Perspective: a new nationalism?

By Sophie Boulter, World News Editor

Nationalism is anything that we don’t like. Right?

Anti-Trump activists labelled the former president a nationalist, because he professed to put “America first.” Supporters of the European Union often dismiss critics of the bloc as nationalists who cling to an antiquated conception of the nation-state. Pundits and politicians alike caution us against falling into nationalism, fearing its association with far-right ideology. 

But what really is nationalism, and does nationalism always insist on putting a nation “first” at the expense of others?

Benedict Anderson, a political scientist, defined the nation as an “imagined political community.” Nationalism expresses the sovereignty of this imagined community. In other words, to be a nationalist is to believe that your imagined community — and the distinctive traits that set your nation apart — deserve recognition. 

I have researched nationalism with scholars of different disciplines for almost four years now. My work has led me to conclude that there are different types of nationalism, and nationalism can be a force for good. Inclusive nationalisms express pride in national history, language, music, landscape, folklore and sports without allowing their pride to cross into xenophobia.

This is a delicate dance. To have pride in place and a collective past is to celebrate difference, and this can quickly turn into fear of the imagined “other.” 

Yet, the celebration of and pride in difference does not have to be an assertion of exceptionalism. I can lose myself in the rugged and random beauty of America’s West, and in  the orderly, gleaming cityscapes of Shanghai. Neither is better or worse than the other.

My research focuses on nationalism in the United Kingdom. While studying Scotland, I noticed that Scottish nationalism is particularly enthusiastic about its inclusivity.

Newswire photo by Sophie Boulter
Nationalism can be a good thing if it is inclusive, open and willing to learn from the past to create a stronger national future. The  European Union should respect, rather than dismiss, the national pride of its nation-states.

By pursuing an aggressively-open idea of what Scottishness is, Scotland avoids falling into more xenophobic conceptions of nationalism. 

The Scottish Nationalist Party, for example, considers anyone who “chooses” Scotland to be Scottish. Rather than narrowly defining Scottishness as only belonging to those born in Scotland, Scottishness belongs to anyone willing to have a stake in the country. 

Individuals take pride in belonging to nations because they have a direct stake in them. In this way, individuals are integral to creating and sustaining national identity. 

In contrast, supranational  organizations (organizations with authority that supersedes that of national governments) such as the EU are often seen as remote and unaccountable because they don’t have a sense of a shared — or chosen — history, folklore or landscape. 

The EU is at its strongest when it honors the unique histories, languages and cultures of its member-states. The EU should acknowledge the values that member-states share while honoring the differences between nations. The EU should not treat differences among member-states as obstacles to be overcome in favor of “an ever closer union.”

The EU ought to encourage inclusive nationalism among its states, even if this means stopping some aspects of European integration, such as the forging of a strong, post-national European identity.

An inclusive nationalism is aspirational, constantly considering the ways that each nation’s unique attributes can help build a better collective future. The England national football team is a particularly interesting example of this. The players use their platforms to fight for racial equality and LGBT+ rights, arguing that England is a great country that can continue to become better. 

Most of the players are sons of immigrants or immigrants themselves, and do not hide their experience of being treated as the “other” in England. Their experiences of discrimination, coupled with their experiences of success and community, drive their inclusive conception of Englishness. 

As Anderson said, national identity is imagined. The imagination is a site of creation, adaptation and improvement; nations, too, should continue to re-create themselves, with the aim of becoming more open, fair and just. 

So, go ahead and call me a nationalist. I’ll take it as a compliment.