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Nationalism, populism- European legacy and the new normal


Yael Tamir

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 Labour 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 analysis is 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 non-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.
To be continued tomorrow
Rogers is a principal consultant at media and event management oxford (MEMO)


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NationalismYael Tamir
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