October 9, 2019 2:59PM

Uncomfortable Truths in Azar Gat’s Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism

Nationalism is notoriously difficult to define. Although politicians from President Trump to pundits like Ramesh Ponnuru praise nationalism and claim that its time has come, they rarely offer a definition. Even worse, political theorists have filled volumes with gobbledygook definitions that are difficult to summarize. The vagueness of nationalism stands in direct contrast to the simplicity of Marxian socialism, the totalitarian ideology of the left.

In American political parlance, nationalism means “pursuing policies that are best for your own country,” as opposed to all of the other ideologies that want to pursue policies that are bad for one’s own country. This isn’t satisfying. Nationalism must be more than just more formalized jingoism.…I think.

Fortunately, recent scholars have put forward new definitions of nationalism. Yoram Hazony tries to define nationalism in his book The Virtue of Nationalism, but he produces a confused mishmash that boils down to (1) nationalism is a natural and ancient human ideology and (2) real nationalists are not responsible for anything bad like genocide, war, or racism. Hazony’s definition isn’t serious and his book is fiercely ahistorical.

I’ve expressed my confusion over nationalism on Twitter, which resulted in many recommendations to read Azar Gat’s Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. (This was the single best recommendation I’ve ever received over Twitter. My sincere thanks to all those who recommended Gat’s marvelous book.)

Gat makes two central claims and defends them ably. The first is that nationalism is an old “ideology” present throughout human history. People have always been members of tribes and larger groups, they have identified themselves as members of those groups, outsiders view them that way, they resent being ruled by outside groups, and those groups are called nations. Gat’s view is called primordialism, which stands in contrast to the other main theory, modernism, which posits that nationalism is a recent ideological invention.

Gat’s second claim is a definition of nationalism that is easy to understand and makes immediate sense. Gat defines nationalism as political ethnicity. In other words, nationalism is just identity politics taken to its logical extreme of one ethnicity dominating a state. His definition distinguishes nationalism from patriotism, is consistent with my observation of nationalist political movements that seem to rely on support from narrow slices of demographics, and seeks to define who is a “real” member of the nation.

Furthermore, Gat should get an award for making Hazony’s book comprehensible. Although Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is truly awful for reasons that I detail here, one can understand it as the normative version of Gat’s book with one major change: Hazony goes to great lengths to obscure, ignore, and evade Gat’s claim that nationalism is political ethnicity. Hazony specifically denounces racism and ethnic chauvinism and focuses on culture as the defining mark of membership in a nation rather than Gat’s claim that ethnicity is the mark of membership in a nation. This causes Hazony to twist words and make many confusing statements that simply don’t add up – probably for the sake of a western or American audience that is rightly repelled by nationalism as described by Gat.

I recommend this one simple trick to understand nationalism as written in Hazony’s book: cross out the word “culture” wherever it appears and replace it with “ethnicity.”

Civic nationalism, which Gat also writes about in his book, is the idea that membership in a nation can be formed by civic attachment to certain ideas like the Constitution. Gat tries to show that every civic nation is in fact based on real or imagined ethnicity or a strong ethnic core, but he’s less convincing when analyzing the United States. He points to immigrant intermarriage and linguistic assimilation, all markers of cultural and genetic assimilation, but the persistence of hyphenated Americanism that separates ethnic identity from national identity seems at odds with his explanation. 

There is something for everybody to hate in Gat’s book. His primordialism is convincing and I dislike it very much, but I must accept it as he convincingly provides evidence for his point in every example except for the United States. However, his definition of nationalism as political ethnicity will infuriate many American nationalists who go to great lengths to exclude racists from their midst even though they fail miserably. I recommend Gat’s book to anybody interested in nationalism.