Nationalism Is Here to Stay and Can Solve Problems Instead of Causing Them

Nationalism Is Here to Stay and Can Solve Problems Instead of Causing Them


Nationalism is back on the political stage, exploited by populists and authoritarian governments. But in reality it never went away. It underpins our democracies and helped create the welfare state. In “Why Nationalism” (Le ragioni del nazionalismo, Egea 2020) Israeli activist, politician and Adjunct Professor at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government Yael Tamir explains why and how progressive parties can re-claim nationalism from the right and harness it for the sort of shared solutions governments need right now.

Let’s take a step back to look at understanding nationalism, which has been responsible for some of the worst events of the 20th century. How do you define it?
Nationalism is a very complex cluster of ideas that is not easy to define. This family of ideas gives great importance to the fact that people gain meaning in their lives by being affiliated with their cultural and identity group, and feel they have an obligation towards that group. Political theorists are interested in nationalism because it has underpinned the modern state and therefore it became a political ideology, and not only an ideology about personal identities. An ideology about how to run political institutions. 

Your book “Why Nationalism” argues that modern democracies need nationalism, and that nationalism can be used for progressive ends. You write that “nationalism is here to stay.” How can we “tame” it against some of its more dangerous aspects?
I think it is possible. Joe Biden is doing it right now beautifully by waving a sign saying “Buy American.” That is certainly not something a globalist would say! This is economic nationalism, and it’s gaining popularity all over the place. And I think this is a good sign. It means that progressive forces are now taking a nationalist stand. It’s a kind of responsible patriotism. There is also growing interest in national social services: like health, education, emergency system.

You write that “liberalism lacks the tools” to challenge or meet nationalism. What do you mean by that?
One of Barak Obama’s last speeches said with pride that “we have lifted billions out of poverty,” which is true. But he wasn’t able to see that many frustrated middle class Americans were saying: “but what about us?” I am not saying we should forget about the poor outside our countries. But directing attention internationally without expressing understanding to the suffering and needs of your own people makes them feel forgotten. In advocating for the worst off around the globe, you may forget about the worst off in your own country. If you don’t want to see them, they don’t want to see you.

What can governments do to sort of “take back” nationalism from the right?
They can do what Biden is doing, what Macron is doing, all the Nordic states are doing, and New Zealand. Don’t forget that nationalism was one of the bases of the welfare state.  A welfare connected with caring for whoever is a member of our community, together with caring about the future. We are seeing a very interesting move towards governments paying attention to the things we care about, and the people we care about. And those who do it well will control the pandemic better, and gain public trust because of that.

You write that “Liberals would like us to believe that nationalists are morally inferior to globalists. They currently ignore the strong correlation between social class and political preferences.” Why are people reluctant to talk about social class now?
First of all I think the reluctance to talk about social class has a lot to do with the individualization of identity. You are poor, but you are not part of a class. You are a woman, but you are not part of a gender. I think it is a way of dismantling the power of individuals. Individualization is a weakening strategy. And I think this is what nationalists understand very well. They understand the fact that being together, under one umbrella, is an empowering act. And I think that’s why nationalism is also important for democratic purposes. Unless we are able to work together, we are unable to gather the power of the group to achieve some of our goals.  

What do you make of the Covid-19 pandemic? Does it have any impact on the way that the right is using nationalist arguments?
Covid-19 has emphasized the importance of the nation state. It doesn’t matter if you are a socialist or a libertarian, a Euro-centrist or a Eurosceptic -- every state around the globe took the national stand, closed its borders and took care of its own citizens. Who are “we” and who are the “others” became very clear. The “others” are the people who live outside our borders, even if it is not the most logical way of dividing the political map. This shows that when there is a crisis, it is very easy for nation states to recapture their power and become very significant again.  The Corona pandemic may trigger a social and political change; encourage the formation of civic collaboration and a cross-class coalition and strengthen state intervention for the common good.

Is populism still on the rise, or is it a spent force?
“Populism” was the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017. But I am wary of that word. We use it to define something we don’t like. When Trump won the election in 2016, a group of people that had felt silenced were heard. That’s not populism – the demand to be heard is a decent democratic demand.  When someone wants to discredit that, it is easy to say “they are narrow minded, they are bigots, this is populism.” I don’t think it is effective. I think actually the populism terminology blocked the political dialogue because it was just a way of dismissing people.  For me, the growing public involvement of people taking to the streets like we have seen in Israel and in the US is a kind of populism. People are saying “I have to do something about it.” And they fight for the political sphere and they want to be influential.

What if Trump had won this election? What does his thinking say about nationalism and our world today?
I disagree with everything he says, but I think Trump has great intuition about those people who are lacking a voice. He realizes that while progressive forces did so much to empower or make minorities be heard, the majorities lost their confidence. And that is an important lesson from Trump and what we see in Israel and everywhere. Majorities took it for granted they are going to govern. And when they start losing that power, nobody represented that fear. Some of that fear is unjustified, because you can’t expect to be dominant all of your life. But some of this fear is justified when related to losing your livelihood or the ability to take care of your children. Even though Trump has lost, the lesson is that there are many people in America, Israel, and elsewhere who still feel a discomfort that is not being answered by democratic progressives. 
In what way can this more moderate nationalism you argue for help ease the sense of helplessness or frustration created by the effects of globalization?
We are seeing a major change in economic policies around the world. I was in government for many years and I remember the most important criteria for economic success was the debt-to-GDP ratio. This has now changed. The state now needs to invest in its citizens. That’s the criteria for a successful state. Questions like social justice, social economic gaps, and all these things are now on the table. This offers a language for a new dialogue. So I don’t think we have seen the end of it. We are in the middle of the virus crisis.  

The EU is allowing member states to increase their debt
Now states can start asking, “where do we spend?” Health, education, emergency systems, closing the gaps.  The “we have no money” era is over, and also the invisible hand is over. And now it’s about distribution. Distribution calls for political participation.
So you think the “invisible hand” of the market is over?
I think it’s totally over. States will protect themselves, communities will protect themselves. Nobody will trust the market. This is clear from the response to Covid-19. To recover from this crisis, market forces cannot govern the day, because that means that 30-40% of the population will not survive the crisis. Maybe I am going too far, but I don’t think market forces will be part of the dialogue now. It will be about the welfare state.

by Jennifer Clark

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