This essay is a response to Martha Nussbaum's "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism" which appeared in the Boston Review (Vol. 19, No. 5). Taylor's response is part of an excellent discussion which includes Hilary Putnam, Benjamin Barber, Judith Butler, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William E. Connolly, Sissela Bok, and several other excellent thinkers. For Nussbaum's reply to her critics, see "Asking the Right Questions," from the same issue of the Boston Review.

Why Democracy Needs Patriotism


Charles Taylor


I agree with so much in Martha Nussbaum's well-argued and moving piece, but I would like to enter one caveat. Nussbaum sometimes seems to be proposing cosmopolitan identity as an alternative to patriotism. If so, then I think this is a mistake. And that is because we cannot do without patriotism in the modern world.

This necessity can be seen from two angles. The most important is this: the societies that we are striving to create -- free, democratic, willing to some degree to share equally -- require strong identification on the part of their citizens. It has always been noted in the civic humanist tradition that free societies, relying as they must on the spontaneous supportive action of their members, need that strong sense of allegiance that Montesquieu called "vertu." This is if anything even truer of modern representative democracies, even though they integrate "the liberty of the moderns" with the values of political liberty. Indeed, the requirement is stronger just because they are also "liberal" societies, which cherish negative liberty and individual rights. A citizen democracy can only work if most of its members are convinced that their political society is a common venture of considerable moment, and believe it to be of vital importance that they participate in the ways they must to keep it functioning as a democracy.

This means not only a commitment to the common project, but also a special sense of bonding among people working together in this project. This is perhaps the point at which most contemporary democracies threaten to fall apart. A citizen democracy is highly vulnerable to the alienation which arises from deep inequalities, and the sense of neglect and indifference that easily arises among abandoned minorities. That is why democratic societies cannot be too inegalitarian. But this means that they must be capable of adopting policies with redistributive effect (and to some extent also with redistributive intent). And such policies require a high degree of mutual commitment. If an outsider can be permitted to comment, the widespread opposition to the extremely modest proposal for a health plan in the United States doesn't seem to indicate that contemporary Americans suffer from too great a mutual commitment.

In short, the reason why we need patriotism as well as cosmopolitanism is that modern democratic states are extremely exigent common enterprises in self-rule. They require a great deal of their members, demanding much greater solidarity towards compatriots than towards humanity in general. We cannot make a success of these enterprises without strong common identification. And considering the alternatives to democracy in our world, it is not in the interest of humanity that we fail in these enterprises.

We can look at this from another angle. Modern states in general, not just democratic states, having broken away from the traditional hierarchical models, require a high degree of mobilization of their members. Mobilization occurs around common identities. In most cases, our choice is not whether or not people will respond to mobilization around a common identity -- as against, say, being recruitable only for universal causes -- but which of two or more possible identities will claim their allegiance. Some of these will be wider than others, some more open and hospitable to cosmopolitan solidarities. It is between these that the battle for civilized cosmopolitanism must frequently be fought, and not in an impossible (and if successful, self-defeating) attempt to set aside all such patriotic identities.

Take the example of India that Martha Nussbaum raises. The present drive towards Hindu chauvinism of the BJP comes as an alternative definition of Indian national identity to the Nehru-Gandhi secular definition of India. And what in the end can defeat this chauvinism but some reinvention of India as a secular republic with which people can identify? I shudder to think of the consequences of abandoning the issue of Indian identity altogether to the perpetrators of the Ayodhya disaster.

In sum, what I am saying is that we have no choice but to be cosmopolitans and patriots; which means to fight for the kind of patriotism which is open to universal solidarities against other, more closed kinds. I don't really know if I'm disagreeing with Martha Nussbaum on this, just putting her profound and moving plea in a somewhat different context. But this nuance is, I think, important.


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