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

A window with St George's flags hanging in it.

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

“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.

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 …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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