Can nationalism ever recover its best self?
I am a diehard football fan. But is it just me or do you also find the most stirring element of the current European Football Championship the bit when the teams sing their national anthems before kickoff? The sight of two sets of young men singing robust and slightly off-key paeans to their homeland reminds us that it is probably nationalism, more than democracy or capitalism, that is the shaping force of the modern world.
For the billions of us living today in Asia, Africa and the Middle East in the first century of decolonization, nationalism is the bedrock of our social and political identity. Our forebears lived in all kinds of states, but we and our parents belong to the age of the nation state. It was nationalist self-assertion that won us our independence and now undergirds our identity in the world.
When I was growing up, to question the legitimacy of nationalism — the idea that one bears a special allegiance to those people with whom one shares an ethnicity, language, culture or history — was heretical. Most of us saw nationalism as the footballers on TV do: As a unifying and inspiring force, bearing the wisdom of the heart and the sanction of history.
Nationalism generated progress and social cohesion by hallowing, for most people, the region in which they lived and the language that they spoke. When we asserted that our country was the greatest country in the world, we truly believed it; in the same sense that everyone believes their mother is the best mother in the world or their children the most beautiful children in the world.
Without such beliefs, what would be the point of existence, of our lives embedded in particular histories and geographies and biases? Nationalism was an (off) keynote of our moral universe — a spontaneous and natural upsurge of feeling for the familiar. It allowed ordinary people to enroll themselves in a grand narrative. It was (and is) a workable arena of moral ambition, a realistic midpoint between caring only for oneself and family and looking out for all of humanity.
But ideas and ideologies are always evolving — and not always for the better. It seems to me the golden age of nationalism may be behind us. In our century, still very young, there has been a marked decline in nationalism. Not so much in its power to arouse emotion and solidarity, but in its ethical compass, its capacity to temper feeling with reason, to diagnose and remedy its own distempers.
The decline of nationalism began with authoritarian regimes. Dictators — and, borrowing from their playbook, democratically elected strongmen like Vladimir Putin — began to deploy nationalist tropes to centralize power, conflate ruler and nation, silence opponents, and find scapegoats.
Because it set so much store by visible markers of similarity, like dress or skin color, nationalism’s long-standing weakness has always been its tendency to pressurize religious or ethnic minorities. Now, to such groups were added political minorities. This changed the balance of power between nationalism and democracy. Nationalism could short-circuit the guardrails of democracy, such as the rule of law. And democracy itself became embroiled in a continuous debate about nationalism that sucked the air out of other issues. There was a parallel tug of war taking place, in a time of rapid globalization, between the forces of nationalism and cosmopolitanism.
This was best illustrated by the UK’s sudden secession from the EU (which we might think of as standing for a certain liberal ideal of post-nationalism). Here, too, a rancorous nationalism, highly correlated with anti-immigrant sentiment and nostalgia for a lost golden age, won the day.
And there was worse to follow. For decades, the world’s two largest democracies — the US and India — had been the flagbearers of a particular model of generous and inclusive nationalism, tied not so much to language and ethnicity as to a shared and evolving history in a subcontinent and to certain political and civilizational ideals.
The motto of American and Indian nationalism was the Roman ideal of “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one). These large and thriving nations were thereby also templates for nations constructed on a narrower base, showing that increased diversity was not incompatible with highly charged patriotism and shared values.
Where nationalism once gave particular form and detail to ideals of love and allegiance, it suddenly seems mainly martial.
But in the last decade, both these nations and nationalisms were vividly ambushed by a smaller (morally speaking) big idea: Briefly, Hindu nationalism in India and a mixture of white supremacy and class resentment in the US. Where nationalism once gave particular form and detail to ideals of love and allegiance, it suddenly seemed mainly martial, more interested in exploring the systematic demonization of enemies in a domestic space.
And why not? The virus of hypernationalism had taken hold. With the widening user base of social media, you could go to bed a self-identifying nationalist and wake up to find yourself labeled an enemy of the people for all manner of thought crimes. And if such enemies could be identified with, or even corralled into, a political camp, so much the better. Hypernationalist invective became a more effective way of delegitimizing political opposition than debates on policy, economics and governance.
Where does that leave us? In effect, nationalism today has become just another tawdry political ideology, cynically co-opting all those elements that were once used to inspire duty and sacrifice. Was nationalism always destined to be degraded in this fashion? Or are we at the nadir of a political trend, and can old-school nationalists reinvigorate their traditions and set nationalism back on a progressive path?
Perhaps, when I listen to those footballers singing on the pitch, proud of their country but also determined to prove themselves worthy ambassadors of it, what they stir in me is my own lapsed nationalism, my hopes and dreams for India. Which, I should remind you, is the greatest country in the world … in everything except football.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Twitter: @Hashestweets