For a long time the left, even the sane left, has been abandoning the arena of nationhood to the right. The results can be seen all around us, in the strengthening of the far right throughout the democratic world – from the United States to Western Europe and Eastern Europe. And in Israel too.
For a long time this left has been explaining its democratic, social-democratic and liberal values in terms of opposition to nationhood. In doing so it has created a misleading contradiction between liberty on the one hand and nationhood on the other. It has condemned any national aspiration and seen it as the development of fascism, and labeled anyone who wanted to protect his national identity as a racist.
But the contrast created by the left between liberty and human rights on the one hand, and nationhood on the other, is boomeranging against them. It is emptying the center of the map of its democratic content: Because democracy is not only liberty limited to the private sphere; its an expression of the basic political right for which oppressed nations are fighting: the right to self determination. The democratic nation-state is incredibly precious. It enables people to be themselves.
And themselves doesnt mean turning the self into a Nietzschean project of self-creation, in a version that the spoiled elites of identity politics dream about. This concept is suitable for those whose existential security is taken for granted and who can imagine themselves (with a degree of superficiality) as though mobility itself is their home, and airport VIP lounges, or international conferences, are sufficient to meet their needs for identity. It is certainly not a substitute for national independence, which is the most effective framework enabling people to be themselves.
There is no need to mention the dangers involved in ultra-nationalism after the horrors of the 20th century. But nor should we forget the nationalist nature of democracy, and the fact that it is the most stable expression known to us of the right to self determination. Democracy channels cultural identity into the public sphere and enables it to fulfill itself.
The attempts to transcend nationhood undermine this basic right, but not it alone. They directly undermine the heart of democracy: government by the consent of the governed. It is not difficult to notice that international institutions which transcended nationhood at the same time transcended democracy as well; in other words, they transcended the ability of human beings to control their fate. From the European Union, to the World Bank, to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, such institutions have a dramatic influence on the lives of citizens who are unable to influence their policy the way they can wield influence in the context of a democratic nation-state.
An accelerating division of the political map between anti-liberal nationhood and anti-national liberalism is pulling the rug out from under what consolidates and unites democracies. Because the prestigious club of abstract, supranational liberalism is inaccessible to people whose lives are more rooted in time and place, the result of all that is directing the democratic urge rightward towards the ultranationalist wing.
If the liberal elites continue to condemn the right of self-determination and so see it as an expression of racism, only the racists will remain to defend it. That will enable the far right to become stronger in Europe and the United States. And the same thing could happen in Israel too.
David Frum remarked recently in The Atlantic magazine that When liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals wont do. And what is true of borders is also true of identity. If the left-liberal elite continues to mock peoples desire to preserve their cultural identity, the democratic urge for self-determination will also be channeled to the far right, at the expense of the center and the left. Anyone who scorns nationhood and presents it as racism will get racist nationhood in the elections.
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