The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the left can embrace nationalism while maintaining its values

Nationalism is too mobilizing to let the right alone monopolize it

President Biden delivers his first State of the Union address on March 1 in Washington. (Saul Loeb/AP)
6 min

For decades, the left has denied itself the energy and persuasive power of the era’s most effective political rhetoric: nationalism.

Often regressive, exclusive and sometimes simply vile, nationalism ostensibly violates many of the universal ideals that define progressivism. For liberals concerned with protecting inclusive, individual rights in diverse democracies, meaningfully establishing a national identity has proven challenging. But nationalism is too mobilizing for the right to monopolize it. Progressive leaders and movements have every reason to redefine national identity in a way that strikes the elusive balance between exceptionalism and inclusivity.

Globalization’s liberal champions have always underestimated the endurance of nationalism. Even as migration, trade and climate change have blurred borders, the concept of the nation has remained essential. Precisely because these global phenomena seem to threaten the sovereignty of the state, many citizens place increased importance on national identity. Nationalism has become key to defining and defending the political community in unstable times.

Nevertheless, the left has been reluctant to invoke the logic of national survival to persuade the public about the virtues of their policy agenda. My research suggests they should.

Last year, my co-authors and I ran a survey of about 21,000 adults across 19 European countries. A subset of these respondents was given a rationale for immigration that stressed its necessity “to maintain the nation’s population.” People in this group were more likely to support increased immigration than those who were not exposed to this rationale. In Western European countries — where elevated minority fertility rates are reducing the effects of demographic aging — respondents were even resistant to far-right fearmongering about “replacement theory” after immigration was portrayed as critical to the nation’s endurance.

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Other liberal policies are just as critical to national survival and thus also could benefit from nationalist framing. Universal health care supports economic competitiveness by promoting a healthier labor force and population. Robust public education is an investment in the pipeline of innovation and the sustainability of U.S. economic power. Action to curb climate change quite literally preserves coastal cities and regions vulnerable to fire, drought and tropical storms.

The challenge for liberals is that conservatives have successfully cast the left’s inclusion of minorities as evidence that native-born White people are no longer part of the nation they seek to preserve. It’s all too easy to frame climate change action, for example, as an issue that has more to do with diverse cities like New Orleans or Miami than it does with the precarity of farmers confronting plunging crop prices and skyrocketing insurance costs. Both, however, are true.

Similarly, other policies that help one community often benefit the whole nation: The expansion of health care seems to target minority groups, even though the Affordable Care Act gave new insurance access to more White Americans (about 8.9 million) than Latino and Black Americans combined (approximately 7 million). Investments in American public schools are portrayed as engines of mobility for immigrant children, yet research suggests that having more immigrant peers also increases U.S.-born students’ chances of high school completion and academic achievement.

It is unsurprising, then, that successful liberal leaders such as President Biden and former president Barack Obama have spent less time castigating white supremacists, and more time including White working-class people and White suburbanites in their concepts of the American nation.

At the end of his recent State of the Union address, Biden asserted, “We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity. The only nation that can be defined by a single word: possibilities.” Now, Biden is trying to navigate thorny identity politics to pursue a bipartisan “unity agenda.” His predecessor offers a path.

Identity politics keeps American society healthy

Though he invoked identity politics far less than many of his progressive critics wished, Obama inherently understood that the concept of “the people” must be both inclusive and exclusive. Spurred by incendiary remarks made by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s “race speech” in Philadelphia in March 2008 was a frank assessment of America that leveraged nationalist rhetoric to bridge divides.

“We may have different stories,” Obama said, “but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction — towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”

Radical by today’s expectations, Obama acknowledged the “resentments of White Americans” and acknowledged that they were “grounded in legitimate concerns.” And he urged Black Americans to bind “our particular grievances … to the larger aspirations of all Americans.” This conception of the country’s identity both included all of its diverse citizens and used a frame of American exceptionalism that was familiar to all but not too broad.

Of course, Obama was a once-in-a-generation figure who leveraged a personal narrative tailor-made for the moment. But even absent all that, today’s progressives can cultivate new forms of nationalism when they take action to include disparate peoples in a national purpose and in the national story. To compete electorally and fulfill progressive goals, they must instill this shared sense of purpose in every institution and at every opportunity.

Obama’s imprint on our national self-understanding was clear: America evolves. We are neither a monolithic nor a static nation, but rather a moving object.

“What my former pastor too often failed to understand is … that society can change,” Obama lamented in 2008. “That is the true genius of this nation.”

With some effort, the left can build bridges across social and partisan boundaries and articulate an identity that allows all people to see themselves in the eyes of diverse countrymen and to at least listen to each other’s perspectives. To do so they must, like Obama, redefine who “we” are in the face of conservative regression.

The historian Benedict Anderson famously wrote that “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist.” In the face of America’s demographic change and division, liberals must invent the nation anew.