Ideas

Political movements that use nationalism 'will have a more powerful set of messages'

Today’s nationalist leaders employ an exclusionary nationalism that can stoke fear, insularity, and hate. Yet political scientists Maya Tudor and Harris Mylonas argue it's important to understand nationalism as a powerful ideology that can be harnessed for national and global good.

From democracy to demagoguery, it powers 'a whole range of political projects and aims,' says expert

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, Aug. 4, 2022. 'The West is at war with itself,' he said, defending nationalism as a way forward. 'We must take up the fight.' (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

 The keynote speaker's introduction was full of fanfare: "Ladies and gentlemen, 'This is How We Fight' — a speech by the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán."

The controversial European leader gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas this past August.

"I am here to tell you how we made these values successful and mainstream in Hungary. Perhaps our story can help you keep America great."

A friend of Donald Trump, Orbán has spent consecutive terms in office espousing pro-nationalist, anti-migrant views. One of his own advisors resigned in July after he spoke against the mixing of races in Hungary.

To the Republican audience in Texas, heading into November's U.S. midterms, Orbán declared common ideological ground between nations, and urged them to fight for election victory.

"We have to be brave enough to address even the most sensitive questions: migration, gender, and the clash of civilizations. Don't worry: a Christian politician cannot be racist. So we should never hesitate to heavily challenge our opponents on these issues."

The American conservatives gave Orbán a standing ovation.

A 'new' nationalism? 

Orbán is just one of many nationalist leaders currently in power around the world, including Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, and China's Xi Jinping.

Speaking to IDEAS for the series The New World Disorder, political scientists and collaborators Maya Tudor and Harris Mylonas agreed that what some see as a "new" nationalism is actually a form of nationalism that has never actually gone away.

As India celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, its nationalism has changed character, particularly in the eight years since Narendra Modi became prime minister, Maya Tudor told IDEAS. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

"Nationalism has always been there as a latent political force," said Tudor, of Oxford University. 

At the same time, its resurgence involves recent events.

"We live in an era where globalization has perhaps challenged welfare states and has integrated economies into global economies that see pronounced swings up and down. [So] I think we are seeing nationalism partly as a response to that." 

Narrowing of national identity

In various countries, particular ethnic and religious groups have felt their advantages challenged by these economic swings, and other societal shifts. They look to politicians who will defend their interests, such as Donald Trump, with his border walls, migrant detention centres, and MAGA rhetoric.

"Suddenly countries that had enlarged the circle of belonging and had become more 'progressive' in the way they defined the nation, countries like the United States, [have] seemed to constrict the answer to the question, who are we?" said Mylonas, a professor at George Washington University. 

Nationalism has its uses, says Harris Mylonas. 'It's a political principle that definitely facilitates co-operation. So in a way, it solves the collective action problem…for good or bad reasons.” (Don Pollard)

This inward turn of nations, the return to old hierarchies, and the hardening of borders seems only to have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. 

Mylonas, who edited a journal issue that looked at nationalism in the COVID-19 era, says "the response to the pandemic reinforced and reinscribed national discourse, national practices, [and] nationalism as an ideology."

Nationalism as a powerful tool

Historically, nationalism has fueled violence, repression, and genocide. 

At the same time, there exist examples of nationalism being employed as a positive, unifying force, said Harris Mylonas and Maya Tudor, who are working together on a book called Varieties of Nationalism.

Tudor notes that, "nationalism first emerged as a force to take power away from monarchs and from far-away states to legitimize a government in the name of a people. So to create democracies." 

Political movements that use nationalism 'will have a more powerful set of messages,' says Maya Tudor. (Giulia Biasibetti)

France, Indonesia, and Ukraine have rallied citizens to positive ends in the name of the nation. South Africa's Nelson Mandela and India's Mahatma Gandhi were both self-declared nationalists, in fighting against apartheid and colonial rule, respectively.

"I think one of the key messages that Harris and I put forth in our work is that nationalism is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It's like a battery that can power a whole range of political projects and aims," said Tudor. 

She feels it can be powerfully used to address global problems like climate change, health, and inequality.

Mylonas recognizes both the downsides and the reality of nationalism.

"Until another ideology, another legitimating principle of governance emerges that can get millions of people — billions of people in some countries — to actually cooperate and coordinate around certain principles, I don't think nationalism is going anywhere," said Mylonas.

Guests in this episode:

Harris Mylonas is an associate professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. He's the editor-in-chief of the journal Nationalities Papers, and author of The Politics of Nation Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities.

Maya Tudor is an associate professor of Government and Public Policy at Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government. She is the author of The Promise of Power: The Origins of Democracy in India and Autocracy in Pakistan.  She and Harris Mylonas are collaborating on a forthcoming book titled Varieties of Nationalism


*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey. It is part of our series, The New World Disorder.

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