clock menu more-arrow no yes

The left shouldn’t fear nationalism. It should embrace it.

National solidarity is an old, powerful theme on the left — one it shuns at its peril.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), pictured with US Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — at the 2016 Democratic convention — is among the Democrats casting the fight for DREAMers in patriotic terms.
Robyn BeckAFP/Getty Images

To some on the left, Donald Trump’s presidency, combined with disturbing developments in Europe, suggests that progressive politics are doomed by the rise of nationalism.

“Forget the nostalgia for 21st-century social democracy,” announced the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, channeling the views of Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk. “Nationalism is here to stay.”

Across the Western world, center-left parties are in trouble: In Germany, Austria, France, and the Netherlands, social democrats have suffered historic electoral defeats. Right-wing populists, meanwhile, have scored a series of victories, including Trump’s election, the vote for Brexit, and the continuing erosion of liberal democratic institutions in Hungary and Poland.

But while many people take for granted an inherent contradiction between nationalism and left-wing politics, there simply isn’t one, either historically or philosophically. Throughout the 20th century, progressives mobilized for social justice most successfully when they spoke in the name of national solidarity rather than focusing exclusively on class-based interests or on abstract notions of justice. Left-wingers often cite the adage that patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel — and with good reason. But it is important to also remember that a deep sense of national commitment underpins the egalitarian institutions we hold dear.

The historian Michael Kazin put it mildly when he wrote that patriotism “is not a popular sentiment on the contemporary left.” The influential British left-wing commentator George Monbiot has equated patriotism with racism: To give in to patriotism, he writes, is to deny the plain truth “that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington.”

Yet in giving up on appeals to national solidarity, the left has forgotten the basic political argument that served it so well in the past: that out of the ties that bind together our national communities emerges a deep commitment to the well-being, welfare, and social esteem of our fellow citizens. This recognizes a basic moral intuition: We have deep and encompassing obligations to those we consider our own, based on a shared sense of membership in a community of fate — or more simply, based on our shared national identity.

National solidarity used to stand at the core of the social democratic agenda, but today the left’s intellectual energy is channeled in two alternative directions: first, toward a focus on global humanitarian concerns, and second, toward domestic class struggles, in which politics becomes a zero-sum game between conflicting economic interests. The global humanitarian perspective, however laudable its intentions (and some of its outcomes) may be, ignores the bounded sense of national “we-ness” that motivates people to invest in the welfare of others.

And the domestic class-based lens overlooks the power of solidarity among individuals in different economic circumstances. History suggests that progressives have much to gain by returning to the basic leftist theme of national solidarity.

Progressives haven’t always been allergic to nationalism

Progressives once knew how to appeal to a common sense of national purpose. Consider Sweden, the paradigmatic example of a progressive welfare state in the 20th century. As early as the 1920s, that nation’s Social Democrats focused on appeals to “the people.” As the political scientist Sheri Berman has written, “Embracing concepts such as ‘people’ and ‘nation’ that the radical right was exploiting successfully elsewhere, the [Social Democratic] SAP was able to claim the mantle of national unity and social solidarity during the chaos of the early 1930s.”

While other left-wing parties considered themselves first and foremost representatives of the working class, the organizing concept of the Swedish Social Democrats was captured by one of its slogans, “the people’s home.” “There is no more patriotic party than [the Social Democrats since] the most patriotic act is to create a land in which all feel at home,” remarked that party’s leader, as he attempted to reach out to traditionally conservative constituencies like farmers. Such rhetoric helped the Swedish Social Democrats build a broad center-left political coalition that has dominated Swedish politics since World War II.

In both the United Kingdom and the United States, too, progressive advocates gained traction when they called for social justice as an expression of “the fairness and solidarity of the national character,” in the words of Oxford historian Ben Jackson. The Beveridge Report of 1942, which laid the foundations for the British welfare state, appealed not to abstract moral principles but to “peculiarly British” convictions, in Beveridge’s own words. These convictions included “a minimum income for subsistence when wages fail for any reason: a minimum of provision for children, a minimum of health, of housing, of education.”

In the United States, the architects of the New Deal justified their attacks on the excessive power of the rich not only as measures designed to benefit the poor, but in the name of the nation as a whole — an attempt to create “a safer, happier, more American America,” in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. In his efforts to reconfigure political institutions in favor of the less well-off, FDR famously embraced the hatred of the rich. But he did so first and foremost not in the name of sectorial interests but rather because increasing taxation of the superrich was, in his own words, “the American thing to do.”

In all of these cases, national solidarity was not just rhetorical but also embedded in a specific type of political institution. Social policies that served people from all walks of life, such as the National Health Service in the UK and Social Security in the US, both reflected and reinforced national solidarity, aligning instead of dividing the interests of low-income and middle-class voters. The shift of the center left in the 1990s toward the privatization of risk and toward means-tested welfare programs, which stigmatized and singled out those in need of assistance, has likely eroded such sense of cross-class solidarity.

The left can reframe nationalism and gain support for its policies

There is strong reason to believe that today, just as in the past, progressives could and should once again aim to build diverse electoral coalitions based on national solidarity.

While it has become common on the left to associate nationalism with conservatism, Harvard sociologist Bart Bonikowski has found that a progressive interpretation of nationalism is more prevalent than many may imagine. In contrast to the common approach of considering people as being more or less nationalist, Bonikowski distinguishes between different types of national identities. Analyzing data collected in 34 countries (including the US), he demonstrates that around half of the population in many Western countries fits within what he calls the “liberal national” type.

This group is characterized by both strong national pride and an inclusive vision of the national community. This group expresses a high degree of pride in the nation-state (expressed in devotion to national institutions ranging from sports teams to democratic bodies), and perceives membership in the national community as based on subjective feeling of belonging. Such a perspective opens the door for the successful integration of minorities.

In the United States, building on open-ended interviews with 49 individuals across the United States, the political scientist Vanessa Williamson has shown that many Americans, on both sides of the partisan divide, regard paying their taxes as an expression of patriotic duty. (One of Williamson’s interviewees, a young Ohio Republican, described paying taxes as a responsibility to “the Founding Fathers.”)

Perhaps more counterintuitively, a recent study of American public opinion also demonstrated that “priming of American identity shifted citizens’ opinions toward more inclusive, rather than restrictive, immigration-related policy stances.” In a panel study of attitudes toward Trump’s Muslim ban, a group of political scientists surveyed the same 311 people before and after the announcement of this executive order. They found that opposition to the Muslim ban increased particularly among people who identified strongly with America.

They explain this surprising finding by changes in the media environment: Intensive media coverage in which the Muslim ban was painted as “un-American” led to a progressive shift in opinion among people who identified strongly with America.

Some Democrats are appealing to national solidarity

Today, as in the past, progressive appeals to national solidarity can resonate with a broad share of the electorate. Center-left parties have yet to fully embrace this strategy, but several politicians offer glimpses of what a move in this direction might look like. On the question of immigration, Rep. Joe Kennedy III tweeted: “It is time to do what history tells us time and again is right. To care for each other and to be kind to each other. To all #Dreamers, we hear you, we see you, and you are Americans.” Such appeals to a national sense of decency may more deeply resonate with voters than, say, arguments that DACA “has boosted [the] economy.”

And on the question of class, former Vice President Joe Biden argued that paying higher taxes was “patriotic” while insisting that “the wealthy are as patriotic as the poor.” That remark drew criticism from the left, but Biden is right that a renewed emphasis on patriotism holds the potential to build bridges across classes rather than dividing Americans as Trump’s rhetoric does.

An emphasis on national solidarity need not, and should not, paper over ideological differences between left and right, nor can it speak to every alienated voter who has defected from the left. But it may well speak to many of them, while also attracting voters currently sitting on the sidelines who feel, not without reason, that leftist elites look down on them and their old-fashioned patriotism.

It is important to note that embracing an inclusive sense of national pride does not in any way entail adopting the rhetoric or policies of the populist right. Aside from being morally bankrupt, there is no reason to assume that moving closer to the populist right on issues such as immigration would increase support for the left. Much more likely, such a move would play into the hands of the conservative and nativist parties.

Dyed-in-the-wool xenophobes are likely to prefer the real thing over watered-down versions of nativism, and in any case, the populist right “can always respond to any matching of its offer by simply upping the ante,” as two political scientists in Britain recently put it. A progressive appeal to national solidarity should be seen as an exhortation to renew our moral obligations to others within our national community, not as a call for xenophobia.

Lastly, what about the globalist perspective? Isn’t Monbiot, cited above, 100 percent right that a person living far away from us is of no less worth than a person living next to us — and could benefit more from our resources than our poor and lower-middle-class neighbors? And if so, how can we build an intellectually honest progressive agenda based on national solidarity?

Posing the question in such a way is misleading. The debate, after all, is not about the worth of people but about the special commitments we owe to particular people. The philosopher Will Kymlicka, of Canada’s Queens University, provides the following example:

[I]f someone has a heart attack in front of us on the street, we have a humanitarian obligation to assist, whether they are tourists or citizens, but in the case of citizens, we also have an obligation to identify and address factors (such as economic insecurity) that make some people much more vulnerable to heart attacks than others. We typically do not think we have a comparable obligation with respect to tourists.

Humanitarian commitments are aimed at relieving suffering and therefore expand across borders; egalitarian institutions such as the welfare state reflect distinctive visions of social justice and are therefore local and bounded. Of course, healthy center-left parties should accommodate activists with different priorities and engage in an ongoing conversation about the weight attached to these different commitments.

But my broader point is that national solidarity is not a threat to progressives but, as others have already noted, a potential resource — and one the center left ignores at its peril. Unlike abstract appeals to global humanitarian concerns, it rests on the solid foundations of strong national attachments. Unlike narrow class-based appeals, it opens the door to broad electoral coalitions. The progressive challenge of our time lies not in dismissing national pride but in harnessing national solidarity in order to create a fairer, more just society.

Noam Gidron is a fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton. Next year, he will join the faculty of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Find him on Twitter @NoamGidron.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.