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13 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:06pm

Did the left’s reluctance to be patriotic allow xenophobes to take over?

Social democrats have been cowardly in the face of nationalist fervour for too long.

By Martin Eiermann

“Italians first!” “Make America Great Again!” “Germany: our country, our home!” “Choose France!” “Love Britain, vote Ukip”, or “Homeland instead of Islam!” – these are the rallying cries of the contemporary right.

Too often, the centre-left has responded to them with silence and confusion.

But stories about national origins and shared destinies lie prominently at the core of modern societies. As Benedict Anderson famously observed, nations are narrations. In a world composed of nation-states, and despite hopes for a transnational and multilingual European community, these narrations supply a sense of meaning and belonging to a significant share of the world’s population.

Reactionary populists across the West have now mobilised widespread anxieties into a nationalism that is explicitly directed against foreigners and Muslims, and seeks solace in protectionism and isolationism.

The centre-left has only offered weak responses. In recent years, it has either defended multiculturalism on its intellectual merits or rallied behind identity politics.

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The failure of the first approach is most evident in continental Europe, where social democratic parties have largely ceded initiative about the refugee crisis to the right. Political polarisation and social cleavages are too evident to be hidden beneath the rhetorical veneer of multiculturalism.

The failure of the second approach is visible in the United States, where the populist right has simply appropriated identity politics and turned it against Democrats by concocting a preposterous story about carnage and the decline of civilisation.

It has found a surprisingly easy target: the left has given a language of empowerment to historically marginalised groups but has also assented to the stigmatisation of the rural white working class. In critiquing the virulent nationalism of the twentieth century, and the might-makes-right foreign policy of the Cold War, it has misrecognised national pride as prejudice.

In emphasising personal identity, it has sometimes side-stepped the task of building broad political communities. This constitutes a significant liability – not only because voters are often motivated by questions of identity that cannot be reduced to economic calculus, but also because a lack of clarity about the nation limits the political vision.

The centre-left used to speak the language of patriotism. John F Kennedy famously emphasised engagement with and for one’s country as a core aspect of prosperity (and, of course, a prerequisite of American Cold War hegemony).

Franklin D Roosevelt and, later, John Kenneth Galbraith, advocated for a “new nationalism” that anchored political power in federal institutions like the National Labor Board.

In Great Britain, notions of a national community appeared in the Chartist quest for political rights in the 1840s as well as in Clement Attlee’s “social patriotism” of the 1940s. What unites these variant traditions is, on the one hand, a vision of community that goes beyond class membership and, on the other hand, a vision of the nation that is defined through participation rather than exclusion.

These ideas are newly relevant today: In most Western societies, the working class is more ethnically diverse and more female than at any point in its history. Engaging it, as the centre-left undoubtedly should, requires more than the logic of class conflict and the language of material uplift.

Commitments to patriotism and diversity are not mutually exclusive. While the right emphasises permanent markers of belonging like birthplace or religion, the voting public tends to conceive of nations in terms of shared practices.

According to a 2016 Pew survey conducted in ten European countries, between 95 per cent (in Italy) and 99 per cent of people (in the Netherlands) see language fluency as an important prerequisite for national identity. Between 64 per cent (in Sweden) and 94 per cent (in Hungary) believe that shared customs are important.

In the United States, according to another Pew survey from January 2017, clear majorities regard a path to residency for undocumented immigrants and support for children of undocumented immigrants as important policy goals. Protecting this majority against xenophobic impulses must be a preoccupation of the left.

A patriotism of the left must offer a vision of engagement rather than exclusion, and facilitate this engagement in practice. As the American pragmatist philosopher William James once wrote, “the community stagnates without the impulse of the individual”.

The nation, in other words, is where we mingle with each other and look after each other. This implies, for example, the strengthening of volunteer associations and the removal of barriers to community service. But it also implies a deepening of democracy to combat a pervasive sense of political marginality and impotence. A political community without political agency is no community at all.

In the United States, this might lead to campaign finance reform. In France, this could warrant a devolution of powers, while in Germany it might mean a reform of how political candidates are selected.

But, William James continued, “the impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community”. A progressive patriotism must also take seriously the role of the state as a guardian of its population.

In the past, social democratic parties have often pursued economic guardianship through fiscal and social policy at the national level. More recently, they have become advocates of the free market as a catalyst for prosperity, and defenders of law enforcement to manage the social consequences of inequality and precariousness.

Yet neither tradition fits the history of the present: many political challenges – from the management of refugee flows and the fight against extremism to the regulation of tax havens and the pursuit of scientific research – cannot be addressed through severed ties, raised walls, enlarged prisons, or deregulation.

Guardianship today requires a much more international stance than it did during the Fordist years, and renewed regulatory efforts to make globalisation work for the many. There is good evidence, for example, that untaxed overseas profits drain national revenue, and that rising inequality and declining productivity threaten the basic fabric and welfare of societies.

Thus, guardianship implies the resolute management of international trade, international capital, and international migration. This management cannot primarily occur at the border – not only because many challenges are distinctly multinational in nature, but also because the benefits of globalisation can only come from multilateral integration and cooperation.

Parochialism is tragic in a double sense: It doesn’t keep the bad stuff out, and it keeps the good stuff from coming in.

What, then, about the patriotism of the left? First, it requires embracing the nation as a community of engaged citizens, rather than a fortress that must be defended against corrosive foreign influence.

Second, it needs a central role for the state as a guardian that addresses popular anxieties through international engagement rather than isolation or acquiescence.

And third, it requires a willingness to speak the language of national identity. The centre-left has good arguments and the tide of public opinion behind it. There’s no reason to cede this fight to the right.

Martin Eiermann is a research fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

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