It is easy to get caught in the tidal wave of pessimism that has gripped the West’s chattering classes and op-ed writers. The list of real problems confronting Europe and the United States is long, and getting longer still: slow growth, exploding jihadi terrorism, uncontrolled immigration, the hollowing out of NATO, and the weakening of the European Union. Region by region, the global security equation looks equally menacing, with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) on fire amidst a Sunni-Shi‘a civil war, the fragmentation of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and fighters flocking to the Islamic State intent on brushing aside the remnants of the Sykes-Picot system. The risk of armed conflict is growing in Asia and Europe, with China and Russia pressing their advantage, while Americans, weary of losses in what is now a 15-year War on Terror, look in vain for a viable strategy. Within the West itself events are approaching an inflection point; the liberal, globalist notions of the past two decades have suddenly (if only in hindsight not unexpectedly) run into a rapidly rising wall of popular resistance.
The forces that are reshaping the erstwhile globalist consensus are not, as critics would have it, simply “populism,” “racism,” or “lower class obscurantism,” but a 21st-century popular rebellion across the democratic West, which—warts and all—is readying itself to imprint the will of the modern demos onto what not so long ago many considered to be a progressively de-nationalized, postmodern consumer society. Steeped in resurgent nationalism, this public wave has crashed into the breach between the notional reality, which maintains that on balance Europe and America are still doing fine, and the perceived reality of high unemployment, high immigration rates, and segmented communities. It is amidst this sense of fragmentation and decline that latter-day peasants on both sides of the ocean are rising up, pitchforks in hand, against an increasingly denationalized aristocracy
The experience of open borders, mass migration, and top-down regulation has undercut the people’s sense of their own sovereignty in Western societies, leaving many to grapple not only with economic hardship but also, and perhaps even more importantly, with a growing sense of cultural marginalization in their own states. The backlash against immigration has been the key driver of the revolt. This backlash, however, is less against the principle as such; the West has been historically welcoming of immigrants. Rather, opposition has swelled against the speed and manner in which immigrants are brought into the national culture, as well as the official policies that exert little pressure on new arrivals to acculturate. Multiculturalism, with its anti-Western bent, in combination with the ascendency of the liberal left across national media and in culture debates, has convinced more and more people that their communities are being transformed with minimal elite concern for their aspirations and priorities. Today, the latter-day peasants of the collective West are massing outside the gates of the manor out of a sense that their governments have confined their values to the margins. To be sure, while some who demand closed borders are in the grip of prejudice, for the rest it is about the right to live in communities that remain familiar and, though they may evolve gradually over time, do not demand a sudden and wholesale transformation of culture.
The paradox of modern nationalism has always been its bifurcated nature: on the one hand, nationalism molds a larger community around a deeply internalized sense of reciprocity—what Ernest Gellner called a “special feeling” of community, even if, as Benedict Anderson later argued, these were “imagined communities”; on the other hand, it reaffirms the distinction between who is in and who is out, for kinship and discrimination are often two sides of the same coin. Still, a sense of shared national heritage is central to the cohesion of the state. The idea of a nation as an extension of some of the most rudimentary, if abstracted, ties that bind people to their family has historically created a sense of larger solidarity. Without it, the notions of a shared financial burden and obligation to defend the homeland or the need to sacrifice, if necessary, one’s individual comforts for the nation as a whole would never be possible. It is perhaps for this reason that the perennial talk of a European Union army has always been borderline delusional, for it implied a reciprocity of commitment and sacrifice where the internal ties were merely secondary to the national bond.
The gathering popular rebellion against the governing and cultural elites has begun to reshape the electoral landscape across the West, as seen in the rise of nationalist parties in Europe and Trump in the United States. Though the process has only begun, the electoral map of Europe is already changing, with nationalist parties having polled in the latest elections 35.1 percent of the vote in Austria, 29 percent in Switzerland, 21 percent in Denmark and 21 percent in Hungary, 18 percent in Finland, 14 percent in France, 13 percent in Sweden, 10 percent in the Netherlands, 8 percent in Slovakia, 7 percent in Greece and 4 percent in Italy. In Germany, where nationalism historically has had a particularly toxic image, the nationalist anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland, which two years ago did not exist, polled 4.7 percent in the last election and now holds seats in half of the state legislatures. In Finland the nationalists came second in last year’s general election. In France’s regional elections in 2015 the National Front got 6.8 million votes—its highest number ever—and did not win in two regions it targeted only because the socialists threw their support behind the conservatives. And finally, in the United States, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries has shown the strength of anti-immigrant and anti-elite sentiment, forcing the GOP establishment to hastily pick sides and realign party loyalties.
And yet there has been precious little introspection on the part of the intelligentsia on either side of the Atlantic as to what policies and factors of the past three decades have generated this surge of popular anger. The visceral response of our academic and professional classes to this rising tide of popular resistance in Europe and America has been initially to dismiss it as either another familiar populist spasm mixed with the fallout from the 2008 recession or as the inevitable aftershock of our transition to a post-industrial West. It has been called a manifestation of anger from those who lack the skills to adapt to a new economy—sore losers, unwilling or unable to retrain for new jobs, and therefore apt to fall through the cracks in the floor of our global edifice, which is otherwise seen as continuing to support unprecedented prosperity. This of course leaves aside the question of how one transforms a 55-year-old laid off automobile worker into a computer programmer, but such objections rarely figure prominently in academic debates on globalization.
The nationalist rebellions that are stirring across the West have thus far generated almost uniform elite condemnation on the grounds that such movements and the parties they have spawned are fed and driven by prejudice and intolerance, racism, discrimination, and—to quote one university discussion—a “desperate attempt to preserve white privilege.” And yet the vision of a globalized post-Westphalian, postmodern, and ultimately post-national future, which only a decade ago seemed well on its way to dominating political discourse as the new consensus in classrooms and boardrooms, is today shaky at best. It is being challenged by a new strand of nationalism taking shape across the West, still uncertain of its own language and the patterns in which it manifests itself in different societies, but by now unmistakably resurgent and growing in its appeal to the public.
Notwithstanding the many volumes written on the alleged arrival of a post-Westphalian era, globalization and the persistence of strong nation-states are in fact not contradictory: The former defines the current stage of capitalist development, while the latter is the territorial political unit that organizes land and population. The past three decades have been marked not only by the opening of national markets but also by fierce competition between nation-states. If anything, strong states ensure the stability that is critical to the smooth functioning of the global market, and perhaps here the globalists and the nationalists could actually find room to compromise. Yet part of the problem is that our elites seem unable to divorce the idea of nationalism from the historical narrative of fascism. Though seemingly counterintuitive, this accounts for their inability to recognize that the current wave could in fact be a positive restorative force reasserting the unity of Western democratic nations, provided we begin to seek a genuine consensus on the importance of common reference points in society. To do so would invalidate the most established and often cherished narratives about the direction of global change that envision and celebrate a world in which nation-states continue to surrender sovereignty to international norm-enforcing institutions and supranational projects. Simply put, the vision of a postmodern Europe in particular, as defined over the past three decades, cannot be reconciled with the experience of 21st-century nationalism, for the former envisions societies where national identities rooted in a shared culture and history are replaced by a generic concept of citizenship bridging between multiethnic and multicultural societal enclaves. A compromise would require some affirmation of a larger national culture, and most importantly a movement away from ethnic group politics in order to arrest the centrifugal forces that have balkanized Western societies for decades.
The fortunes of great powers wax and wane depending on their relative economic prosperity, the course of their more or less successful wars and foreign policy ventures, and/or the rise and decline of their international competitors. And yet—absent a system-transforming war—all shifts in global power distribution have at their base a set of domestic political factors. Whether a nation is looking ahead with confidence, diffidence, or fear depends on the ability of its elites to speak directly to public anxieties, aspirations, and goals while generating a vision and a sense of common purpose. Great powers do not implode simply because their economies have declined or because their military campaigns failed to produce the intended results. Economics and foreign policy matter greatly, but they require something much less tangible in society: confidence about the future that draws in part from a reaffirmation of the core tenets of the past. The surge of nationalism across Europe and the United States needs to be understood as still an essential ingredient of modern statehood, and engaged through democratic politics in ways that eschew Manichean choices.
However, thus far the narrative of this surge of public anger aimed at Western elites has been confined to the simple, safe, and ultimately maddeningly imprecise concept of “populism,” with its implicitly negative connotation. After all, populists are by definition unsophisticated rubes who pitch the public simplistic solutions to the increasingly inscrutable complexities of the modern world. But this dismissal does nothing to help us understand what these movements are about. Were it all that simple, we could double down on the narrative of the forces of enlightened progress under assault by those of retrograde parochialism, and in this modern tale of cosmopolitanism betrayed by nativism keep on shaking our heads at the lack of judgement that surprisingly ever larger segments of the general public across Europe and the United States are displaying.
The reality is quite different. The West is experiencing a nationalist awakening of a magnitude not seen in decades because the policies of those decades have run their course and are no longer accepted. It is time we stopped and took it seriously, instead of dismissing it out of hand as an aberration defying explanation and unworthy of consideration. Like all incipient movements, this new nationalist awakening has its low points, and its spokesmen and spokeswomen can be clumsy, clownish, and downright rude; however, the public sentiment behind it deserves a hearing not because we like it or dislike it, but because it is reshaping our societies. And most of all, the latter-day peasants have shown that they will not stand for being ignored