Nationalism, populism – the European legacy and the new normal

by | Jun 24, 2019

This paper is based on a presentation at Oxford University by Yael Tamir on her recent book, “Why Nationalism” which postulates that while nationalism is often deeply troubling, with populist politicians exploiting nationalism for authoritarian, chauvinistic, racist and xenophobic purposes, she makes a strong case for nationalism which revives participatory, creative and egalitarian values. The former Israeli Labor Party member of the Knesset (parliament) and minister of education makes a case for why the Left must recognise the qualities of nationalism to reclaim it from right wing extremists. This note is a report of that presentation and an analysis of the state of nationalism in the context of five hundred years of European hegemony in the development of the nation state concept and the new normal around the globe.

Tamir stated that the book reviews the situation from 1978, noting that every 20 years or so there is a notion that something significant has happened while really it is occultation between different strands of a main theme, highlighting Fukiyama’s “End of History” thirty years ago that was wrongly deemed as a seminal statement. She noted that nationalism tends to be invincible when things are going right economically; leading to Fukuyama’s trap that nationalism is a spent force. In economically adverse settings nationalism comes to the fore, hence Trump, Brexit, the recent Danish elections. Nationalistic views have always been there but in the age of hyper-globalisation there is the illusion that individuals can supplant original state actors. In this globalisation scenario, people who can compete globally have seen an exponential increase in benefits while many people who have been left behind, as evident in the situation of low and middle income people with wage deflation and people being poorer than their parents, has fuelled nationalism. People are rightly asking for greater attention to their needs. They are asking politicians to take a break and listen to their demands. Nationalism has always been there but has been evolving, incorporating social justice which has converged with nationalism. In this new scenario the vulnerable are not the least well off but the middle class who feel the need to define themselves as a group, part of the weak majority. They are demanding a reasonable response to developments and taking a nationalistic position is a rational choice for them and politicians cannot be dismissive of this posture.

Professor Mathew Goodwin, one of the moderators noted that these “nationalists” cannot simply be dismissed as angry White men and he referred to findings that Cambridge Analytica identified relating to four deep rooted long term issues that policy makers must address, namely: the political system has been less representative of the working class and people without degrees who feel they are held in contempt by the elite and do not have a voice; there is a reduction in levels of partisanship and political leverage of established parties hence it is easier for populists to break through, with immigration being a major issue, large majorities wanting its reduction; widespread feeling of relative deprivation socially and culturally, governments it is felt must give priority to its members compared to outsiders, political debate within established conservative parties have not incorporated the gripes and are dismissive of them as tribal concerns and in America there is a major concern when Whites are told that they will become a minority – research in the US revealed that White identity has doubled, parties need to talk about these issues; when citizens feel normative threats/diminished status populism is the preferred refuge.

Professor Goodwin noted that these trends suggest increased support for populist parties. The left is unwilling to deal with this identity issue even in a nuanced way. He stressed the need for that conversation and noted that while (Karl) Marx is still important people do not die for Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The driving force in populism is this social and cultural loss and anxiety is generated because leaders ignore identity politics. He posed the seminal question, how do we develop policies for all groups, noting that some parties do not want to be part of this debate. The issue is what liberals are willing to concede.

Professor David Miller, another moderator noted that while Tamir’s analysis correctly states that nationalists want their needs to take priority over outsiders it is hard to determine what should drive redistribution. Nations strive to be inclusive but in practice make a distinction and preference for “real nationals” defined as people who are long established, namely, born and bred and cultural majorities. The arrival of new people is celebrated by liberals as vibrant new culture but new arrivals reduce the proportion of the existing majority population. He noted that Tamir’s book rejects the notion of civic nationalism alone but the issues are, should states cultivate national culture and how do we cater for minorities.

Questions and discussions featured a range of issues. On the issue of alternatives to the populist mantra, Tamir stated that people are looking to national agendas that are sensitive to identity but noted that some things that are liked by the majority are often offensive to minorities. The Yuppie phenomenon gave way to a backlash. Alternatives include the green counter revolution but the elite are not particularly interested in structural change. It is easier for the right to move left on the economy than for the left to move right on cultural issues. On the issue of whether Obama gave birth to Trump Professor Miller noted that the interaction of economic, democratic and cultural issues highlighted in Obama’s reign made them more attractive to Trump’s campaign but the trend started before Trump’s campaign and administration. Concern was expressed about the rich right wing’s funding of populists, with a reference to the dangerous precedent in Yugoslavia and fascism. How do you define great in Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) postulation? Reference was made to Einstein and Freud who commented on identities, and the causes of nationalism, fascism and wars. Tamir noted that the current Brexit quagmire has seen the loss of votes by the Labour party to a new party that does not offer economic benefits but cultural aspirations, a party that does not even have a manifesto.


Nationalism and populism are very much Europe’s legacy. Most of the countries as we know them now were created, colonised and/or settled by Europeans, often demarcating boundaries as straight lines which specified the European power’s control and/or influence. European settlers formed offshoots in North and South America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and other countries. Even countries such as China that were not colonised were significantly influenced, shaped and/or came under Europe’s sphere. This was not surprising as Europe and its offshoots’ technology, military, political and economic powers have dominated the world for the last 500 years. The US, largely settled by Europeans later joined the scramble, taking control of significant Mexican territory, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and American Samoa. Furthermore even after many of these countries gained independence, Europe, America and other offshoots have continued to play the dominant role economically, technologically and politically. This historical perspective is necessary in understanding the wave of nationalism and populism spreading around the world notably in Poland, Hungary, Italy, France the UK, US, Israel, China, India, Australia and Brazil.

Central and Eastern Europe were not active participants in colonisation in terms of owning and/or operating colonial assets and indeed had enough trouble preserving their freedoms from German and Russian expansionism. However their citizens operated as officials, settlers and/or business owners in these colonies. After the break-up of the Soviet Union when they gained full autonomy from Russia, a brand of nationalism took hold which emphasised their White and Christian heritage. They have therefore been very reluctant to accept the multi-racial reality found in Britain, France and Germany, the former two, with significant non-White ex colonial citizens and in the case of Germany the large Turkish minority. Italy had a very short colonial record and therefore had a miniscule mon-White minority as did Austria. These countries have therefore been at the forefront of the populist/nationalistic and anti-immigrant wave in the face of mass migration from the Middle East and Africa recently. France even with its significant non-White population has for decades had strong nationalistic/populist tendencies within the White majority through the Front National. Britain’s current nationalism/populism leading to Brexit is unique in that it has developed in the last decade as a response to the huge inflow of White East and Central Europeans as a result of the EU open borders policy.   This does not preclude undercurrents of anti non White sentiments just that they have not been embraced by major political parties as they have on the continent. Outside Europe, in offshoots of Europe, Trump in his election bid used White nationalism with support from the alt right and even more openly racist groups. Australia’s hard-line immigration policies have echoes of White nationalism and the newly elected Brazilian administration has analysts making connections to White nationalism because of the president’s statements and actions relating to Brazilians of African descent and Indians. Nationalism and populism in non-European (or its offshoots) setting have strong European roots. Present day Israel was created by Britain with some support from France, who controlled that territory. India’s Hindu nationalism is a direct result of Britain dislodging the Muslim kingdoms that existed when it invaded and created that state giving the Hindu majority the opportunity to gain political ascendancy in democratic elections after independence. China which has taken nationalistic postures is largely trying to make up for the humiliation from European powers and Japan it underwent in the 19th and early 20th centuries as that country has become communist in name only, largely to keep its political (cadres) party in control. The list goes on in many other countries created by Europe which dislodged established powers prior to colonisation, often to make governing those territories easier particularly when such powers were minorities that had ruled over ethnical or religious majorities. When the latter were ushered into power through elections they embraced nationalism based on their ethnic and/or religious constituents. This was notably the case of Zimbabwe where the Ndebele who ruled much that country prior to the arrival of the British and were dislodged from power giving way to the much larger Shona ethnic group.

An interesting factor is the irony, verging on the perverse of this trend. Nationalism and populism has been most pronounced in Poland, Hungary and Italy and yet both Poland and Hungary have seen large numbers of their citizen’s move to other EU countries and have and continue to receive huge flows of funds from the EU largely from northern EU states. Italy has also received large sums from the EU. Britain’s economy which outperformed other EU states coming out of the recent great recession benefited a lot from the influx of workers from Eastern Europe. There are dire predictions that the loss of these workers after Brexit will have significant negative repercussions on services such as the National Health Service (NHS). Even as Britain leaves the EU, English is becoming the most common language used in EU forums. In the US the prime mover of nationalism. Trump is the most un-American President in recent history in terms of family connections and use of (undocumented) foreign workers in his businesses. After centuries of persecution and finally settling in their historical homeland, the current Israeli government is doing everything to deny the Palestinians their own state as agreed in peace settlements and emasculating Palestinian governments. China which defeated the Nationalists is now using nationalism to mobilise its citizens. India, a state created by the British from largely Muslim controlled kingdoms has a Hindu nationalist party that is hostile to the aspirations of its Muslim minority.

The new normal relates to major political and economic shifts. After centuries a new normal has seen what many consider as unpalatable even though the process started long ago. The European tribe feels threatened at home and in its offshoots by immigration from people who are not like them racially, culturally and religiously. This anxiety has been crudely amplified by leaders like Trump who have painted a picture of marauding aliens, crudely referring to “Mexican rapist… shithole countries”, the latter in his description of African countries. He is not averse to immigration if they come from Norway and other European countries. Hungarian and Polish leaders have stressed the fact that Europe’s “Christian heritage” is under siege. Beneath this anxiety on immigration there are underlying themes that are often not mentioned. These include the low birth rate of Whites in Europe and its offshoots, the loss of absolute and relative economic, political and technological power that Europe has enjoyed for the last five hundred years. The incomes of the working and middle classes have been stagnant in the last few decades as those of captains of industry have risen exponentially largely because of off-shoring to China and other low cost non-European/American countries, as industrial production and jobs have moved away to those countries.  In the new normal technological and economic development outside Europe, notable in Asia have out-paced that in Europe and its offshoots.

The new normal started quite some time ago, early in the 20th century. In 1905 Japan defeated Russia a “major European power” in a war sending shockwaves around the world. This process was repeated at the beginning of the Second World War when Japan rapidly dislodged Britain and America in Southeast Asia. Europe gave up most of its colonies in Africa and Asia. Britain and France became middle level powers even as they have held on to their security council seats at the UN. The break-up of the Soviet Union left the US as the only superpower even as this European offshoot saw its relative economic ascendancy diminish on the economic front as the non-European power, China, has surged on.

In conclusion, Professor Goodwin prognosis should be adhered to with some caveats. Liberals need to listen and in the medium to short run give some to the concerns of their tribes on culture and immigration. In the long run they should try to win the hearts and minds of citizens by arguing that in the globalised world tribalism is not the way forward, and organisations like the EU will give Europe more clout and benefits While nationalists have a strong case in Europe, the same cannot be said of its offshoots because with the exception of the original inhabitants, such as American Indians, Aborigines in Australia and Africans in South Africa, all other citizens are immigrants so why should people of European descent continue to get preferential treatment. The US will have to accept the inevitable that it is a polyglot nation where Whites will, in the next fifty years be a minority majority group.  The economy does matter and the Brookings Institute paper lists studies on how to improve stagnant incomes of workers which are antidotes to populism. Business leaders have a significant role to play, investing at home rather than their pre-occupation with off-shoring to maximise profits. That together with more equitable distribution of the economic benefits of growth through progressive taxation and other measures will avoid the wage stagnation which has largely fuelled populism. While the world has to accept that China and India are major players that does not warrant them riding roughshod over neighbours or minorities. Interestingly there is room for nationalism for business leaders and among some of the poorest states to shore them up and Europe and America must do all they can to assist these countries which will reduce the need for emigration fuelling populism in Europe, America and other rich countries.

Nationalism and populism are the legacy of Europe, currently deeply rooted in the continent but also from a historical perspective. The continent initiated globalisation which is the root cause of this phenomenon. Interestingly, the cheer leader of this movement, Donald Trump does not have the intellectual capability or character for the challenge as demonstrated in a number of policies. He is hostile to the EU instead of nurturing the cohesion that America and Europe need politically, economically and militarily for the challenges ahead. And he and his ally, Steve Bannon have stoked nationalism and populism in Europe with strong support for nationalist and populist regimes in Poland and Hungary. He withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that Obama, the chess player had negotiated which would have resulted in two major things, namely, cleverly shifting production and the supply chain from China and introducing measures relating to environmental, labour standards etc, that improve the relative competitive position of the US and also Europe. He has reduced and threatened to reduce aid to poor countries and generally neglected them when these are exactly the kind of support that minimise emigration from those countries. He has given total support to the hawkish Israeli government making it very difficult for Palestinians to engage in a peace process. He has given total support to the Saudi government’s war in Yemen and other nefarious activities of that regime, pulled out of the Iran agreement and is currently on the verge of war with that country, all actions that are likely to stoke tension in the Middle East that could result in conflict and increased emigration from the region.

As I finish this paper I have just watched Trump making his re-election speech and realised the huge challenge Liberals face. Trump on stage, was the true demagogue with his lies, half-truths and exaggerations sounding emotional as the baying crowd like it was almost a hundred years ago in Germany. Liberals tend to use logic and dry statistics which do not have the electricity that demagogues seem to generate even as they lead the sheep to their slaughter.