Why Nationalism: Politics, Rights, and Identity

Karel J. Leyva
Karel J. Leyva
Photo by Dzulfahmi Fauzan

Yael Tamir’s “Why Nationalism” presents an exploration into the intricate relationship between nationalism and liberalism. The book delves deeply into the merits and challenges of nationalism, portraying it as a dualistic force capable of both uniting and dividing societies. 

Throughout the book, she posits that for liberalism to flourish authentically, it must be fortified by nationalist principles. This perspective is rooted in the belief that nationalism, when harnessed correctly, can serve as a constructive and innovative political force.

Duality of Nationalism


Tamir discerns two prevailing forms of nationalism. The first revolves around regions such as Catalonia and Scotland, highlighting the yearning for self-governance. This manifestation of nationalism springs from a genuine quest for autonomy but can inadvertently erode the civic solidarity of nation-states. 

The second form, labeled by Tamir as the “nationalism of the vulnerable,” addresses those marginalized by hyper-globalization. These individuals turn to nationalism as a means of articulating their concerns, seeking recognition, and asserting their rights within the broader national framework.

Consistently, Tamir underscores the necessity for a fresh social contract. In an era where the distributive capabilities of nation-states are diminishing and cultural homogeneity is besieged, she advocates for the nation-state as the lone viable option. The incapacity of globalism to supplant nationalism, as Tamir implies, might reflect current geopolitical dynamics more than any intrinsic flaw within globalism itself.

Challenging Perspectives


However, despite its manifold merits, the book invites scrutiny in certain dimensions of Tamir’s arguments. Her critique of identity politics, even as she simultaneously advocates for the groups these policies intend to bolster, introduces a noteworthy paradox. 

This juxtaposition, combined with the absence of a distinct alternative, casts doubts upon the foundational coherence of the book. This duality subtly challenges her overarching assertion that nationalism forms the indispensable bedrock for modern liberal democracies.

While Tamir acknowledges the role of education in nation-building, she appears to overlook its potential as a linchpin for nurturing social cohesion in multicultural societies. Her portrayal of nationalism delineates a stark boundary between nationals and others, such as immigrants and ethnic minorities. Regrettably, this perspective glosses over the intricate dynamics that second and third-generation immigrants often navigate, straddling their ancestral culture and their adopted nation. 

Idealized Nationalism

Moreover, the book’s unquestioning stance on the exclusive sentiments of national majorities, coupled with a propensity to rationalize their often sanitized interpretations of their nation’s contentious historical events, is disconcerting. Primarily referencing the North American context, Tamir presents an idealized perspective on the advantages of nationhood.

 This viewpoint, which seems to equate the privileges experienced by white American men with those of marginalized communities, like the African American populace, risks oversimplifying the nuanced dynamics of domination, whether intercultural or patriarchal.

Tamir’s work, while illuminating the complexities of nationalism, also skirts vital discussions, such as the rationale behind the adoption of specific multicultural policies and their subsequent impact on democratic values. While acknowledging the significance of the vulnerability of national majorities, it remains essential to acknowledge that this vulnerability doesn’t inherently overshadow that of other citizens.


In conclusion, “Why Nationalism,” despite its valuable insights, demands a discerning approach. The book’s portrayal of nationalism, while extending an uncritical view of the exclusive sentiments of national majorities, tends to legitimize their interpretations of their nation’s history.

 Furthermore, Tamir’s idealized conception of nation-building benefits, especially in the North American context, overlooks the complexities of domination that curtail the agency of certain individuals.

 The work also neglects the rationales underpinning the adoption of multicultural policies and their repercussions on democratic values. Indeed, the vulnerability of national majorities carries moral weight, but it’s not inherently superior to the vulnerabilities faced by other citizens.


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Ph.D. in Philosophy (Université Paris Sciences et Lettres). Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal, specializing in political theory and pluralism. Editor-in-Chief of Politics and Rights Review.