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National Identity and Support for the Welfare State

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2010

Richard Johnston*
University of British Columbia
Keith Banting*
Queen's University
Will Kymlicka*
Queen's University
Stuart Soroka*
McGill University
Richard Johnston, University of British Columbia, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, C425-1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1. Email:
Keith Banting, School of Policy Studies, Queen's University, 138 Union Street, Room 217, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6. Email:
Will Kymlicka, Department of Philosophy, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6. Email:
Stuart Soroka, Department of Political Science, McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke St West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T7. Email:


Abstract. This paper examines the role of national identity in sustaining public support for the welfare state. Liberal nationalist theorists argue that social justice will always be easier to achieve in states with strong national identities, which, they contend, can both mitigate opposition to redistribution among high-income earners and reduce any corroding effects of ethnic diversity resulting from immigration. We test these propositions with Canadian data from the Equality, Security and Community survey. We conclude that national identity does increase support for the welfare state among the affluent majority of Canadians and that it helps to protect the welfare state from toxic effects of cultural suspicion. However, we also find that identity plays a narrower role than existing theories of liberal nationalism suggest and that the mechanisms through which it works are different. This leads us to suggest an alternative theory of the relationship between national identity and the welfare state, one that suggests that the relationship is highly contingent, reflecting distinctive features of the history and national narratives of each country. National identity may not have any general tendency to strengthen support for redistribution, but it may do so for those aspects of the welfare state seen as having played a particularly important role in building the nation or in enabling it to overcome particular challenges or crises.

Résumé. Cet article examine le rôle de l'identité nationale en matière d'appui populaire à l'État-providence. Les théoriciens du nationalisme libéral soutiennent que la justice sociale sera toujours plus facile à réaliser dans les États ayant une forte identité nationale, laquelle, selon eux, peut à la fois atténuer l'opposition à la redistribution chez les personnes à revenu élevé et réduire les effets corrosifs de la diversité ethnique engendrée par l'immigration. Nous évaluons ces propositions à la lumière des données canadiennes de l'Étude sur l'égalité, la sécurité et la communauté. Nous concluons que l'identité nationale augmente effectivement l'appui envers l'État-providence parmi les Canadiens fortunés de la majorité, et qu'elle aide à protéger l'État-providence contre les effets toxiques de la suspicion culturelle. Cependant, nous constatons également que l'identité joue un rôle plus restreint que ne le suggèrent les théories existantes du nationalisme libéral et que ses mécanismes de fonctionnement sont différents. Cela nous amène à proposer une autre théorie de la relation entre l'identité nationale et l'État-providence, une théorie selon laquelle cette relation est fortement contingente et reflète les caractéristiques propres de l'histoire et de la tradition nationale de chaque pays. L'identité nationale n'a peut-être, en soi, aucune tendance générale à renforcer l'appui à la redistribution, mais elle peut le faire pour les aspects de l'État-providence considérés comme ayant joué un rôle particulièrement important dans l'édification de la nation, ou lui ayant permis de surmonter des crises ou des défis particuliers.

Research Article
Copyright © Canadian Political Science Association 2010

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