Why Nationalism Isn't Always Negative
Imagine a world in which you are constantly told that the pride you feel for your country is something you should be ashamed of and reviled for. Imagine a world in which you are told that your own country’s traditions, beliefs, and cultural values should not be preserved if they offend citizens of foreign nations. For many people, it takes little imagination to picture this particular world, because it already exists.
A resurgence of nationalist beliefs and far-right political platforms has spread rapidly throughout the USA, UK, and Europe in recent years. It’s not hard to understand why — the primary common denominator in these countries is the weakness of their borders. Illegal immigration in the USA has reached crisis levels — in February 2019 alone, over 76,000 illegal immigrants without documentation attempted to cross the border. In Germany, over 1 million asylum seekers and refugees have been taken in rapidly without the proper infrastructure in place to house and support them.
The negative response to this rapid influx of foreign immigrants and the myriad complications that accompany it has manifested itself in the politics of the day. Strong nationalist parties are now commonplace in Europe, leading governments in Italy, Austria, Poland, and Hungary. Look no further than Matteo Salvini’s Lega or the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) under Heinz-Christian Strache to see the power that these parties now wield in Europe, while an openly nationalist President sits in the White House of the United States.
On April 8th, a press conference was held in Milan during which Matteo Salvini and several other heads of European nationalist parties announced the formation of the European Alliance for Peoples and Nations (EAPN). It is intended to function as a parliamentary group to challenge the power of centrist parties in the upcoming European Parliament elections. As of April 9th, this group of nationalist parties includes the League, AfD, FPO, the Finns Party, and the Danish People’s Party.
Public reaction to this new alliance has run the gamut from thrilled elation to absolute horror. In many peoples’ minds, the term ‘nationalist’ still conjures up negative images of everything from modern white extremism to the historical Nazi party. I think it’s past time to address this particular discrepancy.
Nationalism, in itself, is one of the most potent forces to drive human unity. It is an ideology which binds a group of people together through a shared national identity. This typically comprises language, tradition, culture, and shared values. Before we go any further, it’s important to understand that there are essentially two different forms of nationalism — civic and ethnic. Civic nationalism is expressed when a group of people have equal and shared political rights, while ethnic nationalism is expressed in people rooting their identy in some aspect of shared culture, values, history, language or ethnicity.
Civic nationalism is akin to patriotism, which I would argue is essential to a healthy democracy. The second kind of nationalism — ethnic nationalism — can be a slippery slope. It’s the slope that the German people of the 1930s slid down rapidly into the abyss as the ethnic purity of the Aryan race was idolized and all others were persecuted.
The form of nationalism that today is touted by the leaders of political parties such as the League, AfD, FPO, Fidesz, and others seems to be a combination of both civic and ethnic nationalism — thus the polarizing reactions. So why do the leaders of these parties and their followers believe so strongly in it?
It’s not difficult to see the positive aspects of nationalism when examined, because it is an instinct present in all humans. In simple terms of survival, people are more likely to thrive in groups that are bound together for a common purpose. Because they share common goals or visions, they are able to more easily cooperate. It’s tribalism on a larger scale — because you are of my country (meaning we share a history, experiences, language, and culture), I am more likely to trust you.
This inherent trust that forms in a strongly patriotic or nationalist society can have a number of positive ramifications in other spheres. It facilitates higher civic virtue and popular participation in elections, which can more quickly lead to political change reflecting the will of the people. This in turn often leads to greater prosperity.
Nationalism also strengthens any country’s war effort on the home front and the front lines. Countries with a strong sense of social cohesion and patriotism are much more likely to endure hardship and eventually win wars. We’ve seen this principle at work from the time of the Roman Empire’s conquests to the present day fighting in Ukraine against Russian invasion.
Bringing it down froma bird’s eye to view to reality on the ground, I’ve examined this rise in combined civic and ethnic nationalism (shall we call it “civnic” for short?) and I find that I am not opposed. There is a balance that must be struck here, and tipping too far to one side would be disastrous. I believe that every country has the right to govern itself, free of foreign dominion, based on the shared values and culture of its people, while protecting its borders and choosing who is allowed to reside within them. This does not mean that we should shun ideas or principles from other nations, as any good ‘think tank’ is comprised of a variety of perspectives and orthodoxy is the enemy of free thought.
What we do know is that every human being has the innate instinct within them to survive. From the Ukrainian solider fighting Russian invasion to the American soldier fighting Islamic terrorism, these patriots are not fighting for some foreign government or far away crisis — they are fighting to protect their own families and their own countries from physical and moral destruction. They are fighting and willing to die for the continuity of their own culture, traditions, and values. This is nationalism’s power, and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.
“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”
― Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion