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Liberal nationalism and the nationalisation of liberal values1

Sune Lægaard

The official version of this paper was published in Nations and Nationalism 13 (1), 2007,
37–55. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8129.2007.00269.x Link to paper:

ABSTRACT. This article considers whether appeals to ‘national values’ in public

discourse and political debate might be a form of nationalism. This theoretical

question about the applicability of the category of nationalism faces the objections

that political values cannot constitute nationality, and that this is even more so the case

when the values in question are liberal, as they often are. Against these objections, it is

argued that ‘the nationalisation of liberal values’ may, and in some contexts of

immigration and Europeanisation probably do, exhibit ‘boundary mechanisms’ that

are among the central features of nationalism. This feature of the nationalisation of

liberal values carries both normative and explanatory implications, which relate to the

concerns of ‘liberal nationalism’.


In contemporary European public discourse and political debate, especially

on issues of immigration, integration and immigrant minorities, but also in

Thanks for comments to Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, two anonymous referees for Nations and Nationalism and the
audience at the multidisciplinary conference on culture and justice arranged by the Danish Network for Equality and
Pluralism. Contact details: Sune Lægaard, Department of Culture and Identity, Roskilde University, Universitetsvej 1,
P.O.box 260, DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark, e-mail: laegaard@ruc.dk
debates about the European Union, appeals to ‘national values’ are often

made. Such appeals may take the explicit form of references to ‘Danish

values’, for instance, or the more indirect form of assumptions about ‘our

values’ or ‘the principles upon which our society is based’. In such cases, ‘our’

is most plausibly interpreted as indicating some bounded national community

differentiated from both similar communities in other countries and from

immigrant minorities.1 Policy and legislation concerning immigration and

integration issues are, furthermore, publicly justified and aimed at upholding

such ‘national values’, to the point of imposing them on immigrant minorities

(e.g. Danish Government 2002: 8; 2005). The employment of the national

category might in some cases be a conflation of the concepts of nation and

nationality with state and citizenship. Alternatively, it might indicate a form

of nationalism. This possibility gains in saliency when we consider that

nationalism plays an important role in relation to immigrant minorities and

the European Union, both in terms of informing and influencing the views

expressed and policies adopted, and as an effect of the increased ethnic and

cultural diversity and politicised public awareness thereof, as well as of the

perceived threats to the nation-state. It is on this basis, that the theoretical

question about whether appeals to ‘national values’ can be seen as a kind of

nationalism presents itself.

The question can be understood as a hypothesis about the underlying

motives or causes of appeals to national values in public discourse made

by specific social actors, or as concerning the relationship between such

appeals and nationalism within a broader social movement. It will not be

understood and addressed in either of these ways in the present paper,

however, but rather as a question about invocations of national values

considered as public statements, irrespective of underlying intentions or social


There are several reasons for approaching such public statements on their

own terms. In a discussion of nationalism, there are theoretical reasons to be

interested in publicly promulgated views about ‘us’ and the characteristics of

‘our’ society. All plausible theories of nations and nationalism admit that

subjective beliefs and perceptions play some role in constituting and characterising

nations, and in defining the form of nationalism they take. The

most popular statement in this respect is Anderson’s well-known definition of

nations as ‘imagined communities’, imagined as both inherently limited and

sovereign (1991: 7). Critics of modernism and constructivism also admit the

importance of subjective beliefs, for instance the crucial importance of myths

of descent, in constituting ethnic communities and hence, according to Smith

(1986) and Connor (1994), nations. Given the importance of beliefs and

perceptions, there is good reason to pay attention to publicly stated views,

since these may express, indicate and even influence prevalent beliefs.

Nationalism is furthermore not only an ideological movement but also a

language (Smith 1991: 72f., 77; Billig 1995; Calhoun 1997), which merits

separate attention. Finally, there are normative reasons to be concerned with

the public portrayal of ‘us’, if only because publicly expressed images about

who ‘we’ are can also be an important mechanism of exclusion and

misrecognition of minorities.
The suggestion that appeals to ‘national values’ may themselves be a kind

of nationalism runs into objections, directed at notions of ‘civic nationalism’

and ‘constitutional patriotism’, to the effect that common political values or

principles cannot constitute nationality. A further problem in viewing

invocations of ‘national values’ as a kind of nationalism is that the values

in question are more often than not standard liberal ideals and principles such

as individual freedom, equality, tolerance and democracy. In so far as these

liberal values command broad acceptance in the West and beyond, and are

routinely understood as claiming universal validity and even as being in

conflict with nationalism, does it make any sense to conceive of them as

‘national values’ and of their invocation as being a kind of nationalism? This

paper argues that ‘the nationalisation of liberal values’, despite these

criticisms, may exhibit at least some central features of nationalism. It further

discusses some of the normative and explanatory implications of this

phenomenon, which relate to the concerns about ‘liberal nationalism’.

Nationalism and conceptions of the nation

What does it mean to characterise views or statements expressed in public

discourse and politics as nationalist? A possible answer is that a view or

statement must be formulated in nationalist terms; that is, it must make

explicit reference to ‘the nation’ or appeal to, or be presented as an instance

of, nationalist principles. Both of these proposals are problematic, however. It

should not be assumed that nationalism necessarily employs the terminology

of the theory of nationalism, or that nationalism must involve a general

philosophical doctrine. To presuppose either betrays a (perhaps unsurprising)

theoretical bias, which threatens to make theorists blind to cases that may

share all relevant characteristics of nationalism apart from the merely

terminological and explicitly philosophical ones. That a strict focus on

nationalist terminology is problematic is already evident from the fact that

no systematic distinction is upheld in ordinary language between, for instance,

‘nation’, ‘state’, ‘people’, etc. Apart from this, it would seem to be perfectly

possible to formulate a range of nationalist views without recourse to

standard nationalist terminology. Regarding the second suggestion, that a

view must reflect or invoke general nationalist principles in order to be

nationalist, as suggested by Paul Gilbert (1998: 6f.), it too seems overly

intellectualist as a general view of nationalism. It would be reasonable to

suppose that some views and policies that are properly classified as cases of

nationalism merely express particular claims that are neither intentionally

justified, nor formulated with reference to, more general considerations.

So what is the common denominator of, for instance, claims for national

self-determination, claims that political membership be made conditional on

national membership, the view that nationality is a relevant factor in relation

to distributive justice, claims for special group rights for national minorities,

or ‘nation-building’ policies requiring assimilation to the national culture,

that makes them all undisputed and prototypical nationalist claims or views?

The commonality seems simply to be that they all operate with or rely on the

concept of the nation, or of nationality, and assign some political importance

hereto. If this is right, then a view (claim, argument, statement, etc.) can

sensibly be classified as nationalist if:

1. It operates with or relies on criteria expressing a conception of the nation.

2. It assigns some political significance to the nation thus conceptualised.

According to this classification what matters is that a claim must operate with

or rely on the nation or on nationality as a category (cf. e.g. Billig 1995;

Calhoun 1997; Brubaker 2004: chs 1 and 4), not whether this category or the

way in which it is specified in the claim is sound. Any political view must,

implicitly or explicitly, employ criteria distinguishing between people or

specifying politically relevant characteristics, for instance for the purpose of

inclusion and exclusion or for the distribution of benefits and burdens. For a

view to qualify as nationalist, these criteria must either be explicitly intended

as delimiting the nation or be capable of being interpreted from a theoretical

point of view as expressing a conception of the nation. To say that such

criteria constitute a ‘conception of the nation’, then, implies that the

conception in question may be one of many, and hence, may be contested,

misguided or even false.

The focus on conceptions of the nation should be understood, not on the

level of theory, where one is clearly faced with a range of different theoretical

conceptions and theories about the nation as a historical and social phenomenon,

but at the level of public discourse and political debate where the views

and statements under consideration are located. At this level, conceptions of

the nation will normally be of particular nations, for example, beliefs about

what characterises this nation, rather than nations in general (cf. Smith 1991:
83). Articulating a conception of a particular nation is not necessarily an

endorsement of a theory of what nations are in general. In any case it is often

incorrect to ascribe such theories to those uttering nationalist views. Nor does

the theoretical use of the term ‘conception of the nation’ in analysing the

nationalist tenor of a claim, presuppose the correctness of any given theory

about the nature or conditions for existence of nations. Even though a

nationalist view is defined as requiring the presence of a conception of the

nation, the definition is silent on whether nations really exist, and, if they do, on

their mode of existence, whether they depend on subjective factors, and to what

degree. Here, ‘the nation’ can be understood as a ‘conceptual variable’ both in

the sense that there are many different conceptions of the nation, and that the

important thing for analytical purposes is not whether nations actually exist at

all, but how conceptions of the nation function, or would function if adopted

(Brubaker 1996 and 2004; cf. Abizadeh 2004: 243f.).

A view is said to be nationalist if it ‘operates with’ or ‘relies on’ criteria

expressing a conception of the nation in order to direct attention to cases

where statements and claims are being made in a way that is in effect

equivalent to nationalism, rather than simply employing nationalist terminology.

The analytical task is first to discern the criteria on the basis of which a

view or policy explicitly operates or implicitly relies, whether or not these are

presented or intended as criteria of nationality, and thereupon to judge

whether these operative criteria can reasonably be interpreted as expressions

of a conception of the nation. ‘Conception of the nation’ is accordingly an

analytical category, whether or not ‘the nation’ is a category of practice

(Brubaker 2004: 31).

The definition of what it means for a view to be nationalist is silent on the

proper theoretical criterion to use in determining whether criteria constitute

conceptions of the nation. This neutrality must be suspended, however, when

it comes to determining whether particular sets of criteria do in fact express

such a conception. This is exactly the case with regard to appeals to ‘national

values’, and the next section will accordingly draw on debates in the theory of

nations and nationalism to decide whether such appeals may constitute

conceptions of the nation.

Shared political values as a conception of the nation

To what extent can appeals to ‘national values’ in public discourse or politics

sensibly be understood as expressing conceptions of the nation? This question

focuses on the ‘values’ explicitly invoked in the kinds of views and statements

under consideration, which are liberal and hence political values. The

particular problems raised by the specific liberal nature of these values

are the subject for a separate section. For the moment, the question is

whether the view or claim that certain political values are shared within a

group satisfies relevant theoretical conditions for qualifying as a conception of

the nation.

The question will be addressed by way of a discussion of the much debated

notion of civic nationalism and the associated varieties of distinctions between

civic, western, territorial and statist nationalism on the one hand and other

kinds of nationalism on the other: in short, the civic/ethnic distinction. The

reason for proceeding thus is that allegiance to common political values has

been taken to be a mark of civic nationalism, which implies that invocations

of common political values may be a kind of nationalism. The question under

consideration would therefore seem to be just another way of asking whether

the notion of civic nationalism makes sense. Looked at in this way, a major

problem appears to be that the very idea of civic nationalism has faced strong

criticism within the theory of nationalism recently, the general opinion being,

it seems, that the civic/ethnic distinction makes no sense on conceptual

grounds and that there are no actual instances of civic nationalism as

traditionally understood.

The idea of civic nationalism and the underlying notion of the civic nation

is, properly speaking, a complex of different ideas. Dating back to the

Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the image of the nation is that of

a community of citizens of the territorial state conceived of as a voluntary

association along the lines of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, that is, as

individuals bound together by their shared allegiance and consent to political

institutions governing the state in their name and limited by respect for their

individual rights. The classic statement of the idea of civic nationalism, as a

part of a distinction between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ kinds of nationalism, dates

back to Kohn (1945 and 1955: 29f.), even though the basic idea goes further

back.2 This image, under different names, is routinely contrasted with another

type of nation, that of a primarily ethnic or ethnocultural community bound

together by myths of shared descent, and by cultural markers such as common

language, practices and values. The resulting dichotomy, often presented as the
civic/ethnic distinction, is said to be represented in reality by the opposition

between the early ‘western’ nations, especially England, France and the United

States, and the late ‘eastern’ nations, primarily Germany, Italy and the nations

of Eastern Europe. Finally, the two kinds of nationalism are traditionally

thought to be liberal and illiberal, respectively.

There are many criticisms of the civic/ethnic distinction and the notion of

the civic nation on which it relies. One is more like a modification, namely that

the distinction is to be thought of as ideal-typical rather than as a readily

applicable classificatory scheme. This means that the unequivocal association

of civic and western nationalism, on the one hand, and ethnic and eastern

nationalism, on the other, is untenable. Instead, all nations are a mix of civic

and ethnic elements in different proportions and ways (Smith 1986: 149; 1991:

13; 1995: 99f.; 1998: 126, 212; cf. Nieguth 1999: 158; Zimmer 2003: 174, 177;

Brubaker 2004: 135f.). The unflinching endorsement of civic nationalism as

liberal has also been qualified by awareness of the fact that exclusion and

oppression of minority groups is not the sole province of ethnic nationalism,

and that civic nationalism can be quite illiberal in its historically dominant

assimilationist drive to make all citizens alike (Canovan 1996: 89ff.; Smith

1998: 212f.; Yack 1999: 115; Gans 2003: 13; Brubaker 2004: 141f.).

But despite such qualifications, a number of criticisms remain, which target

the basic intelligibility, as well as the empirical accuracy and usefulness, of the

civic/ethnic distinction. If the distinction is to be both exhaustive and mutually

exclusive, even if only designating elements or aspects of nations rather than

sorting nations into two categories, then there is a problem of drawing the
boundary between the civic and the ethnic in a plausible way. One aspect of the

problem is that it is hard to place cultural factors in relation to the notions of

civic and ethnic, and that inclusion of culture in one category makes the other

virtually empty and useless (Brubaker 2004: 136–40). A further problem is that

the civic/ethnic distinction conflates or vacillates between different organising

principles for defining nations (Nieguth 1999: 156, 163; Zimmer 2003: 175ff.;

Gans 2003: 9). This observation about the complexity of the civic/ethnic

distinction is correct in the sense that both the notion of the civic and that of

the ethnic nation, however precisely defined, combine a number of independent

characteristics between which there is no necessary connection. This

charge, which incidentally also applies to some of the proposed alternatives to

the civic/ethnic distinction, for example Gans’s statist/cultural distinction

(2003), is actually more damaging to the qualified understanding of the

civic/ethnic distinction as ideal-typical than to the more literal understanding

of it as denoting two classes of nations, the members of which are either civic or

ethnic. A distinction that is complex in this way cannot be both systematic

(and hence explanatory) and exhaustive (and hence informative), and may

often be neither. The only plausible alternative seems therefore to be to break

up the civic/ethnic distinction into its constituent parts in order to be able to

analyse any particular nation, or conception hereof, with respect to the

resulting dimensions or aspects (e.g. as suggested in different ways by Nieguth

1999: 164f.; Zimmer 2003: 177–81; Brubaker 2004: 144f.).

The conceptual criticisms of the civic/ethnic distinction are accompanied

by a number of empirical criticisms to the effect that the actual cases of civic
and ethnic nationalism are far from being as clear-cut as traditionally

assumed, and that prototypical civic nations are not in fact based on purely

political principles but are first and foremost cultural and even ethnic

communities (e.g. Kymlicka 2001: 23–7, 243ff.; Yack 1999: 105f., 108; Nielsen

1999: 124f.). These criticisms are different expressions of some of the

conceptual points mentioned earlier, namely that the distinction has to be

understood as ideal-typical and/or that the category of civic nationalism must

include culture in order to be applicable to anything at all. But they are of

separate interest for the present purpose, which is the discussion of whether

nationalism can consist in allegiance to purely political principles. The

conceptual criticisms of the civic/ethnic distinction do not rule out this

possibility, after all. What they do, which is of considerable importance, is

to highlight the fact that the categories of civic and ethnic nationalism must be

disambiguated and disaggregated into their (conceptual, empirical and

evaluative) constituent parts and that these must then be applied separately

in the analysis of concrete nations or conceptions hereof. As noted, one of the

elements or components in the traditional notion of a civic nation is precisely

the idea that what unites the members of such a nation is their shared

allegiance to certain political principles and values, perhaps as set out in a

constitution, as in Habermas’s idea of constitutional patriotism (Habermas

1992). The disintegration of the traditional concept of civic nationalism does

not tell us whether there might be a kind of nationalism characterised in this

way, via allegiance to shared political principles, or whether it would make

sense to categorise appeals to common political values as a kind of nationalism.

The relevance of the empirical criticisms to the question at hand is that

they clearly state that there are no, and have never been any, cases of a purely

political nation.

The interesting question for present purposes, however, is why there are no

purely politically defined nations. Even though the criticisms of the notion of

a civic nation, noted above, are based on empirical observations to the effect

that cases traditionally categorised as civic nations (especially France and the

United States) or suggested as candidates for this status (Germany after

reunification, or perhaps the European Union) are in fact not based solely or

even primarily on shared allegiance to certain political principles, this

observation is more often than not accompanied by a stronger and more

sweeping claim. Namely, nationality and nationalism must necessarily be

based on more than allegiance to common political values (e.g. Smith 1986:

149; 1991: 70, 84, 1995: 99; Miller 1995: 163, 188f.; Canovan 1996: 89; Yack

1999: 106; Nielsen 1999: 124f.; Nieguth 1999: 162, 171; Shulman 2002: 581;

Gans 2003: 11f.). This criticism of the notion of civic nationalism must be

understood as a principled point about the concept of the nation, that is to

say, as pertaining to the intention or meaning of the term ‘nationalism’, rather

than as an empirical point about actually existing instances falling under the

extension of the term. Several critics are clearly pushing the stronger,

conceptual claim. Gans, for instance, states that ‘Loyalty to common political

principles cannot be considered nationalism, not even civic nationalism’

(Gans 2003: 12) and claims that the ‘philosophical rationale’ behind civic

nationalism necessarily involves a commitment to inculcating a common

national culture in a broader sense than just common political principles.

One prominent reason given for the stronger conceptual point is that

political values as such do not effectively differentiate between different

groups, and that nationalism is precisely the construction of boundaries

between social groups (Nieguth 1999; Armstrong 1982). This is a particularly

salient objection to the idea of a common national identity focused on liberal

values, since these are both shared beyond the borders of any given community

and claim universal validity, and therefore cannot function as an object of

the kind of identity characteristic of nationality (Miller 1995; Canovan 1996).

Another possible reason is the theoretical need to keep a precise and

substantive distinction between nation and state, and the specific claims of

nationalism and related kinds of political claims not based on the idea of the

nation (Dahbour 2003: 22, 25f.). One way of securing such a distinction is to

define the nation as a self-conscious ethnic community with political ambitions

for statehood (Connor 1994). But is it obvious that common political

principles cannot serve as a basis for differentiation, which is claimed to be a

necessary condition for nationality? And while it is true that the definition of

the nation in terms of shared beliefs in common ancestors – ethnicity in

Weber’s subjective sense – makes the difference between nationality and

political identity clear, is it clear that ethnicity is the only criterion on which to

differentiate the nation from the state?

Oliver Zimmer (2003) has recently sketched a theoretical model of national

identity according to which neither needs be the case, and it explains why.

Zimmer is concerned with the way in which the civic/ethnic distinction is

inadequate for capturing how conceptions of the nation are reconstructed

over time in public discourse. His way of disaggregating the distinction does

not only focus on the different components that are conflated in civic and

ethnic conceptions of the nation, but also distinguishes two levels of analysis.

On the one hand different ‘symbolic resources’ such as political values and

institutions, culture, history and geography, may be the focus or content of a

conception of the nation. On the other hand, these symbolic resources may be

employed by social actors as part of different mechanisms of identity

construction, so-called ‘boundary mechanisms’ (2003: 178f.). Zimmer distinguishes

between two kinds of boundary mechanisms, ‘voluntarist’ mechanisms

operating on a constructivist logic, and ‘organic’ mechanisms operating

on a deterministic logic. His point is that the symbolic resources provide the

‘raw material’ which social actors use in reconstructing conceptions of the

nation, and that ‘what matters with regard to the construction of national

identities is less what resources political actors draw upon than how they put

these resources to practical use’ (2003: 181). The latter is a question of the

boundary mechanism through which resources are ‘processed’ or interpreted.

The implication of Zimmer’s model is that any of the traditional symbolic

resources can be cashed out as part of a conception of the nation in either

voluntarist or organic terms, and further, that it is this ‘processing’ of the

resources that constructs the boundary of the nation, rather than the resources

providing its ‘raw material’. In other words, the critics of the notion of a civic

nation are right in arguing that shared political values, which are among

the symbolic resources listed by Zimmer, cannot by themselves generate the

differentiation or boundary which is necessary for them to qualify as a

conception of the nation. But they are nevertheless wrong, according to the

model, to infer from this that shared political values cannot provide the

content of a conception of the nation. On the level of analysis that matters,

namely the one concerned with how symbolic resources are invoked and

function in public discourse, shared political values may generate the required

differentiation if interpreted by means of an organic boundary mechanism. In

practice this means that the elements of a national identity, whatever they are

taken to be, can be invoked, that is to say talked about, by social actors as

characteristics of either an organic or a voluntary community. The difference is

whether membership is presented as open to individual choice or not. So any

way of talking about ‘us’ that does not allow for others to become ‘one of us’ is

a case of an organic boundary mechanism in operation.

If this is correct, then the objection to the suggestion that appeals to ‘national

values’ may be a kind of nationalism on the grounds that it is a necessary

condition for nationality to differentiate is ineffective. But even if functional

differentiation is a necessary condition for nationality, it is not sufficient.

Functional boundary construction was originally suggested as a definition of

ethnicity rather than of nationality (Barth 1969) and might not, therefore,

distinguish between nationality and all other kinds of collective identity.

Nationality must accordingly meet further conditions, one prominent one being

that the ‘raw material’ or content of national identity must be a myth of common

descent (Smith 1986, 1991, 1998: 186f.; Armstrong 1982; Connor 1994).

The discussion has nevertheless shown that appeals to shared political

values may share at least one essential feature of nationality, namely its

differentiating nature. The ambition of the paper is not to argue that such

appeals considered on their own terms, in isolation from other public views

about what constitutes the nation, qualify as conceptions of the nation.

Nevertheless, the centrality of shared values to the traditional notion of civic

nationalism, and the fact that the political values under discussion are invoked

as ‘national values’, may be further reasons for considering this a real

possibility. The claim is merely that the ‘nationalisation of political values’

may exhibit at least this feature of nationalism, and, furthermore, that certain

normative and explanatory implications seem to follow from this alone. This

is still a purely conceptual point, and the next section considers whether it

holds when the political values in question are liberal values.

Liberal values as national values

Without specifying in any greater detail the exact meaning of ‘liberal’, it is

reasonable to say that what is ordinarily referred to as liberal values, such as

individual freedom and equality, and derived liberties and virtues such as

freedom of expression and association, toleration of differences, equality of

the sexes and the right to democratic participation, are widely endorsed,

especially in the ‘west’ but also beyond, and claim a kind of universal validity.

That is to say, they are ordinarily presented as based on a conception of all

humans being free and equal. On this minimal characterisation of liberal

values, the very idea of presenting liberal values as national values seems at

best peculiar and at worst incoherent (e.g. Joppke 2005: 56f.), particularly if
national values are supposed to provide a differentiation between members of

the nation and non-members. If liberal values are shared beyond what can

plausibly be considered a nation, and if their own logic implies that persons

are morally alike irrespective of nationality, it seems false and inconsistent to

invoke them as national values, and problematic to interpret such appeals as a

kind of nationalism.

Two versions must be distinguished of this envisaged charge of inconsistency.

On the one hand, the problem might pertain to the presentation of

liberal values as ‘national values’, or it might, on the other hand, have to do

with the interpretation of such cases as forms of nationalism. In the first case,

the charge of inconsistency or incoherence is directed at the participants in

public discourse who appeal to liberal values as national values; in the latter it

is aimed at the theoretical classification of such appeals as nationalist. The

first, practical, problem is that the social and political actors in question

supposedly commit a kind of performative inconsistency, or simply use the

concepts in a way that is incoherent or false. The second, theoretical, problem

is one of overextending the concept of nationalism in a way that not only

makes the specific application of it false but perhaps also stretches the concept

in such a way that it loses its meaning and explanatory import. The difference

between these two charges is mainly one of address – they are directed at

social actors and theoretical interpreters, respectively – but they may both be

valid at the same time. What is more, the reasons why they are valid, if they

are, will most likely be the same, namely that liberal values are universal both

in theory and practice, whereas nationality and nationalism has to do with

particularity. It is nevertheless worth considering the charges separately, and

to keep the possibility open that even if it is, strictly speaking, true that the

presentation of liberal values as national values makes no sense, they may for

this very reason, be a kind of nationalism.

The first, practical, problem may be addressed in either a simple or a more

complicated manner. Looked at simply, there is indeed something ominous

about presenting liberal values as national values, at least if this is understood

as pointing out a feature that sets the nation in question fundamentally apart

from others, and not merely as a concession that others have yet to see the

light and adopt liberal values. Whether a social actor, by doing so, commits

him- or herself to a kind of performative inconsistency or false claim depends,

however, on how, and on what level of analysis, the utterance is interpreted,

and this already takes the question to the more complicated level. But it is at

least the case that such an utterance may be false in a simple and direct way, if

the presentation is intended or understood as a claim to the effect that the

specific group in question is the only one that properly values liberal values.

Looked at in a more complicated manner, the presentation of liberal values

as national values may either be understood as a non truth-apt statement, that

is as a claim that is not supposed to be evaluated in terms of truth and

falsehood; or it may be understood in light of a theoretical understanding of

what a nation is. In the first case, nationality is not a matter of objective

differences and commonalities, but of subjective identifications and conceptions

of differences and commonalities. To say that liberal values are national

values, then, is simply a way of expressing that a particular group of persons

identify with these values and identify themselves on this basis; it is not a claim

that this identification actually tracks an objective commonality between these

people, just as it is not crucial whether the history with which the group

identifies is true or mythical (cf. Archard 1995; Miller 1995).

It is questionable, however, whether many social and political actors, if

any, actually subscribe to such a sophisticated conception of the semantic

status of their statements. Even if they do not, and even if their claims are,

strictly speaking, false, their presentation of liberal values as national values

might still make sense from a theoretical point of view on the basis of a

sufficiently nuanced theory of nationality, and of the fulfilment of the

conditions necessary for the adjective ‘national’ to make sense in relation to

liberal values. One such conception was related in the last section, namely

Zimmer’s model of conceptions of the nation in terms of symbolic resources

and boundary mechanisms. According to this theory, conceptions of the

nation are not to be considered primarily on the basis of their content, the

symbolic resources invoked in order to characterise the nation, but in terms of

the boundary mechanisms used by social actors to forge these resources into a

distinctive national identity.

To extend this way of thinking about nations, the important thing is not

whether the liberal values appealed to as national values are in fact objective

characteristics distinguishing the nation from other nations, but whether these

values are invoked in such a way that they serve the purpose of distinguishing

between some construction of the nation and its resulting ‘others’. If it is

possible for social actors to present liberal values in public discourse in a way
that makes them the symbolic basis for a socially effective distinction between

‘us’ (the nation) and ‘others’, then the characterisation of the values as

national values makes sense from a theoretical point of view. This is because

they fulfil the boundary construction function of a conception of the nation,

which involves both inclusion and exclusion (Nieguth 1999: 157), rather than

because of the truth of what might be an implied factual claim that members

of a particular nation subscribe to liberal values whereas others do not. The

appeal to liberal values in public discourse and the presentation of them as

national values may serve this social function, in the sense that these allegedly

national values are articulated as a focus of identification for members of the

nation (this is the inclusion part), and as something that distinguishes ‘us’

from ‘them’ (exclusion).

The fact that it may very well be the case that not all perceived members of

the nation actually do subscribe to or act on liberal values, and that many of

those perceived as ‘others’ actually do, does not prove that it is false to

characterise liberal values as national values. A way of capturing this is to say

that appeals to national values are performative rather than, or as well as,

declarative speech acts (Austin 1976, Brubaker 2004: 10). The invocation of

‘national values’ may be performatively successful if it succeeds in projecting a

difference between groups while failing on a declarative level, which is the case

if the projection does not correspond to objective differences and the claim

that there is a distinction is strictly speaking false.

This sense in which liberal values may be nationalised is distinct from

another, which has to do with the fact that general liberal values are bound to
be interpreted differently in different political and cultural contexts. Specific

national interpretations need not function as organic boundary mechanisms

in the sense discussed here, as ways to project a difference between members

and non-members. Conversely, organic boundary mechanisms do not concern

specific national interpretations, which pertain to the content of the conception

of the nation, but concern the performative invocations of the values,

however these are interpreted.

So, appeals to liberal values as national values may be problematic in so far

as liberal values are universal and national values particular. But they may at

the same time make perfect sense and be successful articulations of what,

from a theoretical point of view, encapsulates the essential features of a

conception of the nation. This more complex stance in relation to the practical

problem immediately suggests the proper response to the second, theoretical,

problem about whether it makes sense to classify such appeals as a kind of

nationalism: in so far as invocations of liberal values as national values

actually succeed in constructing the noted kind of social boundaries, then such

appeals are relevantly similar to nationalism.

The nationalisation of liberal values in contexts of immigration and Europeanisation

In the preceding sections, two principled or conceptual objections to the

suggestion that the nationalisation of liberal values might be a kind of

nationalism have been addressed. But it is one thing to indicate how the

general concepts ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ may be understood so that this

suggestion is not immediately incoherent or meaningless; it is quite another to

argue that this conceptual possibility actually obtains, or might do so under

reasonably familiar circumstances. The second task calls for detailed empirical

studies of particular cases, which lie beyond the scope of this paper. The

present section will, however, indicate two political contexts in which there is

at least some reason to believe that the nationalisation of liberal values plays a

significant role, and where the similarity with nationalism might furthermore

be of both explanatory and normative import.

In the context of debates about immigration and the integration (or lack

thereof) of immigrant minorities, the opposition between majority and,

especially after 11 September 2001, Muslim minorities is particularly salient

in most European countries (cf. e.g. Modood et al. 2006; see e.g. Conway

2004: 195f.; Scruton 2002, for Islam-critical views). This opposition is

interesting for the present purposes because (1) it is very often the focus of

nationalist rhetoric and mobilisation, for instance in connection with calls for

stricter immigration, naturalisation and repatriation policies; (2) it is to a

significant extent framed in terms of conflicting political values, specifically

between liberalism and Islam; and (3) it is nevertheless portrayed as somehow

inevitable and intrinsically irresolvable, in so far as Muslims are sometimes

assumed to be incapable of adopting liberal values.3

It is common to sketch this opposition in terms of ‘culture’. There are

micro-level oppositions between different cultural practices, for example

conflicting traditions regarding attire, the relation between the sexes, and

behaviour in public; and there is the more general clash of views about how

society should function and what the proper aims of politics are – liberal
democracy versus sharia law. The latter opposition is political and concerns

different political values which may come pre-packaged with religious and

cultural commitments and justifications. The general conflict does not

primarily concern specific religious beliefs or most of the cultural practices,

but hinges on the assignment of overriding political significance to a particular

view of these – hence the common way of framing the conflict as a clash

between fundamentalist and ‘medieval’ Islam, which has allegedly not had the

benefits of the Enlightenment, and secularised European Christianity, which

supposedly has.

In this contest of political views, the established European societies are

avowedly liberal. But the liberal values are, as noted, often presented as

‘national values’ (e.g. Danish Government 2002 and 2005). One reason for

this may be that political elites see it as a way of robbing nationalist radicals of

some of their appeal by appropriating their rhetoric; another may be the

common conflation of ‘state’ and ‘nation’. But on the basis of the concept of

nationalism, and the understanding of nationality sketched above, these

appeals might also exhibit essential features of nationalism. Whether they

do so depends on the way in which the so-called national values are invoked

and what the effect they have is. It is in relation to these questions that the

possibility of portraying the conflict of values between liberal national

societies and immigrant minorities as deterministic is significant. There are

a number of possible indicators of such a deterministic logic: Muslims are

often portrayed as problematic as a group consisting not only of Muslim

immigrants, but also of their descendants who are born and raised in Europe;
and individual Muslims or descendants of Muslim immigrants are expected to

answer for the acts and views of other Muslims. A principled incompatibility

between Islam and liberal values is furthermore sometimes inferred from the

history of Islam, which is taken to imply that Muslims cannot be liberals or

cannot really accept a liberal political order. Two versions of this view must be

distinguished: one is that Islam is incompatible with liberalism, so that there is

a conflict between Islamic and liberal principles. Another is that Muslims

cannot become liberals. It is the second view that really expresses a

deterministic logic, since it questions whether individuals with an Islamic

background or identity are able to accept the liberal commitments required by

membership in liberal states, whether or not this requires a modification of

their Islamic commitments. This second view is not widely expressed beyond

certain radical right-wing circles (for an example, see ENAR 2003), but seems

to exert some influence on the more widespread anxiety towards Muslims.

This illustrates how conflicts over political values between majorities and

immigrant minorities may be presented in ways similar to Zimmer’s organic

boundary mechanism (2003: 178f.), namely in ways that construe minorities

as being inherently different from the majority. So even though the liberal

values invoked as national values are in principle inclusive and universal, they

may be invoked in a way that serves to exclude, in this case, Muslims from

becoming members of the envisaged nation. Where this is the case – and it is

far from all instances of the ubiquitous debates about immigration and

integration that match this characterisation – the nationalisation of liberal

values exhibits clear affinities with nationalism.

Another context where the nationalisation of liberal values seems to play a

role is the political debates surrounding the European Union, especially in

Euro-sceptic member states like Britain and Denmark. In these countries,

transfers of sovereignty and authority to the Union are seen as a threat to

what is presented as national political values, such as individual liberty and

limits on government (this is especially the concern of English conservatives

and classic liberals like Scruton 2004 and Conway 2004), or democratic

legitimacy and accountability (this a particularly strong Scandinavian concern,

cf. Lawler 2003). So the problem with European integration, on these

bases, is that it constitutes a threat to cherished political values. These values

are furthermore, and once again, presented as national values, despite the fact

that there is broad agreement on both individual liberty and democracy, in

some interpretation or other, as political ideals in all the members states of the

European Union, and that the protection of these values is among the stated

aims of the Union. Finally, the difference with respect to these political values

is often considered as a kind of natural fact in countries like Britain and

Denmark, by Euro-sceptics in particular, but also by major parts of their

respective populations. Even though the European project is in a process of

continuous development under the direction of the member states, all of them

liberal democracies, the perception seems to be that the Union necessarily

suffers from a deficit of democracy and an inherent tendency towards

overbureaucratisation that is incompatible with accountability and respect for

individual liberties. Where this is the case, the projected conflict between

national values and Europeanisation is presented and perceived as governed

by a deterministic logic. The invocation in this context of liberal values as

national values thus seems to be another example of an organic boundary

mechanism akin to Zimmer’s construct – the difference in relation to the case

of immigrant minorities being that the exclusion and boundary construction

now relates not so much to people but to political institutions and processes.

To the extent that Euro-scepticism takes the form of a nationalisation of

liberal values – and there are of course many other forms of Euro-scepticism –

and these are conceived of in organic terms – which they need not be – then

this, too, is relevantly similar to a kind of nationalism.


the explanatory and normative significance of the nationalisation of liberal values

That the nationalisation of liberal values may have relevant features in

common with nationalism is a corrective to views such as Habermas’s

‘constitutional patriotism’ (1992) premised on the assumption that a focus

on political values is a way of avoiding nationalism. It furthermore raises the

question whether the normative worries associated with nationalism, on a

concern with which the project of formulating a liberal nationalism is based

(Tamir 1993; Miller 1995), may also apply to the nationalisation of liberal

values. The standard questions in the debate on liberal nationalism concern

the possible (a) acceptability and (b) justifiability of some forms of nationalism

relative to liberal values, as well as (c) the coherence of resulting notions

of liberal nationalism (for critical discussions, see e.g. Abizadeh 2004; Moore

2001; Buttle 2000; Patten 1999). If nationalism assigns priority to considerations

of nationality over liberal values, it is not liberal, and there seem to be

counterexamples to empirical claims that common nationality is necessary in

order to secure liberal values. But this might still leave room for a liberal

nationalism that assigns political significance to nationality in some areas of

policy and within liberal constraints. The debates over these questions

proceed on the basis of traditional understandings of nationalism as the

political appeal to nationality understood along ethnic or cultural lines. If

the argument of the present paper is reasonably sound, some cases that

are relevantly similar to nationalism are not captured by this focus on the

substantive content of conceptions of the nation. A liberal concern with

nationalism needs to consider the ways in which the elements of nationality

are invoked as well.

As regards public appeals to liberal values as national values, the

normative concern would seem to be the way these tend to be interpreted

as organic, that is, as governed by a deterministic logic not allowing for the

kind of voluntary choices in allegiance emphasised by liberalism. The problem

in classic ethnic conceptions of the nation, from a liberal perspective, is that it

is not possible, for example for immigrants, if they so choose, to integrate into

the nation, whereas a liberal nationalism is characterised by making this

possible (cf. e.g. Kymlicka 2001: 40; Miller 1995: 128f.). But according to

Zimmer’s model of national identities, whether this is possible is not (only) a

function of the symbolic resources that provide the content of a given

conception of the nation, but of the boundary mechanisms on which it relies.

And as argued here, organic boundary mechanisms can be operative in

relation to the nationalisation of liberal values. So liberals should, paradoxical

as it may sound, be wary of the way in which public appeals are made to

liberal values, since these appeals may actually lead to exclusion (also in ways

not addressed by Joppke 2005). The normative implication of the widening of

the category of nationalism suggested in this paper is that liberalism, which is

concerned with inclusion, in the sense of finding a set of political principles

that all reasonable members of society can accept (Rawls 1993), runs the risk

of excluding some groups as possible parties to this ‘overlapping consensus’,

not because of the political principles as such, but because of the way they are

publicly presented.

This normative worry further indicates what might be an explanatory gain

associated with the view of the nationalisation of liberal values suggested

here. If it is indeed the case that public invocations of liberal values as

national values can exhibit essential features of nationalism, in the sense that

these national values can be interpreted through an organic boundary

mechanism and as such function as a means of inclusion and exclusion, this

offers an explanatory perspective on how such appeals are received and

reacted to by the groups that might be excluded, for instance immigrant

minorities. Much of the debate on Muslims in Europe concerns the compatibility

of Islam and a liberal democratic political order. Accordingly, any sign

of dissent or criticism of the way established European societies function from

the side of Muslims tend to be interpreted as an expression of illiberal

sentiments or views. But this way of framing the conflict, as a matter of

liberal societies versus illiberal minorities, is problematic and may not capture
what is really at stake. It is problematic to the extent that it may deepen the

hostility on both sides and make it even harder for the sizeable proportion of

Muslims who attempt to adapt their faith to a western and liberal life to do so.

And it is inadequate in so far as what is really at stake, or at least what is also

the matter besides a certain degree of value conflict, is that immigrant

minorities feel excluded by the way in which representatives of the majority

appeal to liberal values.

It seems that at least some of the conflicts between minorities and

majorities involve this kind of problem. The view of the nationalisation of

liberal values presented here points out the important difference between

political values, and the way in which they are invoked in public discourse. It

may also pave the way towards a more nuanced understanding of the conflicts

contemporary Europe faces with the challenge of integrating immigrant



1 See e.g. Mouritsen 2006 and Lawler 2003 on Denmark, Bauböck 2003 on Germany,
Laborde 2001 on France. For a more partisan statement, see e.g. Conway 2004 on England.
See Miller 1995 on the idea of a national public culture as including certain political

2 See further Smith 1986: 135–138, 1991: 9–13, 80–83; Greenfeld 1992: 10f; Seymour
1998; Schnapper 1998; Yack 1999; Nielsen 1999; Nieguth 1999; Zimmer 2003; Gans 2003:
8–17; Brubaker 2004, chap. 6.

3 The recent ‘cartoon controversy’ sparked by the publication of caricatures of the Prophet
Mohammad in a Danish Newspaper is a case in point. It provides an illustration of how
western majorities and Muslims can be presented as being inherently differentiated over
political values (freedom of expression versus respect for religion, for example), and how
the presentation of freedom of expression as a ‘national value’ may construct these
differences in organic terms.


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