Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The New Nationalism and the Old

With Britain voting to exit the European Union, Donald Trump claiming the Republican nomination for President, and Marine Le Pen currently leading the first round polls for the French presidential election, it is clear that nationalism is back. In all these instances, the candidates are generally designated "right-wing" or "far right". They emphasize parochial needs rather than universal values, and have been embraced by those who scoff at the progressive spirit.

And yet, despite the online spectacle of the Alt-Right and self-identified "neo-reactionaries", the leaders of populist electoral nationalism have largely ignored their values. Donald Trump has swatted aside conservative orthodoxy on planned parenthood and posed as the defender of America's gay community, while his daughter lauded him as a champion of "equal pay for equal work". Brexit advocates appealed to the principle of democracy and defense of the NHS more than stressing Britain's constitutional traditions, while Marine Le Pen has repudiated many of her father's free-market principles to champion feminism, intervention in the economy, and a generous welfare state. Twentieth century nationalism may have been a creature of the right, but the new nationalism is remarkably secular, democratic, and egalitarian.

In this, it resembles nationalism in its original incarnation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached the collective sovereignty of the people in assertion of their rights against their rulers. In contrast to the intellectuals who sought the favor of courts and princes across Europe, he argued: "Distrust those cosmopolitans who search out remote duties in their books and neglect those that lie nearest. Such philosophers will love the Tartars to avoid loving their neighbour."

The french revolutionaries followed Rousseau's counsel to dethrone a King who had sought the assistance of his wife's Austrian royal family to wipe out the domestic constraints on his power. Nationalism was subsequently, and for most of the 19th century, a left-wing idea -- with national liberation movements rousing international enthusiasm, particularly in overthrowing multinational authorities such as the Habsburg Monarchy or Ottoman Empire.

The democratic revolutions and nationalist ideals that shook Europe in 1848 achieved their fruition through Woodrow Wilson's insistence on the principle of self-determination at Versailles in 1919.  As this left Austria-Hungary in ruin, a power vacuum around a still-united Germany resulted, with disastrous consequences. As the continent rebuilt in 1945, Germany was deliberately divided and shackled by the constraints of the European Union.

Seventy years later, the unaccountable multinational institutions of the EU are beginning to yield the same popular frustrations that those that struck Austria in 1848.  With cosmopolitan elites suspected of serving their own distinctive interests, nationalism is striking a populist cord.  As a result, it should be no surprise that political candidates seeking to exploit democratic and egalitarian sentiments end up promoting values closer to those of Mazzini than those of Metternich.

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