Nationalism is the ideological embrace of geographic boundaries to identity, law and power, based on political borders. It marches most readily alongside traditionalism and conservativism, but unfortunately, also with racism and xenophobia1,2. Because nationalists normally endorse a particular view of appropriate appearances, language and beliefs, it often results in division on superficial and prejudiced lines (such as skin colour and religion). This causes discrimination, social and legal, and can lead to runaway intolerance and denial of human rights2. Therefore, nationalism needs to be tempered by strong support for human rights. As democratic countries are responsible for all citizens, not just selected demographics, there is usually some form of tussle between radical nationalists and mainstream democrats. This frequently gets simplified as a battle between the right (nationalism) and the left (liberalism).
Demagogues find it easy to manipulate voters in the name of nationalism, because it appeals to simple them-versus-us emotions3. At its extreme, nationalism turns into ethnic supremacism2 and jingoism, and when these coincide in the halls of power, the result is mass atrocities, genocide and conflict. Two world wars have resulted from unchecked nationalism1,4. The late 2010s has seen the resurgence of the kind of destructive and divisive nationalism that many were beginning to hope that we'd outgrown; but now many are worrying again about the spectre of aggressive tribalism5. The solution has been for countries to work close together and create economic and cultural ties, so that hate-mongering can be checked by civil association. Opposed to the nationalist division of continents into competing powers, bodies such as the European Union (EU). and African Union (AU) have received their founding charters, and the EU won a Nobel Prize for its ending of conflict between member states as a result of its "ever-closer union". The international community of nations tends to flux between periods of support for national competition, versus support for international harmony. In total, nationalism has suffered from the realities of the globalisation of society, economics and information, meaning that nation-states are no longer in control of the most important parts of their cultural infrastructure. The solution is that nationalism only works when the international order is upheld, in order to support a peaceful democratic regional neighbourhood.
“A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by a common hatred of its neighbours.”
William Ralph Inge
Dean of St Pauls 1911-346
We saw above the nationalism is associated with popularism - but what is it, and why is it bad for democracy?
In politics, popularism is the effect of uninformed mass opinion on governance. It can transpire through the government being too sensitive to the loudest voices of the masses, through grassroots movements that are too narrow in scope to represent the entire population, through nasty forms of nationalism and jingoism. Popularist slogans are often catchy policies based on simple one-line policies that do not have a proper depth of research or meaning; hence, they appeal to 'the masses' and it is the job of politicians to convince the populace to pursue wiser courses of action than they would if left to their own devices. In the modern world, Internet-based and social media campaigns are becoming the most important source of public pressure on governments7 and this is giving enemies of democracy powerful new tools of interference8. The worst aspects of popularism are a disregard for minorities9 and any unpopular subcultures (wherein popularism becomes 'the tyranny of the majority')10 and the other main disadvantage is the pursuit of shallow and short-sighted policies that harm the nation in the long-run11,12,13; issues that require strong international co-ordination and long-term planning such as environmentalism and protecting biodiversity are suffering as the result of selfish nationalism14. The solution to popularism is to ensure the politicians are professional, well-trained, well-educated, and who are not afraid to engage in long-term strategy that is unpopular in the short term.
A situation can arise where nationalists insult, dehumanize and demonize those who they think don't fit the national picture. It is often easy to spread such intolerance, and the result can be that disliked portions of the populace can find themselves as a victim of 'the tyranny of the majority'.
The 'tyranny of the majority' refers to the unfortunate occasion where a majority of a population come to care mostly about their own concerns at the expense of others, and often support policies and actions that suppress minorities9. This can be accident through ignorance of issues, or, on purpose, through malice and intolerance, and often results from overly nationalist movements. The solution is that 'majority rules' are not enough to ensure good governance and fair society11. There are "circumstances where the idea of majority rule has to be modified"15. The result of unchecked popularism is the loss of democracy and human rights followed by social instability, strife, sectarianism and national developmental degradation12,13. Additional checks and balances are needed in any democracy to ensure that popularist ideas that are short-sighted or biased cannot simply be shouted through by the loudest voices9,12. In history, human rights have proven to be the surest and strongest bulwark against such 'mob rule'.9,16 Other strong factors are good general education, a liberal culture of tolerance and the strong rule of law with limited powers for the executive.
Before the idea of the 'nation', countries were "realms" or "kingdoms", where people on the land were all subjected to a ruler17. Patriotism was expressed purely in terms of loyalty to the leader, with no importance given to national values. In 1789, the French priest Augustin Barruel was the first to pen the word 'nationalism', influenced by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau1. His ideas were of a people's self-governance - what today, we call democracy.
“By the mid-nineteenth century nationalism was widely recognized as a political doctrine or movement, for example as a major ingredient of the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848. [...] Nationalism was therefore a revolutionary and democratic creed, reflecting the idea that 'subjects of the crown' should become 'citizens of France'. [...] In many respects, nationalism developed into the most successful and compelling of political creeds, helping to shape and reshape history in many parts of the world for over two hundred years.”
Hence, all people would together rule themselves, forming a single national body of mutual interests. Nationalism was used to end foreign rule by empires1. But as nationalism became successful, it also turned toxic. Many popularist nationalists today want 'nation' to mean a narrow people of the correct skin colour, who speak the correct language and have the right beliefs18, an undemocratic notion that fails to protect all peoples within the country. Therefore, it is a return to tribalism and the abandonment of democracy and good governance. This road to conflict has been a woefully common result of nationalism, resulting in both world wars and an uncountable number of other conflicts.
“By the end of the nineteenth century nationalism had become a truly popular movement, with the spread of flags, national anthems, patriotic poetry and literature, public ceremonies and national holidays [and] became the language of mass politics, [facilitated by] popular newspapers. [It was] taken up by conservative and reactionary politicians. [...] Patriotic fervour was no longer aroused by the prospect of political liberty or democracy, but by the commemoration of past national glories and military victories. Such nationalism became increasingly chauvinistic and xenophobic. Each nation claimed its own unique or superior qualities, while other nations were regarded as alien, untrustworthy, even menacing. [This] contributed to a mood of international suspicion and rivalry [and] nationalism was therefore a powerful factor leading to war in both 1914 and 1939.”
In 1937, the philosopher Gerald Heard was sounding the alarm on them-and-us nationalism, quite correctly stating that it's no good creating strong collective identities if you are simply repeating the mistakes of tribalism, which led to feudalism and constant strife between communities.
“We have nations (these communities growing in self-consciousness) who refuse to acknowledge any laws between themselves. This is the international anarchy. Each state maintains it is complete judge of its right. This was bad enough. It becomes almost a desperate condition when these conflicting judges maintain that they may use any means to enforce their verdicts, and when science puts in their hands methods which allow each judge to destroy his fellow.”
When Europe suffered from the mass movements towards dictatorships in the run up to World War II, a series of popular, charismatic and powerful speakers enchanted the public20. They offered simple solutions to national problems, making sweeping promises20. The public (and the press) had forgotten the dangers of having politicians that lacked depth and policy detail. In 1920, there were 26 democracies in Europe. In the run up to World War II, 16 of them had turned into dictatorships21. The rise of these European dictatorships was expressed as a valid method of gaining self-determination as a struggle against other nationalities4 but the result was division and the loss of the ability to co-operate or understand other nations: in the name of national pride, aggressive and loud-mouthed politicians made it impossible to avoid war.
Since then, increasing inter-nationalism has reigned-in most developed states into a grid of international accords, which although limiting on some national freedoms, has the effect of improving the life of all people in general. When peoples have economic or military aims in common, it has the effect of reducing war and engendering togetherness. Some countries choose to stay outside of the international system. Almost every single one of those non-integrated countries is a serious human rights abuser, a rogue state, that is failing to protect and develop its citizens and its culture.
There is a good way, and a bad way to be patriotic: one can be productive and civil, the other is destructive and causes national decline. Modern citizens must ask themselves: when I vote, which style of government am I supporting?