A Response to Professor Nodia


There is an inherent tension between democracy and nationalism leans toward the sentimental and volitional. Its inclination is to mold citizens' hearts and souls while fogging their capacity for critical reflection. It nurtures intense communal ties that inevitably foreclose or limit possibilities for difference and choice. Moreover, as it is usually understood, legitimate democracy requires these same capacities for critical reflection, difference, and free choice. Can, then, democracy and nationalism be compatible?

Professor Nodia's argument is that they can. Indeed, his implication is that some measure of nationalism serves to promote a deep civic virtue without which democracy itself could not subsist The response to Professor Nodia offered in this essay argues that nationalism and the powerful civic virtue it promotes all to easily overwhelm the capacities of the citizenry for legitimate democracy. Claims that the potent forces of nationalism can be sufficiently domesticated for democratic purposes must be viewed with suspicion Thinner and more bloodless mechanisms of civic virtue are to be preferred.

At least since Aristotle, students of democracy have recognized the irony that enduring democracies seem to require an undemocratic foundation. Democracy suggests unconstrained citizen rule, for example, but an enduring democracy must in fact constrain citizens from ruling in a manner that would endanger democracy itself. Any constraints on citizens' rule {demos kratia}, however, can hardly be called "democratic." Yet, would democracy subsist without those constraints on citizens (sometimes called "rights") and on their government (sometimes called "constitutions") that preserve democratic procedures themselves?

Probably not. On this point there exists little dispute among democratic theorists. There remains dispute, however, about the legitimate grounds for these sorts of constraints. The classic argument finds grounds for such constraint in a "common good" that references a substantive community of citizens. Hence, essential to the classic argument is the premise that democracy requires a vital and cohesive community in view of the common good.


Aristotle's Politics outlines one such classic conception of democracy. It begins with a fundamental division between true governments and false governments along an analytical line determined by the common good. In true governments, sovereigns govern in pursuit of this good. In false governments, sovereigns govern in pursuit of their own desires. The exterior forms of true and false governments may be the same. Monarchy, rule by one, is a true government when the single sovereign pursues the common good. If the single sovereign does not rule for the common good then such rule is, in contrast, the false government Aristotle calls "tyranny." True democracy (politeia) is government by the many citizens wherein each seeks to enact the common good.1 False democracy, according to Aristotle, occurs when the many individuals pursue self-interest rather than the common good.

For Aristotle, true democracy stands forever on the verge of devolution into false democracy. Of all forms of government, he argued, democracy is most prone to such decay. Sovereignty residing in many individual citizens, opportunities are multiplied for the virus of self-interest to infect and spread. The common good is easily lost. Furthermore, because so many sovereigns are involved, democracy when false is the most difficult form of government to bring back to pursuit of the common good. A working, true democracy, thus, requires powerful means to keep citizens' focus on the common good and to weaken the centrifugal pull of individual interests.

Accordingly, Aristotle elaborated what becomes a time-honored list of mechanisms necessary and useful for legitimate democracy; each item in the listing works (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) to canalize the sovereignty of citizens in order to preserve democracy itself. The list, of course, is familiar to almost everyone, since it is repeated in so many versions in the history of political thought. Democracy, it is claimed, needs a small but intense community. Democratic polities should be relatively homogenous in tastes, values, ideology, and wants. Indeed, one of the chief reasons behind Aristotle's dislike of democracies in general was his belief that democracies lack the stability of harmonious, differentiated parts and demand the enforcement of a pervasive sameness among citizens in order to work. So, naturally, there should exist no sharp conflicts within the community in class, ethnicity, occupation, or religion. Citizens should be encouraged to perceive the priority of the community over their individuality, and the priority of the common good over self-interest. Indeed, individuality, whether one's own or another's, should be perceived in corporate fashion as different parts of a larger whole. Frequent and active participation in the affairs of the polity, moreover, would be helpful to refresh the political bonds between citizens and between each citizen and the common good. Patriotism, ethno-centrism, and nationalism are obviously advantageous. Laws should be sanctified by tradition and a constitution such that rapid, political changes are avoided.

A powerful civic virtue is created by such mechanisms, such that democracy can be trusted to remain true. By its character, the argument goes, the government of democracy is a weak one. There being insufficient external authority in democratic government to impel citizen adherence, citizens must be disciplined within their own hearts to pursue the common good. As Aristotle put it:

The best laws, though sanctioned by every citizen of the state, will be of no avail unless the young are trained by habit and education in the spirit of the constitution, if the laws are democratical, democratically. . . .2

Without the insinuation of civic virtue by these means learned long ago from Aristotle, democracy would surely devolve into its false version.

False democracy, moreover, is the first step on a slippery path of devolution, according to the classical argument. False democracy, or rule by the many in pursuit of self-interest, becomes anarchyliterally, for Aristotle, a political vacuum begging for immediate order. A vacuum of authority in a democratic culture breeds demagogues and demagogues become tyrants. Any collapse of true democracy slides quickly into tyranny. Clearly, for the classic understanding of democracy, there is a profound imperative at work within their concern for the common good in democracies.


The problem with the classic argument for common good constraints on democracy is that the powerful civic virtue created likely undercuts democracy's ostensible legitimacy. Consider a democratically governed polis as imagined by Aristotle. Do the citizens' truly rule? Are citizens free to govern as they deliberately and reasonably choose?

Usually, answering such questions begs the old debate about positive freedom and negative freedom, wherein those who like Aristotle will claim that his bios politikos is the condition through which human happiness can be achieved. And, since happiness is the whole ball of wax, then "guiding" citizens' choice toward the common good with this powerful civic virtue only enhances and does not undercut citizens' free ruleor does it?

One of the more interesting historical manifestations of the debate about the legitimacy of common good constraints on popular sovereignty occurred during the so-called "framing" of the government of the United States. Although the intellectual lines of the debate were somewhat muddythese being practical politiciansit was the Anti-Federalists who tended to champion the Aristotelian understanding of democracy. Against Aristotelian common good and civic virtue were James Madison and the Federalist proponents of the 1787 constitution.

The Anti-Federalists, people like Luther Martin and Richard Henry Lee, recognized the endemic potential for republics to slide into anarchy and then into tyranny. To enable any vaguely democratic government to work, appealing to classical authors and Montesquieu, the Anti-Federalists emphasized that government must have its basis in local, small, and intense communities. Such communities alone were capable of tempering the self-interestedness of citizens in order that the vision of the common good might be sustained. More strongly committed to democratic ideas than the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists saw civic virtue as a necessary glue for democracy's operation. Civic virtue educated and tamed the passions of individual citizens rendering them fit to govern. As might be expected, unlike the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists tended to emphasize the importance of religion, of local patriotism, and of common values.

In contrast, Madison and the Federalists placed a greater premium on individual liberty and feared the smothering effect of intense communities. For this reason, where the Anti-Federalists sought to constrain democracy internally, by educating the hearts and souls of citizens through civic virtue, the Federalists sought to constrain democracy externally, by placing limits on anarchical or tyrannical extremes of citizen behavior through laws supported by the coercive power of the central government. As one well-known scholar of the period puts it . . .

It is no surprise that the framers rejected the classical case for the small state. Madison was hostile to the "spirit of locality" in general, not only in the states. Small communities afforded the individual less power, less mastery, and, hence, less liberty than do large states. Moreover, the small community lays hold of the affections of the individual and leads him to accept the very restraints on his interest and liberty that are inherent in smallness. The classics urged the small state in part because it might encourage the individual to limit and rule his private passions. Madison rejected such states because he rejected that sort of restraint. Small communities limit opportunities and meddle with the soul.3

There is an Hobbesian ambiance about such thinking. The Federalists judged that the political community was incapable of overcoming selfish passions and individual interests. The pursuit of such passions and interests would derive inevitably from the free choices of human beings possessed of liberty. For the Anti-Federalists' solution to work, Madison reasoned in Federalist #10, it would require a civic virtue that overwhelmed liberty itselfand that was too high a price, even for obtaining democracy. For Madison, "the first object of government" was preserving "the diversity of faculties among men."4 The classic constraint of democracy that utilized a common good inculcated by civic virtue endangered this "first object." Overt, lawlike constraints on the democratic spiritenforced by the coercive power of governmentwere preferable to the tacit and insidious mechanisms of civic virtue. Laws and similar formal procedures are promulgated widely, are subject to deliberation and public review, and are thus objects exterior to the sensibilities that are able to be accepted or resisted in the minds and hearts of citizens. Exterior constraints, furthermore, create walls of an arena within which pluralism and citizen difference are granted "free" expression. Madison wanted exactly this.

At the heart of such reasoning, is a pragmatic appreciation of pluralism and liberty. Anticipating the utilitarianism of the political economists and drawing from the same Scottish Enlightenment sources that inspired them, Madison wished to design a system of competing individual passions such that a transcendent political rationality would result. As he reasoned in a well-known phrase, "ambition must be made to counteract ambition."5 From the interplay of many differing and conflicting individual interests and passions, checked only in the extreme by efficacious laws, results an harmonious calculus. Those same individualized passions that otherwise may endanger a republic are regulated by their own competition such that the system itself is rational and ordered.6

There is a kinship here, too, with the utilitarian notion of the free market of ideas. Good policy will out, thought Madison, from the interplay of free individuals each engaged in what Madison's confidant, Thomas Jefferson, called "the pursuit of happiness." The polity succeeds by promoting and protecting the diversity of interests and the liberty of individual citizens. Civic virtue is limited to rather insipid values like tolerance and civility. Those undemocratic elements that preserve the democratic spirit itself, in Madison's case, have the character of public laws buttressed by the strong arm of a vigorous, but limited, government.


Aristotle's consideration of the problem of democracy predates nation-states, obviously, but Aristotle was clearly aware of the value that nationalism offered his appraisal of the irony of democracy. In the Politics, Aristotle takes great pains to detail the various national characteristics of the peoples of his world. The Europeans of the Balkans [and Georgians], we are told, are hot-headed and high-spirited. Persians are portrayed as docile, submissive, and inclined toward order. Phoenicians are described as untrusting and self-interested. Egyptians are found to be phlegmatic and dispassionate. Cretans are offered as miserly. Constitutions, moreover, are expected to "fit" these national characters. Some nationalities, the Persians for example, are better adapted to monarchical rulefor reasons of size as well as temperament. Others [Aristotle is vague here.] might be better suited for democracy.

Nationality itself, however, regardless of national character, is an important element in creating the civic virtue that binds citizen to polis in Aristotle's estimation. Nationality is exclusive and sharply distinguishes those within a national community from those without it. It is also comprehensive, touching each member of the community and imposing a blanket of sameness over each and shared by alland, thereby, paving over one level of those spaces of difference between citizens which distinguish the borders of their autonomy. Most importantly, though, nationality grips the hearts of citizens with an intensity sufficient to replace the passions of self-interest. Nation, patria, can be loved by citizens as if it were one's father. In such a view, the common good could be identified, not with the banality of mere common interests, but with an enduring, transcendent, and person-like life. That life, moreover, is embodied in the symbolic and tangible worlds of everyday existence: in land, language, ancestry, religion, history, custom, culture, and so forth.7 National passions, therefore, within the Aristotelian vein, offer extraordinarily potent media for the civic virtue that is believed so necessary for viable democracy.

It might be expected, given this estimation of nationalism, that the sides between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists would be clearly drawn. Madison, who recoils from intense community, might be expected to recoil as well from nationalism. The Anti-Federalists, accordingly, given their appreciation of the civic virtue/common good solution to the problem of democracy, might be expected to embrace the glue of nationalism. Curiously, however, things are somewhat reversed. The issue is basically one of size.

Madison and the Federalists believed that a participatory government based on popular sovereignty would be prey to parochial loyalties and their corresponding narrow prejudices. A vigorous national government was needed to balance and regulate these local loyalties. Supplementing that national government, in addition, was needed an overarching national loyalty. This results in an odd nationalism. It was to be a nationalism of the head, rather than of the heart. An ardent critic of passions in politics, Madison believed that a bloodless and rational nationalism could be derived from overlapping individual interests. Speaking precisely to this thin nationalism, Madison noted in his famous Federalist #10:

The operations of the national government . . . falling less immediately under the observations of the mass of citizens, the benefits derived from it will chiefly be perceived and attended to by speculative men. Relating to more general interests, they will be less apt to come home to the feelings of the people; and, in proportion, less likely to inspire an habitual sense of obligation, and an active sentiment of attachment.8

The Anti-Federalists, however, perhaps owing to their keener appreciation of civic virtue itself, doubted the Federalists' ability to create such a bloodless nationalism. The Anti-Federalists judged that citizen attachment to nation would rival that of local loyalties in passion and intensity. Herein, of course, lay the danger. Even more than Madison, the Anti-Federalists feared what has come to be called the "tyranny of the majority." In Madison's analysis, such a tyranny resulted from a confluence of individual interests. For the Anti-Federalists, however, the feared tyranny resulted more from sentiments. In creating a national sentiment, the Anti-Federalists argued, the Federalists were laying the groundwork for the emergence of a "tyranny greater than any king."9 All the power of local loyalties would be concentrated to great effect at the level of nation. No medium of civic virtue, especially not nationalism, could be bloodless. Security for individual liberty could only be protected by the promotion of diverse local communities. No individual citizen, it was reasoned, could stand against the enormous potency of the sentiments of a national polity. Resistance was only possible in communities of a much smaller scale. Without the possibility of such resistance, the Anti-Federalists reasoned, democracy was not possible, and tyranny was inevitable.10


Clearly a mixed message results from this analysis of the value of nationalism for democracy. Madison's fear of the intensity of the glue of local ties is intriguing. As anyone familiar with the so-called politics of a small community can attest, it is seldom politics at all. Small scale and intense communities seem to engender clan-like leadership structures wherein the space (or individual liberty) needed for politics is closed. The sort of authoritarian governing that results is not only not conducive for democracy, it cannot even be called politics.11 Realizing this and drawing upon his own considerable analysis of the failures of previous participatory governments in history, Madison was convinced that only a politics of competitive interests coupled with nationalism could maximize and secure the basic liberty that was necessary for legitimate participatory government.

In retrospect, however. the Anti-Federalists' fears conceding Madison's solution to the problem of democracy and nationalism have proven to be warranted. The arrangements of the 1787 constitution have worked in conjunction with other factors peculiar to the history of the United States to yield a potent nationalistic civic virtue that potentially confirms the Anti-Federalists' fears. As early as the era of Jackson, for example. foreign visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville were writing with concern about the inordinate nationalism found here.12 Tocqueville associates the emergence of this nationalism with the tastes of the majority of citizens enforced by the market-like operation of the "open society" and America's democratic culture. Tocqueville's oft cited "tyranny of the majority" that he discovered in Jacksonian America is really more akin to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." This realization offers an insight into an irony in Madison's thought that was overlooked by the Anti-Federalists.

That irony is that the admixture of market-like mechanisms and nationalism that Madison promoted can foment a more thoroughgoing civic virtue than anything imagined by Aristotle or the Anti-Federalists. The "market" at stake in this, of course, goes far beyond economics. In Madison s own estimation it is a market of interests, of ideas. of values, of tastes of fashions and so on. And, like all markets, the results of these forces are given normative value. Markets are "fair," the claim goes; they are "free," "natural." "harmonious," and even "ineluctable." Mixing such market-like mechanisms with nationalism weaves a singular civic virtue that binds citizens' hearts and souls in the manner of nationalism's sentimentality, while demanding citizens' rational approval by invoking the normative claims made by all markets. The final fabric of this weave is a civic virtue that is scarcely resistible.

Madison's own fears of intense civic virtue come back to bear on the results of his own thinking at this point. His argument in the Federalist Papers was that a totalizing civic virtue would undercut the possibility of the rationality in politics that was required for legitimate participatory government. It would also eliminate the range of difference and pluralism among the citizenry that he believed to be the motor of civilization and of responsible politics. The famous tenth Federalist paper is illustrative. Madison did not wish to destroy factions; he wanted a permanent system of diverse countervailing factions designed to secure space for the differences among citizens that enabled and promoted liberty. Sadly, the conjunction of nationalism with markets that he proposed to maintain such a system, has worked in a wholly opposite direction to create a monolithic and near totalizing civic virtue that imperils the very legitimacy Madison sought to preserve. All of which signals, once again the inherent tension between democracy and nationalism.


So, what can be concluded from the muddle of these arguments? Three points. First, Madison offers telling criticism of common good\civic virtue solutions to the problem of democracy. External, formal, public laws are preferable to the tacit controls on democracy offered by civic virtue. To be sure, some minimum civic virtue is necessary to engender support for law, but that civic virtue ought to be limited to values like tolerance, procedural due process, and pluralist equality. Second, nationalism probably cannot be made sufficiently thin and bloodless such that it might serve as the medium for inculcating the indicated values. This means, it seems, that nationalism endangers the legitimacy and durability of democracy. Hence, third, the Anti-Federalists' insistence on much smaller communities for the working of democracy makes much sense. While Madison was correct in being fearful of the potential of small communities to smother the autonomy of individuals that is necessary for democracy, the Anti-Federalists were correct to perceive that a nation-state coupled with nationalism is no less likely and is even more capable of such tyranny.

Contrary to Professor Nodia's thinking, it does not seen that nationalism can be sufficiently domesticated for democracy's purposes.

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.


1. Some liberty is taken in calling politeia "true democracy". Aristotle contends that it is a mixed form of government that contains elements of oligarchy. Nonetheless, Aristotle argues that it "inclines toward democracy" (IV, 8, 36) and that what he calls politeia has been called democracy by most others (IV, 13, 24-5). Moreover, the element of oligarchy Aristotle prefers to mix with democracy to form the politeia is election of limited term legislators on the basis of merit. Aristotle's politeia, then would seem to fall in the genus of democracy as the term is popularly understood.

2. Politics, Book V, chap. 9 (15-18).

3. Wilson Carey McWilliams, "Democracy and the Citizen: Community Dignity, and the Crisis of Contemporary Politics in America", in How Democratic is the Constitution?, ed. Robert A. Goldwin and William A. Schambra (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1980), p. 89.

4. Federalist #10.

5. Federalist #51.

6. The author has argued elsewhere that the market-like operation of this system would engender its own subtle and effective civic virtue. Michel Foucault argues, for example, that liberal democracies and the so-called free market are extremely effective instruments for disciplining and repressing individual autonomy.

7. I am reminded of a story Emmanuel Mounier told in his journal, Esprit, of a village in the champagne region of France. After the fall of France during the Second World War, the villagers went to the two chateau wineries in the area and systematically destroyed bottle after bottle of champagne so as to "save" these bottled spirits of the French nation from being defiled (read "being drunk") by the Germans. That is the thing about nation, it can infiltrate and overwhelm almost every aspect of citizens' lives.

8. Madison, Federalist #10.

9. Patrick Henry, Speech before the Virginia Ratifying Convention.

10. It is worth noting that it was the Anti-Federalists who demanded a Bill of Rights as an addition to the U.S. Constitution. These rights, they perceived, were a defense against the peril of powerful national sentiment.

11. This is one of the few widely accepted "facts" of the social sciences. Weber, Durkheim, Parson -- every luminary among classic writers in the social sciences has been intrigued by this point. Recent research suggests an anthropological, if not a biological, origin of such patterns in human organization. See, for example, Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes for a fascinating comparison of the authoritarian structure of small human communities and similar communities among apes (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).

12. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Bk. II, chap. 13, passim.