Viewing political trends in the US and Western Europe simply as rising nationalism is misleading. We must distinguish between civic and ethnic nationalism.

The election of Donald Trump, as well as the success of the Brexit referendum and populist right-wing parties in continental Europe, could be seen as a backlash, a move toward ethnic nationalism. This is the idea that the nation is based on a shared authentic culture, which has to be defended against outsiders. Such a backlash has indeed occurred in some countries. However, in the US and in most Western European countries, including the UK, the nationalist backlash thesis is not supported by the latest available data on national identity. Therefore, we need other explanations for the public revolt against mainstream political elites in these countries

Difficulties with the term “nationalism”

The terms “nationalism” and “nation” often cause confusion. When assigned to populist right-wing parties, to Trump and to Brexit, they often carry negative connotations. In other contexts, the ideology of nationalism is seen as a liberating force against authoritarian rule or colonial power. Charles Tilly defines nationalism as “the claim that people who spoke for coherent nations — and they alone — had the right to rule sovereign states,” which is helpful. It does not, however, bring us closer to what is meant by the concept “nation.” One argument is that the nation is an imagined community, around which boundaries can be constructed in endless ways. Another, which I find useful and will employ in this article, is that nationalism can be viewed as being either civic or ethnic. In its civic form, national identity centres on the ways by which the shared state is ruled. These include democratic participation and subjection to the rules of the state — in the civic tradition often labelled the “republic.” In its ethnic form, national identity centres on a shared inherited cultural background. This cultural background is perceived to be “authentic” and given by history.

Measuring a backlash

The International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) is a good source for measuring national identities. The ISSP collected data on national identity in 23 countries in 1995, 33 countries in 2003 and 33 countries in 2013 (www.issp.org). It provides representative samples from the adult population, and it has a full module that focuses exclusively on national identity. This gives a unique insight into ways of describing the content of nationalism and how national identities develop over time. It is therefore an excellent source to verify or disprove whether there actually is a movement toward ethnic nationalism in the countries surveyed.

Figure 1 shows the positions on the nationalism spectrum of the 15 countries that participated in ISSP’s surveys on nationalism in 1995 and 2013 and — with one exception (Slovenia) — in 2003. The countries located in the upper quadrants are characterized by civic nationalism. Those in the lower quadrants are characterized by ethnic nationalism. The vertical axis distinguishes between civic and ethnic nationalism. The distinction is based on the answers to questions about what it means to be truly Swedish, American, Japanese and so on. Survey respondents were asked how important it was 1) to have been born in [country], 2) to have [country] citizenship, 3) to have lived in [country] for most of one’s life, 4) to be able to speak [country language], 5) to be a [dominant religion], 6) to respect [country nationality] political institutions and laws, 7) to feel [country nationality]. The horizontal axis measures whether the respondents find these questions to be of high or little importance, in general. Those in the right quadrants, labelled the “mobilized,” tend to rate all the criteria as highly important; those in the left quadrants, labelled the “nonmobilized,” tend to rate all the criteria as less important. A movement toward the lower right quadrant indicates a mobilization of ethnic nationalism.

There was a move toward mobilized ethnic nationalism in Russia, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain and the Czech Republic. The Philippines is located only in the lower right quadrant, so mobilized ethnic nationalism was present in that country during all three rounds of the survey. For the other countries there was no sign of a move toward mobilized ethnic nationalism. Among these, Sweden, Norway and Germany were characterized by nonmobilized civic nationalism in all three waves. And in the US, following 9/11 there was a mobilization of national sentiment, which was captured in 2003, but the data show a return to a Western European orientation in 2013. Japan and Ireland embraced ethnic nationalism, but it was nonmobilized. The data for the eight countries that can be followed only from 2003 to 2013 (not shown) tell the same story. In none of these countries (France, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Taiwan, Portugal, Israel, Korea) could one observe a move toward mobilized ethnic nationalism.

Problems with labels

Future waves of ISSP data on national identity will tell whether the US, the UK and Western Europe moved toward mobilized ethnic nationalism after 2013. As the figure shows, national identities can be mobilized over time and their nature can change. However, there is little reason to believe that the national identities in 2017 will be much different from those measured in 2013.

To conclude, it is not accurate to simply talk about a rise in nationalism in the US and Western Europe. At the very least, we must make the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism. Furthermore, automatically labelling nationalism as “bad” diverts the analysis away from the factors that might be behind the contemporary revolts against mainstream elites.

This article is part of the special feature Inclusive Growth in an Age of Disruption

Photo: Vienna, Austria, October 13, 2017: Austrian parliament with the election slogan “Hingehen, Entscheiden!” (eng. “Go there, Decide!”) Shutterstock.com/Kagan Kaya


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