Why Nationalism Works: And Why It Isn't Going Away

By Wimmer, Andreas | Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019 | Go to article overview

Why Nationalism Works: And Why It Isn't Going Away


Wimmer, Andreas, Foreign Affairs


Nationalism has a bad reputation today. It is, in the minds of many educated Westerners, a dangerous ideology. Some acknowledge the virtues of patriotism, understood as the benign affection for one's homeland; at the same time, they see nationalism as narrow-minded and immoral, promoting blind loyalty to a country over deeper commitments to justice and humanity. In a January 2019 speech to his country's diplomatic corps, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put this view in stark terms: "Nationalism," he said, "is an ideological poison."

In recent years, populists across the West have sought to invert this moral hierarchy. They have proudly claimed the mantle of nationalism, promising to defend the interests of the majority against immigrant minorities and out-of-touch elites. Their critics, meanwhile, cling to the established distinction between malign nationalism and worthy patriotism. In a thinly veiled shot at U.S. President Donald Trump, a self-described nationalist, French President Emmanuel Macron declared last November that "nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism."

The popular distinction between patriotism and nationalism echoes the one made by scholars who contrast "civic" nationalism, according to which all citizens, regardless of their cultural background, count as members of the nation, with "ethnic" nationalism, in which ancestry and language determine national identity. Yet efforts to draw a hard line between good, civic patriotism and bad, ethnic nationalism overlook the common roots of both. Patriotism is a form of nationalism. They are ideological brothers, not distant cousins.

At their core, all forms of nationalism share the same two tenets: first, that members of the nation, understood as a group of equal citizens with a shared history and future political destiny, should rule the state, and second, that they should do so in the interests of the nation. Nationalism is thus opposed to foreign rule by members of other nations, as in colonial empires and many dynastic kingdoms, as well as to rulers who disregard the perspectives and needs of the majority.

Over the past two centuries, nationalism has been combined with all manner of other political ideologies. Liberal nationalism flourished in nineteenthcentury Europe and Latin America, fascist nationalism triumphed in Italy and Germany during the interwar period, and Marxist nationalism motivated the anticolonial movements that spread across the "global South" after the end of World War II. Today, nearly everyone, left and right, accepts the legitimacy of nationalism's two basic tenets. This becomes clearer when contrasting nationalism with other doctrines of state legitimacy. In theocracies, the state should be ruled in the name of God, as in the Vatican or the caliphate of the Islamic State (or isis). In dynastic kingdoms, the state is owned and ruled by a family, as in Saudi Arabia. In the Soviet Union, the state was ruled in the name of a class: the international proletariat.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world has become a world of nationstates governed according to nationalist principles. Identifying nationalism exclusively with the political right means misunderstanding the nature of nationalism and ignoring how deeply it has shaped almost all modern political ideologies, including liberal and progressive ones. It has provided the ideological foundation for institutions such as democracy, the welfare state, and public education, all of which were justified in the name of a unified people with a shared sense of purpose and mutual obligation. Nationalism was one of the great motivating forces that helped beat back Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. And nationalists liberated the large majority of humanity from European colonial domination.

Nationalism is not an irrational sentiment that can be banished from contemporary politics through enlightening education; it is one of the modern world's foundational principles and is more widely accepted than its critics acknowledge. …

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