The Shortlist: Modern Political Ideas

Miller shows how, in the absence of moderating institutions and constraints, the radical promise of democracy can slip into despotism, as it did in the wake of the French Revolution. Turning to the present, he sees the surge of right-wing populism that resulted in the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the pro-Brexit vote in the United Kingdom “not as a protest against democracy per se but rather as a protest against the limits of modern democracy.” As a young man in the 1960s, Miller was enamored of radical left-wing politics, as he relates in sometimes distracting bits of memoir. Today, however, he doubts whether that era’s “experiments in rule-by-consensus” or their present-day inheritors (like the Occupy movement) “will ever generate the kinds of alternative institutions that are needed.” He hopes for the development of “new ways” to restore democratic systems and people’s faith in them, but doesn’t spell out what those might be.

By Yoram Hazony
285 pp. Basic Books. $30.


When did nationalism become a bad thing? “Only a few decades ago,” the Israeli philosopher and political theorist Hazony notes, nationalism was widely seen as a liberating force that could bring “independence and self-determination to enslaved peoples.” Today, he laments, Western liberals heap scorn on nationalism, which they dismiss as a divisive and sometimes racist impulse. Hazony’s book seeks to explain this shift and, in the process, redeem nationalism and reveal antinationalist liberals as the true purveyors of hatred and division.

Hazony defines a nation as “a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body.” To Hazony, this form of tribalism represents the only legitimate basis for statehood: He contends that the idea of a “neutral” or “civic” state, in which individuals of many different backgrounds are bound together by shared principles, is “a myth” — a fig leaf that covers up the majoritarian realities of multiethnic societies in the United States and Europe. To be a nationalist, according to Hazony, means not only to defend the legitimacy of tribal nation-states but also to advocate a world order in which they can “chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.” He contrasts this with today’s liberal international order of multilateral institutions backed by American power, which he derides as an “imperialist” project that will inevitably seek to impose its will on all of humanity.

A defense of nationalism may be welcomed by groups whose aspirations for statehood have been thwarted: the Palestinians, for example. But Hazony has bad news for them: “There is no universal right to national independence and self-determination.” In the end, his broad case for nationalism devolves into a narrow defense of Zionism and Israel, which he portrays as the paradigmatic victim of the “hatred” encouraged by liberal internationalism.

Hazony is certainly correct that cosmopolitanism can breed arrogance and intolerance, and that criticism of Israel is sometimes hypocritical. But his reductive approach poses a false choice between an idealized order of noble sovereign nations and a totalitarian global government. The world could use a less moralistic, more nuanced defense of nationalism. This book is a missed opportunity.

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