It seems to me Gat's ethnic primordialism shifted to Anderson's modernism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ethnic "nations" of old like the nation of Israel or the Anglo-Saxons shed their ethnic identities and united with other nearby ethnicities to instead celebrate the defined borders and strong central government of the new modern nation-state. Gat's ethnic primordial nations of the Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh, and Cornish was replaced by a single unified British nation that was no longer primarily based on ethnicity. The ethnic nations of the Bretons, Normans, Franks, Occitans, and Corsicans were replaced by the single unified French nation, etc.

Does Gat argue this shift is just an illusion? If not, how does he address it?

Expand full comment

It seems like a bad sign for a book when the example that you know the most about is also the one where its thesis is the least convincing to you; perhaps if you knew as much about the various other examples, you'd find them to be weak as well!

Expand full comment

It's also possible, that like certain other concepts, its definition is in "opposition" to something. It's an anti-enlightenment idea, an anti-cosmopolitan idea.

In many cases, identity and nationhood change so many times. Someone in Budapest would have been a Roman nationalist, an Ottoman nationalist, an Austrian nationalist, and others. A resident of Delhi would have had in succession Rajput, Turkic, Afghan, Uzbek, and other identities?

It belongs in the pile of wrong headed, regressive, discarded ideas.

Expand full comment

There’s a distinction between nations and empires. When the Roman Empire established a military camp on the Danube at Aquincum, the modern Hungarians were still at least 800 years away from settling there. You could just about describe the Roman Republic as a sort-of nation, but not the Empire; it was too big for that. One reason the Republic became an Empire was because its governance structures couldn’t scale up across the entire Mediterranean world which the Romans had by then conquered.

Nor was the Ottoman Empire a nation. Its Millet system, which granted the various ethno-religious communities extensive self-government, was an admission that it couldn’t be governed as a straightforward majoritarian nation; not the way post-Ataturk Turkey can, at any rate. Nor was the Habsburg Empire a nation. Lajos Kossuth was the father of modern Hungarian nationalism, and the Habsburgs suppressed his nationalist revolution of 1848.

Nationalism accelerated from the 19th century onwards precisely because the democratic idea was accelerating. If everyone is the subject of an Emperor, all ethnic groups are more or less equal in their disenfranchisement, equal in their discontent. But once people start voting democratically, it suddenly matters a lot exactly who the dēmos is. No one wants to wind up as a permanently outvoted minority in a majoritarian state.

Lee Kuan Yew said that, in mono-ethnic societies people vote according to class, but in multi-ethnic societies they vote according to race and religion. That’s a simplification, but it’s broadly true. Since at least the 1880s, the US Democratic Party has charted a path to political dominance through the building of ethnic coalitions against the country’s core WASP demographic. First it appealed to the Irish, Italians and East Europeans; since the 1960s African Americans; and more recently Hispanics and Asians. It has to demonise white Americans as scary racist hicks, because, without that scare, what do these various groups actually have in common?

Expand full comment

Thanks for the historical contexts!

On the subject of the Democratic party, there have been 3 Presidents of that party in my lifetime -- WJC, BHO, and JRB. I may have read close to all of WJC's speeches, and at least the important ones of BHO and JRB, and failed to find a single one demonizing WASP/white/or any other category of humans really.

Likewise for the major Governors and Senators (theres a lot of those so I'm less certain). You may also go through a complete listing of all legislation signed and executive orders passed by these three, and I'd be surprised if you find anything resembling demonization. These are the tangible things that affect lives. You may want to go further and examine their campaign rhetoric, and I'd be very surprised if theres any "demonization" there. Happy to be corrected on any of this!

Of course Presidents, Governors, and congresspeople do not make up the full party -- there are activists, interest groups, citizens themselves.




Expand full comment

I don’t think a simple catch-phrase summary of nationalism is possible. This is because national feeling is inherently subjective, and can change over time. Enoch Powell, who is often travestied by his opponents as being virtually a Fascist, said: “Nationhood is a baffling thing; for it wholly subjective. They are a nation who think they are a nation: there is no other definition.”

That’s why it’s usually easier to see when a polity LACKS the common national feeling which makes democratic common governance acceptable, rather than when it HAS that national feeling. For instance, the constitution of Lebanon stipulates that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker a Shia Muslim, and the Cabinet must divvy up portfolios according to an ethno-religious quota system. I’m not an expert on Lebanon, but this suggests to me that 1) Lebanon is a state but not a nation, and 2) in such a state, straight-up majoritarian democracy is simply not feasible or acceptable. A general election functions more like a population census, rather than a referendum of floating voters making a choice this time which they may reverse in four years time.

The history of the EEC/EU is mainly the history of the bureaucratic stealth integration of various historic nations into a supranational polity. But imagine if a true European national feeling develops, to the point where Poles, Germans and French all consider themselves to be one people indivisible. People in Finland might come to view the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus as the foreign occupation of THEIR country; just as Bretons and Occitanians came to view the German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine as the foreign occupation of theirs. The paradox of European integration is that this is something its proponents in Brussels would actually dread. Why? Because it would make possible a kind of pan-European populism which would sweep them away.

Expand full comment