Nationalism, Liberalism, and Democracy

By Dzur, Albert W. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Nationalism, Liberalism, and Democracy


Dzur, Albert W., Political Research Quarterly


Liberal nationalism is an important recent development in political theory that challenges liberals to acknowledge the significance of nationality in people's lives, and its role in the justification and implementation of liberal policies. If liberal nationalists are correct, national identity serves basic human needs and is not only compatible with liberal ideals of equality and individuality, but must be fostered for these ideals to flourish and for the liberal-democratic state to function. In this article I analyze the doctrine of liberal nationalism and argue that it actually points to the significance of democratic action, not national sentiment, for liberal states. Civic ties between citizens engaged in the public domain, such as those articulated by contemporary democratic theorists, have more relevance for addressing the functional requirements of liberal states than the bonds of national identity.

Liberal nationalist thinkers such as Yael Tamir, David Miller, Neil MacCormick, Avishai Margalit, and Joseph Raz attempt to reconcile the ideals of liberalism with the facts of national affiliation. Their contemporary theoretical project is significant because it draws attention to the importance of national identity in people's lives and takes seriously the possibility that national identity is not atavistic impulse, elite-manipulated desire, or short-sighted preference, but something that serves basic human needs. It is true that some, very few, liberal thinkers have considered national affiliation as a facet of legitimate governance. But these, like J. S. Mill in the 19th century and Isaiah Berlin in the 20th, gave nationality only a grudging respect as a somewhat unfortunate fact of life (Mill 1972; Berlin 1980). Liberal nationalists do more than point to the reality of national identity; they attempt to justify national affiliations in the same way all other liberal ideals are justified. They believe that without some understanding of nationalism that recognizes its basic importance in human lives, liberalism is incomplete.

Liberal nationalists' arguments are significant, too, because they point out how a number of settled aspects of liberalism as a public philosophy may be dependent on social ties like those of nationality Since liberal ideals as part of an action-oriented political ideology come embodied in a nation-state, not merely a state, this is one way liberalism might be seen as already nationalistic. But liberal nationalists make a more fundamental argument: historical ties of national affiliation explain liberal practices of citizenship and boundary-setting, as well as practices of redistributive justice better than the voluntaristic model favored by liberal theorists. According to liberal nationalists, without some recognition that nationalism plays a fundamental, not merely epiphenomenal, role in the constitution of a just society and a democratic political order, liberalism is incoherent.

In what follows we will see how successfully liberal nationalists reconstruct both the idea of nationality and the theory of liberalism. I focus on three clusters of arguments put forward by liberal nationalists. They argue that national affiliation is important to liberalism, first, because it plays a fundamental role in providing continuity and context in individual lives; second, because it informs, motivates, and justifies egalitarian policies; and third, because it provides a social framework for the functioning of the liberal state, and especially democratic institutions. I demonstrate that liberal nationalists have not shown that the national idea renders liberalism more coherent and complete by providing necessary context, motivation, and justification for liberal values of individuality and equality As for whether the national idea is required for democratic institutions, I argue that the public forums and widespread participation stressed by contemporary democratic theorists have more appeal as a social framework for democracy. …

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