Democracy Without People

Constitutional Patriotism, by Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University Press, 177 pages, $19.95

Ours is an age of liberal nationalism, the political doctrine that holds that the state should be democratic in form and national in content. The Cold War coincided with the emergence of new nations out of the European empires, and it was followed by the breakup along national lines of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Not all countries are democratic, but authoritarian states like China and Egypt do not promote a rival, universal model the way that militant communists and fascists did. Not all states are nation-states, but most violent conflict in the world today, from Iraq to Palestine to Tibet and Chechnya, involves stateless nations seeking nation-states of their own. Except in the special case of Europe, no significant movements in the world seek to replace the nation-state with some other form of political organization. And even in Europe, the transcendence of the nation-state is a project favored chiefly by elites but regarded suspiciously by voters, like those in France, the Netherlands, and most recently Ireland who have rejected greater European integration. Belgium may yet break up, and Scotland may achieve independence.

In light of the global triumph of the nation-state, it is puzzling that so many thinkers in the West, on both sides of the Atlantic, seek to sever the connection that Giuseppe Mazzini, John Stuart Mill, and Woodrow Wilson beheld between democracy and the demos defined as the nation. In North Atlantic intellectual circles, liberal nationalist thinkers such as David Miller, Yael Tamir, and David Goodhart find themselves in the minority. Even as dozens of new national and quasi-national states have been added to the United Nations, liberal philosophers and political theorists have spent several decades speculating about alternatives to the nation-state, including multiculturalism (Charles Taylor), civic republicanism (Maurizio Viroli), cosmopolitanism (Anthony Appiah and Martha Nussbaum), and constitutional patriotism.

The term constitutional patriotism (Verfassungspatriotismus) is associated with the sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who opposed the view of conservative German historians in the 1980s that the Federal Republic of Germany should become a "normal" nation-state. Habermas, along with several other West German thinkers, proposed a kind of patriotism that would be severed from any ethnic or cultural basis and take the form of a common agreement on democratic principles. Unlike liberal nationalists, who hold that a country's identity should be a mixture of universal principles shared by many countries and local traditions that define a particular community, constitutional patriotism envisions, in effect, a democracy without a demos. This makes constitutional patriotism far more radical than multiculturalism, which posits several peoples in a state, or cosmopolitanism, which assumes a single global people.

In Constitutional Patriotism, Jan-Werner Müller, who teaches politics at Princeton, has provided a thorough and engaging defense of the concept. Müller rejects the "genealogical critique," the claim that German proponents of constitutional patriotism like Habermas, traumatized by the Nazi past, make the mistake of rejecting all nationalism as inherently bad. He points out that the idea of a post-national democracy has appealed to many outside of Germany as a rationale for the European Union or a formula for democracies in which immigration has increased ethnic and religious diversity. Indeed, the claim that the United States is a polity whose citizens hold nothing in common except a shared commitment to democracy, dubious though it may be, is a staple of American political rhetoric.

Müller's argument is with contemporary liberal nationalism; he does not bother to refute illiberal nationalism, Islamist theocracy, or other doctrines that reject liberalism and democracy altogether. According to Müller, "A liberal nationalism that essentially reifies 'national culture' is likely to opt for immigration and integration policies that are highly assimilationist; it's also more likely to place limits on political dissent and insist, for instance, that heroic national histories can't be questioned since they allegedly need to serve as sources of 'national pride.'" The context for Müller's concerns about immigration is the debate about Muslim immigration to Europe. Müller criticizes "the Dutch minister Rita Verdonk's infamous proposal to confront would-be immigrants to the Netherlands with images of gay couples kissing and bare-breasted women on Dutch beaches." But why shouldn't the Dutch seek to deter the immigration of religious conservatives -- American Southern Baptists or Pentecostalists, for example -- who, on gaining citizenship, would be likely to maintain a separate subculture and use perfectly legal and democratic methods to change Dutch society?

With respect to political dissent, Müller concedes that it may be threatened by abuses of constitutional patriotism. Any regime that defines itself in terms of a political creed like "Americanism" is in danger of viewing philosophical disagreement as treason, in the manner of McCarthyism. Müller, who is scrupulously fair in pointing out the weaknesses of his own side, warns that post-national "militant democracy," adopted as the ideology of the EU, could give rise to accusations of "un-European activities."

The greatest challenge to the idea of post-national constitutional patriotism, a problem not faced by post-national cosmopolitan democracy, is the need to explain why people should feel loyalty toward one constitutional democracy rather than another. Müller's attempt to turn the accusation of abstractness against liberal nationalists is unconvincing: "Liberal nationalists have made much of the supposed 'abstractness' of constitutional patriotism, but what liberal nationalists conceive as the core object of their theory -- a singular 'national culture' -- is in fact more of an abstraction than a set of normative commitments centered on a constitution." No, it's not. The Scots and the Kurds, to name two stateless nations, manage to identify one another and distinguish themselves from others pretty easily, notwithstanding academic clichés about "invented traditions" and "socially created identities." And it remains the case that most ethnic nations, whether small like the Slovenes or vast like the Han Chinese, are made up for the most part of individuals who are related not merely by culture but also by common ancestry and endogamy. The estimated number of people in today's world who are living in countries other than the ones in which they were born -- a paltry 3 percent -- gives the lie to another contemporary cliché, the claim that immigrant-diaspora cultures are churning traditional identities everywhere, rather than affecting chiefly the small number of countries, most of them in North America and Western Europe, that both permit and receive large numbers of immigrants.

Müller adopts a strategic retreat when he writes that "constitutional patriotism at least to some extent has to rely on already existing political unit ... [and] cannot by itself generate large degrees of social solidarity." But once he makes these large concessions, his case for constitutional patriotism collapses, except for the laudable hope that majorities in existing nation-states will avoid bigotry in immigration policy and reflect critically on the bad as well as the good in their nation's history.

One comes away from this thought-provoking essay wondering whether the last word does not belong with critics of constitutional patriotism who assert that unlike Germany, "other countries do not have a comparably difficult past, and therefore are better served by forms of liberal nationalism -- nationalism, that is, which is concrete, passionate, alive, and yet kept in check by liberalism." In a world of nation-states, that may be the best hope for democracy.