld believes it had powerful effects, of which the most important was the creation of a profoundly competitive spirit that enabled a small offshore island to take on Spain, France, and other European powers.

In Greenfeld’s view, the English colonists took their national consciousness to the future United States, which would mean the English and American varieties share the same quality of individualistic, civic nationalism. Most importantly, nationalism brought with it a sort of egalitarianism. National sentiment produced, or perhaps simply was the expression, of a certain “we-ness.” If all Englishmen shared the same national identity, that was one way in which they were all equal. It was the French rather than the English who coined the term “fraternity,” but the phenomenon was initially English. We may doubt that Henry V in real life addressed his soldiers as a “band of brothers,” but the phrase evidently meant something to Shakespeare’s audience, as it did to viewers of Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V during World War II.


How did the spirit of nationalism spread? The greater part of Nationalism is devoted to answering that question. The first port of call is naturally France, where the modern spirit of nationalism is often thought to have been born in the heat of revolution. Greenfeld’s account reverses the familiar view: certainly the French Revolution heightened national feeling, but it did not beget it. That was a longer and slower process: first, early in the eighteenth century came an admiration, grudging though it may have been, for English political and economic development, then an Anglophobic reaction, when French pride demanded that the English be taken down a peg or two, as they were during the American Revolution.

But French nationalism contained the seeds of something very different from English nationalism. Greenfeld places English and American nationalism on a spectrum that runs from individualist, voluntary civic nationalism at one end to “ethnonationalism” at the other, the latter being hereditary, nonvoluntary, and anti-individualistic. In this classification, French nationalism was in the beginning largely civic and individualistic but became more collectivist as the eighteenth century went on. In contrast to Anglo-American nationalism, it subordinated the autonomous individual to the one and indivisible nation. It nonetheless remained voluntarist, in the sense that to be French is a matter of committing yourself to being French, and that is open to foreigners under appropriate conditions. Conversely, one can cease to be French by emigrating.

It was Russian nationalism that introduced what became ethnonationalism. Nationalism beyond England begins in resentment—ressentiment is Greenfeld’s term, reflecting its semi-technical, sociological meaning, which refers to the envy a society may feel for the achievements of some other society or societies. Envy may result in two different responses. The first is an attempt to emulate the envied society; the second is a denigration of it and an assertion of the superiority of the envious society. Because France was culturally secure, resentment was not an enduring feature of French nationalism. Russia was quite different. Emulation proving impossible, Russians took refuge in asserting that a spiritual Russian culture was superior to Western European rationalism. This made national identity a natural, or biological, rather than a political matter. The impact in due course on German racism, Greenfeld assumes, is obvious enough.

With two centuries and dozens of countries to cover, Greenfeld’s history of nationalism after the French Revolution is inevitably schematic. What will unnerve many readers is her insistence that nationalism is in essence democratic. One thinks of the nationalism of the Baath Party in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and wonders whether “democratic” is quite the word to use. Greenfeld has a case: if, as she thinks, the essence of nationalism is an insistence that each member of a nation is, as far as membership goes, equal to every other member, political authority must rest on the collective will of the people. That is one definition of democracy, according to which even Saddam’s authority was that of an authoritarian, perhaps even a totalitarian, democrat, but a democrat of a sort.

Nonetheless, the idea that a brutal military dictatorship is in any sense democratic sticks in the throat. Saddam may have held periodic elections to boost his authority, but his government was essentially one of brute force. The strongest sense of national identity in Iraq was exhibited by the Kurds, who had no desire to be part of an Iraqi nation. Indeed, Iraq is a very good example of the difficulty of deciding who is and who isn’t entitled to self-determination. How many “nations” does Iraq contain?

Apart from a paragraph or two reminding us that ethnic nationalism in its Nazi form was a moral, political, and humanitarian catastrophe, Greenfeld is substantially nonjudgmental. All of us are, in her view, living with a nationalist self-consciousness, even if it does not become obtrusive for much of the time—until Donald Trump declares, “I am a nationalist,” for instance, or the British Conservative Party sells out to the nationalists of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

But many readers will ask whether there are good forms of nationalism as well as some obviously disastrous kinds. Both Etzioni and Tamir address this question directly. They adopt different terminologies, but in most respects they are singing from the same hymn sheet. He defends “patriotism,” she defends “nationalism,” but their communitarian premises are identical, and so are many of their conclusions. Both focus primarily on the United States, especially when they are lamenting contemporary political divisions.


Etzioni takes as his epigraph a succinct account of the difference between patriotism and nationalism offered by no less an authority than Charles de Gaulle: “Patriotism is when love of your country comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” Etzioni does not entirely accept this. He thinks there can be “good nationalism,” which is what patriotism is in his account. A nation, he claims, is a community invested in a state. The right kind of communitarian sentiment and behavior amounts to good nationalism or patriotism. The necessary intellectual work is therefore a matter of specifying what those right sentiments and behaviors are, and who belongs to which community. Before unveiling his answer, which will surprise nobody who has read any of Etzioni’s work over the past two decades, he writes about “the patriotic movement” rather as if it were already in existence and a competitor to such movements as the Tea Party in the US.

Indeed, he provides it with a manifesto of sorts:

The Patriotic Movement is seeking to promote national unity and the common good. As patriots, we love our country. We are not blind to its flaws but we refuse to allow these to define who we are, as we dedicate ourselves to work for a “more perfect union.”

Among his suggestions for promoting civic loyalty in the young are improved civics courses in schools and a year of national service, the latter being “initially” voluntary, but “encouraged by colleges and employers according special recognition to those who served, akin—but not equivalent—to the recognition awarded to veterans.” Unkind readers may think this falls foul of Marx’s objection to writing cookbooks for the bakeries of utopia, but that is too harsh.

Like many commentators, Etzioni is distressed by the degree of partisanship that has affected not only American political parties but American society at large. The sort of indicator he has in mind is the reluctance of many people to make friends across the political divide, let alone to marry someone of different political allegiances. In his gloomier moments, Etzioni worries that “polarization cuts much deeper than political disagreements.” Much disagreement is readily absorbed; it is what Etzioni calls disagreement about secondary values rather than the primary values on which the legitimacy of social and political arrangements rests. Where disagreements extend to the fundamentals, democracy is in danger. The picture is simple enough. Where disagreements are minor, they can be resolved by reference to more basic values; where the disagreement is about those basic values themselves, there can by definition be no appeal to a still-deeper level.

It’s not clear which issues belong in which category, but Etzioni’s interest is in what he calls “shared moral understandings,” or SMUs; these change relatively slowly, and where all is well, they change as a result of a national conversations. One example of what Etzioni has in mind is the transition from an SMU that the “separate but equal” standard set by Plessy v. Ferguson was fair to a new one represented by Brown v. Board of Education. The change from a consensus that marriage is essentially between a man and a woman to an acceptance of gay marriage is another example. Reclaiming Patriotism is intended as a contribution to the kind of conversation that Etzioni has in mind.

One obvious question is why the United States, perhaps not uniquely but certainly most unmistakably, has become so polarized. Etzioni points to the people he calls “globalists,” or the globalist elite. Globalists believe in free trade, immigration, and universal human rights. None of these is intrinsically bad, but if they are overemphasized, they lead to a neglect of people’s parochial ties, and to social and economic policies that undermine the communities that give people’s lives meaning. Etzioni rehearses the familiar communitarian insistence that self-proclaimed citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere, and that the most satisfied people are those with the strongest ties to family, friends, and a local community. The danger of parochial loyalties, of course, is that they may be based on appalling values—racist, homophobic, xenophobic—and may be at odds with a devotion to the wider community, the nation itself.

As this suggests, what Etzioni is after is a form of patriotism that respects individual rights, without those rights acting as trump cards when they come into conflict with the public interest. Small infringements of rights for a greater good are acceptable, even though there is no simple way to measure when the infringement is small enough or the greater good great enough. Equally, there will be many cases of a conflict of rights in which it is unclear whose are to prevail. Etzioni mentions the Colorado case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, in which the bakery’s right not to be coerced into making a cake bearing a message in support of gay marriage was eventually upheld. In his view, this represented a fair compromise between the plaintiffs’ right to receive service and the baker’s right not to have deep moral convictions trodden on. Dissenters might think that such compromises tend to work in favor of the bigoted, and that progress inevitably involves deeply held beliefs being overridden, and painfully for the losing side.

A nation-state is a community of communities; an obvious question is whether a supranational community of national communities is a feasible ambition. Here is where Etzioni’s taste for compromise meets his search for “good nationalism.” He agrees that there are problems that require supranational arrangements, though he is vague about what they are, but he is skeptical about institutions such as the European Union that hope to encourage a pan-European identity among their citizens yet fail to take any steps to achieve that. Instead, the EU tried to achieve unity by directives from Brussels that only got people’s backs up and inspired a bloody-minded nationalism. He is perhaps overly skeptical; even in Poland, which boasts a thoroughly nationalist, conservative government, there is 70 percent approval of the EU. Britain really is the outlier.

The one instance in which Etzioni’s conciliatory mode of proceeding is notably absent is his hostility to pressure groups. Current laws in the US define bribery very narrowly; unless a quid pro quo is explicitly mentioned, no bribery has taken place. A lobbyist can tell a member of Congress that his organization or industry has just made a campaign contribution and that it is thinking of tripling it after an upcoming vote. None of this counts as bribery under existing law, but Etzioni is surely right that we are faced with “what is, in effect, widespread, systematic legalized bribery.” He is equally right that democracy, functional government, and the pursuit of the common good require “curbing the ways private money flows into the hands of public officials.”

Reclaiming Patriotism induces mixed feelings, but these are largely the mixed feelings that liberal communitarianism always induces. There is a tension intrinsic to it between individual rights and communal values that Etzioni skirts. Many, if not most, communitarians begin from the position that liberals—rarely defined, but assumed to include admirers of John Rawls and A Theory of Justice—have a mistaken view of human nature and thus of what matters to us. Liberals, they argue, assume a degree of individualism almost indistinguishable from selfishness, and a degree of self-sufficiency at odds with what we know about our dependency on social ties. In the communitarian view, liberalism places far too much emphasis on individual rights, especially when such an emphasis erodes a sense of social responsibility.

Why Nationalism is, curiously, less inhibited in its critique of (a loosely defined) liberalism. “Curiously” because Tamir’s book wants to defend liberal nationalism and is dedicated to the memory of Isaiah Berlin, thought by many of his admirers to be the model of a liberal thinker. Berlin was certainly a Zionist of a nonaggressive kind, committed to the view that Jews needed a homeland, a place they could call their own without having to assimilate or make humiliating compromises with their gentile rulers. It is clear that he would not have called himself a nationalist in any sense comparable to Menachem Begin or Benjamin Netanyahu. Berlin owed allegiance to the eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, whose “nationalism,” such as it was, was an insistence on the importance to each of us of our native culture. Unlike later nationalists, Herder had no expansive ambitions. Each culture had its own values and its own reasons for existing, special to itself and not universal.

Tamir’s approach is simple. The enemy is complacent liberalism, by which she does not mean the liberalism espoused by John Stuart Mill or Berlin, but the worldview of a globalist elite. She is, unsurprisingly, an admirer of Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), an assault on those who live in gated communities and feel an allegiance only to their upper-class peers, not to their fellow citizens. The success of globalist liberalism has led to a weakening of the sense of common fate that the nation-state needs for success. Those who are left out have not pressed for socially inclusive policies but rather taken refuge in a sentimental attachment to an image of a lost heritage.

If gated communities are a bad thing, gated nation-states are not. In a passionate defense of borders, Tamir insists that the geographical reach of the nation-state is not accidental. In order to achieve the solidarity on which the effectiveness and coherence of the nation-state depend, there must be a way of distinguishing who counts as “we” and who does not. Borders, however, serve two purposes: they keep foreigners out, but they also corral a population. Tamir bites the bullet:

While liberal conceptions of membership are grounded in voluntarism, national conceptions of membership rely on history and fate. Individuals are assumed to be born into a nation rather than choose to belong to it. This is not a minor difference.

What happens when two different groups think their history and fate entitle them to the same territory, or to redraw boundaries in very different ways, she does not here explore.

Liberal sensibilities are outraged that nationalism makes our fates a matter of the pure luck of where we happen to be born. The liberal view may suggest that in an ideal world, we could all settle wherever we chose, but Tamir points out that free movement across borders is much less common than Europeans accustomed to the EU’s rules about free movement tend to think—aside from the obvious point that uprooting ourselves is neither financially nor psychologically cost-free. Even countries like Australia and Canada, known for their generally liberal immigration policies, accept immigrants according to the likelihood of their settling in and becoming productive members of society. In Canada, less than a fifth of immigrants are refugees.

The difficulty for both Tamir and Etzioni is that nationalism in practice, both in the United States and in Europe, has recently tended to be xenophobic, illiberal, and a version of the “ethnonationalism” described by Greenfeld. Since both want a liberal nationalism, one looks for a proposal or two for securing it that has some chance of success. Etzioni looks for compromise between a rights-based individualism and a communal search for the common good, but it’s not obvious that the enthusiasts for making America great again have any interest in the rights of anyone other than themselves; the moral conversations on which he relies seem all too likely to become shouting matches. It is only fair to acknowledge that he recognizes this, but then we are left with nothing much beyond the hope that members of a fractious public will recover a willingness to listen attentively to one another.

Tamir takes a different tack. She looks to economic remedies for the sense of alienation felt by the so-called left behind. In essence, she thinks we need an updated version of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Instead of the liberal fantasy of the neutral state, we need a state that is consciously devoted to reducing social and economic inequality, providing greater economic security to the less well off, and instilling the sense that we are all in this together. This, she argues, needs the politics of a cross-class coalition, without which politics becomes, as it has been for the past three decades, a system run by and for the best off. She quotes Elizabeth Warren’s acerbic observation that there has been a class war going on for the past thirty years, and it has been won by the upper class. She is eloquent about the self-destructive contempt expressed by the elites on both coasts for their less educated, God-fearing, socially conservative fellow citizens—self-destructive because it alienates precisely the people who might form such a coalition.

Like Etzioni, however, Tamir induces a strong sense that this is all whistling in the dark. A society as civil as Etzioni desires, or as economically fair and efficient as Tamir wants to see, would have little difficulty pursuing the politics of national cohesion and defining the common good. The question, as always, is how to get there from here.