Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

The Liberal Case For Nationalism

On the morning of June 22, the television show “Fox and Friends” discussed President Trump’s executive decision to stop his own administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said of the 2,000 children who had been taken from their parents. “Show ‘em compassion. But it’s not like he’s doing this to the kids of Idaho or Texas.”

Many liberals on Twitter were rightly disgusted by the comment. They pointed out that the children’s non-Americanness doesn’t make them any less human.

No one pointed out that we do do this to “our” kids. Separating children from their parents is a problem that afflicts all too many Americans on a daily basis. 400,000 children are in foster care, often for crimes no worse than the poverty of their parents. Women who give birth in prison are instantly separated from their babies, sometimes forever. 30,000 children are in detention, with black children incarcerated at five times the rate of white children.

Kilmeade’s comments exemplified the ugliest kind of racist nationalism. To Kilmeade, not only are the Central American children at the border not worthy of our attention, but “our” kids are the ones who live in Idaho and Texas — in other words, the white ones.

But the response on the left betrayed a troubling lack of nationalism. So eager were liberals to express support for the immigrant children that they erased those in their own backyard suffering the same ills.

It’s not surprising that the left is allergic to nationalism. One of the great surprises of the 21st century has been the resurgence of populism across the globe. From Europe to the United States, waves of far right nationalism are on the rise, helmed by leaders who traffic in distasteful, even racist rhetoric aimed at Muslims and immigrants.

On the left, these populists and their platforms have come to stand for nationalism and the nation state, which itself has become a synecdoche for all that ails society.

Certainly, there is no shortage of nationalists who are also racists. But are we on the left right to view nationalism itself as the apotheosis of racial hatred and white supremacy? Can nationalism be separated from racism?

I think it can be. Not only that — I believe it must be. For only when we on the left learn how to separate nationalism from racism can we transform nationalism into the progressive force we need to pursue racial justice. Rather than its apotheosis, nationalism is the only way we’ll ever be truly free of racism.


A daring new book proposes an understanding of nationalism that is separate from racial purity. In “The Virtue of Nationalism,” conservative philosopher and political theorist Yoram Hazony argues that nationalism has been misunderstood. Rather than a collective based around racial pride and hatred of the other, Hazony argues that a nation is “a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises.”

Because a nation is a conglomerate of tribes, it is always heterogeneous, and never based on racial purity, says Hazony. Rather than biological homogeneity, “bonds of mutual loyalty” create one unit from diverse tribes. It’s this loyalty that binds together a nation state.

The bonds of loyalty also protect individual liberties, argues Hazony, for it is only out of loyalty to her people that a sovereign would be willing to limit her power and provide her people with rights like due process. Even more importantly, the protection of minorities is a necessary principle of a nation state, argues Hazony, crucial for warding off anarchy and empire.

Rather than a paean to uniformity and homogeneity, nationalism is based on a respect for difference, both within the nation state’s population as well as between nations, favoring autonomy, tradition, and self-determination over universal truth, argues Hazony.

Instead of opposing ethnic nationalism to civic nationalism, a distinction that becomes moot in Hazony’s analysis, he contrasts nationalism with a different world order: imperialism, “which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.”

As opposed to nationalism, the imperialist worldview is based on the Kantian trust in pure reason, and the belief that a universal truth is achievable – and enforceable. Hazony argues that we’re seeing the resurgence of Empire in the European Union and the pax Americana world orders that have dominated in recent years, as well as the increasing demands for ideological purity on the left (there’s nothing imperialism hates more than resistance to its claims of universal truth).

Historians will quibble with Hazony’s claim that nation states have proven better adept at protecting minorities than Empires. Surely, this has not always been true for the Jews, though one of Hazony’s most brilliant points is that the Nazis, so often invoked as the proof that nationalism is a conduit to homicidal racism, were in fact the opposite; Hitler’s aspiration was imperialist in nature.

Still, even without the Nazis, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that many nation states have proven terrible at ensuring minority rights. It’s something Hazony admits. “Americans expressed their national freedom and self-determination while tolerating slavery and odious race laws for much of their history,” he writes. Hazony also admits that there are nationalists who hate minorities. But he argues that the alternative to the nation state — imperialist movements — incite just as much hatred against anyone who resists their claims to universal truth.

I think Hazony underestimates the kinship between nationalism and racism. He understates the fundamental tension between the civil rights the nation state provides and the minorities it always seems to want to denude of those rights.

But his insight that nationalism can be a bond of loyalty between all citizens rather than the hatred a majority has for minorities is crucial to resolving this tension and pursuing racial equality.


The person who really understood the tension between the nation state’s role as the sole guarantor of civil rights and its tendency to only guarantee them to the ethnic majority was someone who for a time had herself been stateless: Hannah Arendt.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt argues that only the nation state can protect individual liberties. She derives her argument from history, a history she lived first hand when the Nazis stripped the Jews of their citizenship before proceeding with their genocide.

It changed everything, writes Arendt. Up until that point, civil rights or the varying rights of citizens in different countries, were seen as embodying and giving form to the more eternal, inalienable human rights.

When the Nazis rendered the Jews stateless, they revealed that the “inalienable” rights we thought we had as humans — what Arendt calls “Rights of Man” — were worth nothing without a nation state to guarantee them. For as merely humans rather than Germans or Poles, the Jews were not only disposable to the Nazis but to the rest of the world, who failed to come to their aid. As Arendt elegantly puts it, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

“The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved unenforceable,” writes Arendt. “It turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them,” Arendt writes.

In the 70 years since Arendt wrote her magnum opus, many have made the same observation, even as the human rights discourse took off in the wake of World War II. Despite a flourishing human rights industry, “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that governments continue to violate human rights with impunity,” Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School wrote in the Guardian. “There is little evidence that human rights treaties, on the whole, have improved the wellbeing of people.”

Only the nation state has proven able to protect individual freedoms. It is only from the nation state that rights – civil rights, as opposed to human rights – are guaranteed.

This is because a right is not something we believe every human is entitled to. It is rather something that’s guaranteed by the state to its citizens through law. We give the government the right to exercise state power against us, but only in exchange for due process and equality before the law. In other words, rights are bound to the nation state because they are part of a collective contract negotiated between a people and its government. As Arendt put it in a 1949 essay (“The Rights of Man: What Are They?”): “Rights can exist only through mutual agreement and guarantee.”

And it’s this guarantee that human rights don’t have. As part of a universal platform, there is simply no body that can enforce them. But human rights aren’t just amorphous and unenforceable. They are a fiction, nothing more than a wish list.

To make matters worse, human rights aren’t a benign fiction. They exist in a fundamental tension with civil rights. Based as they are on the nation state, civil rights are, to a certain extent, rooted in exclusion. They are guaranteed by a nation’s relationship with its government, and its government’s reliance upon it for its continuity. The protection of my civil rights and those of other U.S. citizens depends upon our ability to vote a non-compliant government out — meaning it depends on being limited to citizens of this country.

In other words, democracy itself depends not only on a nation state, but on the very limits of that nation state.

It’s a double-edged sword. Civil rights are both limited to the citizens of a nation state and dependent on the citizenry as a whole. It is the body politic that signs the contract with the nation state, meaning if just one person is not guaranteed civil rights, none of us are.

And it’s this that makes the racist component to nationalism so devastating, a fact not lost on Arendt. As University of Virginia professor James Loeffler notes in his book “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century,” “Arendt also recognized the dangerous temptation for all forms of nationalism—including Zionism – to violently exclude others from the political community.”

This tension at the heart of nationalism was key. “Arendt grasped that national sovereignty was both the best source of meaningful rights and the gravest challenge to those rights,” writes Loeffler.

Nowhere is this tension more stark than in the United States, where our astounding Constitution is so full of gorgeous liberties that have been denied to so many of our citizens.

Indeed, if anything characterizes the United States, it’s this tension between promising more freedoms than any other country in the world, and denying those freedoms to such a huge proportion of its population.


There is a lot to be proud of here in America. We are fanatical about our freedoms, like the freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the separation of church and state — unequalled across the world.

But there’s a lot to be ashamed of, too. For our freedoms are unequally distributed. We live with racial inequality before the law as a constant: It’s a cancer at the heart of our nation state that began with slavery and has persisted in some form or other ever since.

From the first encounter with law enforcement all the way through trial and incarceration, African Americans are not ensured equal protections under the law. From over-policing to racial profiling to police brutality to cash bail to mass incarceration to racial bias, the law and order edifice of the United States is at every level depriving African Americans of their civil right to due process and equal protection under the law.

In 2016, black males were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers. Though they make up just 13% of the U.S. population, Black people accounted for 31% of police killing victims in 2012. African Americans make up 34% of our correctional population, and are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. Though African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is six times higher. People of color are also 25% more likely to be denied bail, and are assigned higher bail amounts – up to 35% higher — than white people accused of similar offenses.

This is to say nothing of the disproportionate rate at which black and brown men are stopped by police in the first place. Data from 2017 found that even Black students were more likely to be arrested than white students. The share of arrested students who are black is at least 10 percentage points higher than their share of enrollment in schools with at least one arrest. In 10 of those states, that gap is at least 20 percentage points.

The statistics are horrifying. It’s intolerable that a racial minority would be so deprived of civil rights. But it also means that none of us are guaranteed civil rights. As a white person, I may not ever encounter racial injustice. But my due process rights are entirely dependent on them being guaranteed to all citizens equally. And since they are not guaranteed for African Americans, no Americans have civil rights protections.

This is an existential threat to our political freedom. Racial justice is the barest unit of civil rights, for if any racial minority can be persecuted, so can we all – something Jews know very well.

And by not protesting racial inequality constantly, by not organizing and electing people who promise to make real change, we are essentially consenting to a new contract with the government that only applies to some of our citizens.

It’s shameful. And yet, you never hear politicians putting civil rights front and center of their platforms. Instead of emphasizing things like prison reform or police brutality, the most progressive candidates have been pursuing platforms that involve human rights – things like healthcare, free higher education, raising the minimum wage, and immigration.

These are all noble aspirations, stemming from the discourse of human rights, which has beguiled the left for decades. “We routinely assert that the inspiration — and the onus — for our notion of universal rights stems from a shared humanity that transcends race, religion, nationality, and, most importantly, politics,” writes Loeffler. “Human rights are supposed to be pre-political—intrinsic and not dependent on citizenship or political status.”

But in pursuing these aspirations, we have abandoned our obligations to our fellow citizens, to their equality before the law and other civil liberties.

It’s the fundamental irony of the left today that in our rush to eschew the racism we find in so many iterations of nationalism, we have developed an abhorrence for the particular, the local, the parochial. And in so doing, we have accidentally abandoned our most marginalized citizens by disposing of the one thing that binds us to them.

It’s here that I find Hazony’s analysis crucial.


Hazony’s theory does not easily translate to the U.S. context. He is Israeli, and an ardent Zionist, and in many ways, his book is an implicit defense of Zionism and the Jewish State.

“What is needed for the establishment of a stable and free state is a majority nation whose cultural dominance is plain and unquestioned, and against which resistance appears to be futile,” he writes. “Such a majority nation is strong enough not to fear challenges from national minorities, and so is able to grant them rights and liberties without damaging the internal integrity of the state.”

In other words, Israel can grant its Arab, Druze, and Bedouin minorities equal rights only insofar as they do not threaten its national character or majority.

Of course, this is to reintroduce that element of ethnic purity that Hazony’s argument promised to preclude. As for the millions of Palestinians living under occupation without civil rights, Hazony doesn’t say – an ellipsis that makes the book’s central premise, that nationalism is virtuous, shiver precariously.

The U.S. presents almost a counter-example to Hazony’s thesis. Jews and Blacks are hardly competing clans within a country with a protestant majority, as Hazony’s analysis would suggest. Indeed, as a nation of immigrants, some voluntary, some involuntary, our minority cultures and histories very much inform the mainstream, making up the “internal integrity” of our state.

And yet, Hazony’s idea that bonds of mutual loyalty are what bind a nation together seems like a truth we on the left would do well to remember, not emotionally so much as constitutionally.

We owe our co-citizens something — something they aren’t getting.

Instead of disgust at the idea of particularism, we would do well to embrace it. Instead of the lofty ideals that have liberals looking far afield for new problems to solve in a bid to escape the nativism associated with caring for one’s own, we should be focusing on the vulnerable we have abandoned here at home.

Rather than distaste for the parochialism of an “America First” platform, we should be embracing that which makes us American, the freedoms America was built on which can one day be guaranteed to all, by embracing achievable goals like putting an end to the carceral state. It is thus that we liberate ourselves from America’s great moral stain.

By tearing down our nation state, we weaken the bonds that bind us together and thus make the prospect of racial equality even less of an achievable goal. We should instead focus on strengthening those bonds, creating more and more loyalty between Americans, more and more commitment to solving the civil rights violations that happen on our watch.

We should be embracing nationalism.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. Email her at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @bungarsargon.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.