The New Nationalism

Something strange has been happening all year in Western politics. Both in the United States and Europe, events dismissed as unthinkable have occurred again and again. In June, Britons voted to leave the European Union. In November, Americans elected Donald Trump to be President. In opinion polls throughout 2016, Euroskeptic parties like Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement in Italy and the National Front in France, once derided as fringe movements, have shown continuing appeal. In fact, in Italy, Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement just combined to defeat a constitutional referendum championed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leading Renzi to resign.

Local factors explain much, of course. In the United States, the choice of Trump may reflect less a political realignment than an uninspiring candidate on the other side, as well as a pent-up frustration with political correctness and disappointment with the Obama administration. And the long-term consequences of the elections of 2016 may turn out to be less than first appear. The 2012 election was supposed to inaugurate a new Democratic majority in American politics. It didn’t work out that way.

Still, taken together, the political events of 2016 reflect an important common theme: the resurgence of nationalism across the West. Although other factors are also involved and nationalism’s revival has not been complete—in Austria this past weekend, mainstream parties worked together to defeat decisively a nationalist candidate for president—throughout this year, nationalist resistance to global liberalism turned out to be the most influential force in Western politics.

To be sure, traditional conservatism played a role in these developments—but only an indirect one. Although the Right, broadly defined, achieved victories in the United States and Europe, what we think of as “movement conservatism” did not. In Britain, the leaders of the Conservatives opposed Brexit; in America, many conservatives opposed Trump. In France, the Republican Party has worked hard to distance itself from the National Front, which it views as an embarrassment. In Italy, the Five Star Movement declares itself non-aligned and draws votes from both the Left and the Right.

Nor did Christian conservatism triumph in 2016. True, the majority of British Christians wanted their country out of the European Union and the majority of American Christians voted for Trump (the members of some denominations by wide margins). But both the Brexit campaign and the American election downplayed religious themes. Trump did not make Christian values a centerpiece of his agenda. Many Christians who supported him did so from a fear of what a Hillary Clinton administration would mean for their religious freedom rather than a belief that Trump shared their values. In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen strongly supports secularism. For an express appeal to Catholic values, one must turn instead to the Republican Party’s candidate, François Fillon.

In short, although traditional conservatism has been on the winning side in recent political contests, it has been a junior partner in a larger project: the revival of nationalism. Nationalism is a complicated phenomenon that takes different forms. A good working definition is the following: a political program that unites a people with a common ancestry or culture together with a sovereign state. Nationalism rejects attempts to subordinate the state to outside governance. Often, it seeks to protect local traditions from being diluted by an aggressive global culture. In its present iteration, it sets the nation-state against supranational, liberal regimes like the EU or NAFTA, and local customs and traditions, including religious traditions, against alien, outside trends.

Nationalism can be a malign force or a beneficial one. Especially when tied to ethnic claims, it has led to great horrors. On the other hand, it had a major role in resisting, and ultimately defeating, fascism and communism in the 20th century. And a cultural nationalism such as the United States has had for much of its history, which welcomes immigrants from across the globe provided they assimilate to local traditions, can do much to promote social peace and tolerance.

One can easily perceive nationalism’s role in the politics of 2016. Repeatedly, the side advocating a recovery of sovereignty from supranational bodies and a limit on immigration prevailed. In the Brexit campaign, the “Leave” supporters argued that Britain must take back control from EU bureaucrats and assert authority over its borders. Here, Trump famously called for withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and for renegotiation of other free-trade agreements, including NAFTA; for a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants; and for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen has proudly declared that “the time of the nation state is back” and calls for restrictions on immigration and an end to multiculturalism. She maintains that the EU should be reconceived as a loose collection of sovereign states and that France should withdraw from the common currency. The ideology of Italy’s Euroskeptics is more fluid; nationalism is weaker in Italy, too. But important elements within Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement express skepticism about the EU and seek to withdraw from the euro, and also disfavor allowing large numbers of immigrants into the country.

The resurgence of nationalism upsets the conventional wisdom, which for some time has predicted the eclipse of the nation-state and the triumph of global, free market liberalism. Even Francis Fukuyama, who originated the idea of “the End of History” in 1989, has begun to reconsider. (Access to his article in the Financial Times is best from this link.) Why was the conventional wisdom wrong? Many observers argue that the financial rewards of global liberalism have been poorly distributed, with benefits going to a small number of elites within each country. Global liberalism may look great to cosmopolitans in New York and Los Angeles, who enjoy cheaper goods and services and higher returns on their investments, but to many in Middle America, who have lost well-paying factory jobs, and whose communities have been decimated by unemployment and other social ills, the advantages are harder to discern.

The lagging fortunes of what used to be called the working class are only part of the story, though, and not the most important part. As Fukuyama acknowledges, many well-educated Americans with reasonable professional prospects, who could expect to benefit from global liberalism, also supported Trump. For these Americans, too, the new world order of multiculturalism and ever-freer trade seemed lacking.

Does that mean these Americans reject liberalism itself? Maybe. Political scientist Yashca Mounk points to some worrying trends. But not necessarily—they may just want a liberalism tied to a coherent national community. Liberalism is not simply an abstract set of propositions; it is a tradition embedded in a particular political culture. Ultimately, it depends on a shared identity beyond markets and human rights, on a cultural and social unity that transcends cheaper prices and due process of law. A global liberalism divorced from local communities is a pale substitute for the deeper sources of belonging to which people naturally turn when they face a crisis. That, more than anything else, is the key political lesson of 2016.

 

Mark L. Movsesian

Mark L. Movsesian is Frederick A. Whitney Professor and Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University Law School.

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  1. gabe says

    “…they may just want a liberalism tied to a coherent national community. Liberalism is not simply an abstract set of propositions; it is a tradition embedded in a particular political culture. Ultimately, it depends on a shared identity beyond markets and human rights, on a cultural and social unity that transcends cheaper prices and due process of law ”

    And THAT says it all. something our conservative NeverTrumpsters would do well to remember.

    To my mind, what we are witnessing is the emergence of a *benign* nationalism, one that is more concerned with “place” and tradition than with cheap prices and readily available goods from the world over; one that recognizes that a polity, even a “free-market” economy ought not to place enhanced profit over the welfare of its citizens AND one in which supranational (or in USA, Federal) authorities ought not to dictate the everyday lives of the people.

  2. nobody.really says

    Eh. I’m always doubtful of the argument that voters change their positions based on abstract philosophical ideas. And I’m especially doubtful when the person making the argument just happens to embrace the philosophical ideas in question. This smells of wish fulfillment, not analysis.

    I have a different read—one that is not necessarily inconsistent with Mosovian’s and gabe’s, but simpler: Working-class people are having a harder time getting and keeping good-paying jobs. So they adopt a defensive posture, relying on fellow members of whatever tribe they identify with. And if they perceive that some members of their tribe are doing better than the working class are, they perceive this as disloyal. They imagine that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor—rather than that the rich are merely getting richer AT THE SAME TIME AS the poor are getting poorer.

    So working class people are voting for “nationalism” (including white nationalism) and other forms of tribalism. It is far from clear that this will have the effect of helping working class people get and keep good-paying jobs. But in the meantime, we’ll have dog-in-the-manger policies: Stopping globalism and free trade may not help me, but at least it will hurt you!

    This may prove to be a beneficial step in the long run by. The working class may be able to extract a larger share of the benefits of free trade and globalism via extortion. Class extortion has been the mechanism by which we have built the social safety net over time; we’re just taking the next step toward socialism.

  3. R Richard Schweitzer says

    At the risk (and with the joy) of shaking the same ol’ tambourine again, here is another perspective on what is transpiring.

    The essay adverts to certain political units which are commonly called “nations.” In general those units share a common feature (often mistakenly called “representative” government) of (consentaneously) publicly delegated authority which becomes vested in oligarchies (“establishments,” leaderships’) by the nature of political organization of the human interactions required for governments to function.

    For some period of time, probably up through the 1960s and a bit into the 1970s the social orders (societies) of those units had produced “Elites” as a source from which the predominant memberships of those oligarchies were drawn. By the late 1980s (approximately) those “Elites,” were displaced, or exhausted and their predominance in the oligarchies was in decline resulting in the substitution of political functionaries (career politicians) as predominant in the oligarchies (parties and states).

    The former elites of those political units had evolved from traditions and preserved principles of conduct and public obligations. It appears that there are those aspiring to delegated authority who would seek status as a rising elite, by asserting support for those former traditions and principles which had been a major factor in the creation and evolution of the fallen elites.

    But, sadly, it does not appear that *we* (nor most of the other political units) have any elites of the former class and derivations.

    It seems likely we are observing a wide-scale sense throughout the populace of those political units that the oligarchies directing the delegated authorities are deficient (in some case fake and false) which has been the source of much of the economic and social distress of those societies; those deficiencies are sensed as rooted in the sources of the memberships in the oligarchies.

    The tendencies to frame what is transpiring within certain past labels of public actions, “populism,” “nationalism,” and other euphemisms (none clearly defined) avoids history which has brought us here, and from which we might very well learn some useful things.

  4. WedgeBob says

    Seems people are fed up with the Soros-Rothschild way of forcing a globalized agenda down everyone’s throats. No doubt this would lead to a “Western Soviet Union” at its core, and certainly would not end well for ANYONE. We just pray that reviving Nationalism will put Agenda 2030 and Agenda 21 in their places, and will keep us from ever having to put up with anything the UN are forcing on us. This is what happens when you have too many evil forces rising to power, and what we, as true patriots of our country, were trying to oppose. After all, we all learned from history what these kinds of governments, and what these kinds of societies did to other civilizations, especially over the past 100 years or so. They didn’t work out very well, did they? Globalism is a movement that simply does not, nor will it ever, work. Glad people woke up after the past decades’ disasters.

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