League of nationalists

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Donald Trump is only part of a pattern around the world of nationalism gaining ground. But what is “nationalism” and why is this happening? This edited version of a piece from the Economist gives us a steer.

Since the French Revolution there has been a concept of universal rights of the citizen to enjoy ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. In contrast, the nationalism born in the unification of Germany harked back to their concept of “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil) a romantic and exclusive belief in race and tradition as the essence of national belonging – to enjoy identity with your “Volk” (people) as a distinct group in the world.

All societies draw on nationalism of one sort or another so we shouldn’t underestimate how central these nationalist categories are to people’s thinking about democracy. It’s troubling how many countries are now shifting away from the idea of a universal nation of man towards the ‘blood-and-soil’ ethnic mind-set. In other words positive “patriotism” is morphing into a negative “nationalism”.  “Solidarity” is dangerously mutating into “distrust” of minorities.

While totalitarian nationalism is extinct except in North Korea and possibly Eritrea, it’s clear that an exclusive ethnically-based form of nationalism is on the rise. In rich democracies, it’s a potent vote-winner. In autocracies, rulers espouse it to distract people from their lack of freedom. For example Donald Trump persuaded 61 million Americans to vote for him by promising to build a wall on the Mexican border, deport illegal immigrants and “make America great again”. Joe Biden, the vice-president, once told a black audience that Mitt Romney, a decent if dull Republican, was “gonna put y’all back in chains”. Trump’s victory will only embolden like-minded leaders around the world.

European elites once thought national identities would eventually blend into a continental soup. But the momentum is now with parties like the FN, including Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law & Justice Party and Austria’s Freedom Party.

In Hungary Viktor Orban an immigrant-bashing prime minister said: “Now we can return to real democracy… what a wonderful world.”

In France the mantra is “No to Brussels, yes to France” as voters oppose globalisation, global trade and immigration. Marine Le Pen promises a “Frexit” referendum and Nicolas Sarkozy said: “Children who don’t want to eat pork at school should take a second helping of chips”; in other words it’s up to people whose religion imposes dietary restrictions, to make do with the food on offer”.

In Sweden the popular fear is that the generous welfare system might not survive a big influx of poor, fertile asylum-seekers and polls suggest the SD party is one of Sweden’s most popular parties.

In the Netherlands Geert Wilders is on trial for “hate speech” after goading his audience to chant “fewer Moroccans”.

In Britain the “Brexit” slogan was: “We want our country back”. As prime minister, David Cameron resigned to be replaced by Theresa May, she said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

In Russia nationalism is used by Vladimir Putin to remain popular. It rejects liberal values; and insists on an ethnically-defined “state civilisation held together by Russian people, language, culture and Orthodox Christianity”.

In China the Communist Party is blurring the distinction between itself and the nation and to prop up its legitimacy as economic growth slows. President Xi Jinping launched the slogan “Chinese Dream” to promote a “revival” via a “patriotic education” campaign extending from primary school to doctoral students. (1)

In India ethnic nationalism lies under the surface as the Hindutva party purports to represent all Hindus and promises a national rebirth, a return to an idealised past and the retrieval of an “authentic” native identity.

Scholars suggest that nationalism is built on a mixture of local language; history; culture; territory and politics – so a better question is: what turns “civic nationalism” into “national exclusivism”?

There are several answers – when Economics in rich countries slows growth it lowers support for globalisation; the Inequality of the educated thriving while blue-collar workers struggle; Globalisation causes growth so developing countries are positive about the outside world; there are Cultural factors as westerners (particularly older ones) prefer the more mono-cultural and they object to their discomfort being dismissed as racism.

The “populist” revival is driven by a more educated public! The contemporary generation were born into more diverse societies. In the post-war period about 5% of British adults went to university; today 40% are university educated. In Germany 2 million were university educated in 2005; a decade later it’s 2.8 million. In America the number rose from 26% in 1970 to 40% in 2014. Could, they ultimately counter negative nationalism?

While the “new nationalists” are riding high on promises to close borders and restore societies to a past homogeneity, if the younger generation holds out, the future will be more cosmopolitan.

Source: The Economist, Nov 19th 2016

(1)    see briefing – http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21710264-worlds-rising-superpower-has-particular-vision-ethnicity-and-nationhood-has

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