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What is a Nation? Show more Show less

Are nations ancient or modern? Are they natural or artificial? Are they a tool of liberation or coercion? Despite many predicting globalisation would make them obsolete, nations are now back in fashion in a world where leaders tout America First, the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People, and Hindutva. Understanding the nation now seems more important than ever.

Nations mean liberty Show more Show less

Nations mean self-determination and democracy.
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Nations are the best arena for democracy

Modern democracy is tied to the spread of nations and nationalism.

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Throughout the 19th century and in to the early 20th century campaigns for national independence and democracy often went hand in hand. Many believed that the two concepts were inextricably linked, and do to this day.

The Argument

Nations are argued to be the best sort of state for democracies to flourish in. This is attributed to feelings of trust and unity which come from a shared culture and national identity. People are more likely to make the compromises that democracy requires and feel obligations towards other citizens if they feel they are part of the same community. This claim is backed up by two different sorts of arguments which differ based on whether nations are modern creations or older natural units. Those who argue they are older natural units such as Yoram Hazony argue that nations possess a natural sense of unity stemming from a common language and culture. This sense of shared identity creates a highly trusting society. High trust societies are better able to sustain political and civil liberties. People are less likely to feel threatened and turn to authoritarian solutions. Similarly, ruling elites feel a kinship with those that they govern and so limit their power and recognise the rights of their subjects out of loyalty to them. Those who view nation-states as a political form that promotes liberty and modern creations present the following narrative. The first manifestations of nationalism were in the American and French Revolutions. These revolutions imagined that the unity of a state was not based on its leader (i.e. the king) but on the common culture of "the people" and as such, the right to rule lay not with kings, aristocrats, or priests but with "the people". If the people were to rule, this meant democratic elections of representatives who then governed the nation with the consent of the people. The result was the creation of the first democracies to exist on a scale larger than a single city-state. Even if not all of the population was enfranchised the mere principle of popular consent to governance was revolutionarily democratic and created a system where voting rights were slowly extended over time. Since then democracy and nationalism have gone hand in hand, most notably in the idea of national self-determination. Revolutionaries took on empires arguing that various ethnic groups within empires were nations i.e. a distinct cultural group. Therefore they had a right to secede from the empire that ruled them, unite with other members of their ethnic group in other polities, and rule their own affairs democratically. This principle fuelled the Italian revolutions and the unification of Italy, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire into various Balkan and Middle Eastern states, Indian independence, the decolonisation of Africa, etc.

Counter arguments

The claims of democracy on the part of nations are flawed. From the start, many groups were prevented from voting such as women, slaves, the poor, etc... Some claim that in fact, these exclusions were central to the nature of these new states. They argued these groups had to be excluded if democracy was to work properly. Today these exclusions still persist in many ways most notably in not allowing non-citizens, including ex-prisoners and immigrants, to vote. Furthermore, many nations were not and are not democracies even if they claim to draw legitimacy from the people. Modern dictatorships across the world from Juan Peron in Argentina to Idi Amin in Uganda, to the one-party states of China and Vietnam today are often very nationalistic in their rhetoric and policies but are not democracies. It is also not clear that democracies can only function in nations. There is a long history of democracies in smaller communities like villages and cities which were arguably more democratic than national democracies.


[P1] Nationalism based on the belief that political legitimacy and right to rule comes from the people. [P2] If the people have a right to rule they have a right to democratically choose their representatives. [P3] Nationalism created the first large scale democracies in history. [P4] Since the 18th century nearly all successful democratic movements have also been nationalist ones.

Rejecting the premises

[P1] National democracies are based not just on giving people the right to vote, but excluding certain groups e.g. slaves, women, non-citizens, etc... [P2] Many nations were not, and are not, democratic even if they do appeal to the people for legitimacy. [P3] Correlation does not imply causation. The fact that most functioning democracies are nations does not mean democracy can only happen within nations.


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This page was last edited on Friday, 17 Jan 2020 at 11:02 UTC