Nationalism and Democracy

Yesterday, I read an excellent article in the New York Times by Max Fisher about Israel’s new law restricting national self-determination to the Jewish people (making the non-Jewish population second-class citizens in their own country). The article started by noting the path Israel chose after the 6-day war in 1967, and the warning by David Ben-Gurion:

But Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.

The article had a very interesting note — almost prophetic:

Above all, the law may be a choice between two visions of Israel that have come into growing tension. American diplomats have long issued a version of Ben-Gurion’s warning: If Israel did not make peace with the Palestinians, they said, it would have to choose between its dual identities as a Jewish state and democratic one.

Polls suggest that Israelis have come to agree: Growing numbers see their country as facing a choice between being Jewish first or democratic first. And for many on the political right, the choice is identity first.

This is, in many ways, the same dilemma America is facing  — and has face, after 9/11. There are those in this country who feel the “traditional” identity of this country is being lost (this identity typically being defined as “white, European, Christian, predominantly male”, although that is hardly constitutional, and has been changing since the end of the Civil War). They feel the battle is being lost, and thus elected a champion to preserve that identity. He is making the choice of identity first, democracy whatever. This is clear from his policies and his practices and his statements.

The article I read noted the tensions we are facing:

The modern era endowed countries with two rights, supposedly unassailable, that turned out to exist in tension. The right of national self-determination envisioned states as unified collectives; one nation for one people. And the right of democracy prescribed equal participation for all, including in defining the nation’s character.

Idealistic world leaders who set out those rights a century ago imagined countries that would be internally homogeneous and static. But reality has proved messier. Borders do not perfectly align with populations. People move. Identities shift or evolve. What then?


Civil rights movements challenged countries to broaden national identities long associated with whiteness. The end of colonialism saw mass migration of non-Europeans to Europe; within former colonies, conflicts erupted over who belonged and did not.

The democratic world arrived, in the 1960s, at an informal consensus: If the requirements of democracy and national identity clash, the first should prevail. That didn’t mean abandoning national identity, but it did mean softening how it was understood and maintained.

The article goes on exploring the situation in Israel (which is well worth reading — and troubling, for those of us that supported the Israel of the 1960s, but are less sure about supporting at least the government of the Israel of today). It concludes on this note:

Democracy’s growth has stalled globally. Though the causes for this are not fully known, the trend is marked, in part, by once-healthy democracies rolling backward. Conventional wisdom holds that this is because of mismanagement or the self-interest of leaders. But maybe this is wrong.

Forced to choose between putting democracy or identity first, people may not always pick democracy.

Here in America, we are at that crossroads. Do we put identity first, or democracy first? Do we do whatever we need to do to preserve the power and privilege of white – Christian – heterosexual – male – European, which is the path of Trump? Do we preserve that which makes America strong — and makes America America — its democracy, and the melting pot of cultures that move and morph over time.

Me? I’m choosing Democracy. America is that Chicken Tikka Quesedilla I love from Indy-Mex. It is sushi with cream cheese and lox. It is a pastrami taco. It is a combination of cultures, all equal, all contributing.

All welcome.

P.S.: This Vox article shows my impression of Trump supporters is not wrong: “And the last line, about “the survival of the Christian nation,” is crucial to doing that. Because this sense of existential threat is, according to the best research we have, a vital reason why Trump’s brand of white identity politics has attracted so many followers — and will likely continue to attract more in the future.” Essentially, the upturning of what groups are in the “majority” in America has previously-majority groups facing an existential threat.