Tyler P. Yates
University of North Texas
As we enter 2017, leaving behind a year that has seen near exponential growth and aroused vigor in nationalist movements worldwide, scholars again find themselves wading into the conceptual muddle of nationalism. Perhaps one of the most important questions facing this line of research deals with the normative appeal of nationalism more broadly: Is nationalism an asset or a hindrance in today’s globalized world? Before answering such a question, it is necessary to address an inherent issue with this line of thought. Nationalism, if it is to be understood in any way that makes it meaningfully comparable through both time and space, must be conceptualized objectively. Yet, when we turn to examine the normative impacts of particular instances of nationalism within states our analysis necessarily becomes subjective. What may be an asset for one particular state might be a hindrance for another. How then, do we aggregate these subjective views in order to determine whether nationalism as an objective concept is good or bad overall? In this essay I argue that nationalism can be either an asset or a hindrance depending on the characteristics of the state and its ruling elite. The subjective outcomes are not so much a result of nationalism itself as they are of the forces driving the nationalist tendencies within a state.
Defining nationalism has typically been a problem for scholars as they try and distinguish it from other similar concepts such as patriotism and jingoism. The act of differentiating nationalism from what it is not creates a dichotomy where there is not one. Nationalism exists on a broad continuum. At its most simple, nationalism conceptualizes how much an individual prioritizes their state and its values over other potential motivations when making decisions. The mere act of being highly nationalistic cannot be easily defined as either good or bad. The normative determinants of nationalism result from the state where the nationalist views are activated.
The driving forces behind nationalist sentiment are natural and biologically influenced. Humans evolved with a capacity to cooperate and work together in groups. This allowed them to accomplish tasks that they could not individually, and it also propelled the development of a culture and morality that allowed the creation of large scale societies and states. Despite this ability to cooperate there are limits, and there is a natural tendency for humans to fall back into the comfort of their in-groups when properly motivated. Research typically has focused on a broad range of factors that can influence nationalistic behavior including the economy and external threats. Change and deprivation are scary to humans, and it is human nature to push back against such things. When faced with the prospect of an uncertain future nationalist tendencies have the potential to soar. However, this nationalist potential is not inevitable, nor, again, is it necessarily a bad thing. Not all states that undergo hard times or face external threats will embrace a nationalist fervor.
Nationalist potential can become activated through a few different paths. For example, citizens that feel threatened have a need to express their grievances. Institutions in many states provide such outlets. Institutions such as a state’s electoral system or its press have the potential to both instigate and exacerbate nationalist tendencies by giving a soapbox to nationalistic voices. Nevertheless, different forms of these same institutions have the potential to weaken or temper the same nationalistic tendencies. Another way nationalism can become activated lies with a state’s elites and leadership. They can seek to manipulate the population and create a nationalist frame for their citizenry. In some instances, this can be as simple as campaigning for citizens to buy local rather than from abroad. It could also take the form of drumming up nationalistic sentiment against outside threats to help protect their rule or draw attention away from any governmental shortcomings. Regardless, it remains the case that elites have a strong impact in framing issues for their citizenry.
The normative impact of nationalism will depend on its total impact and the forces driving it. Nationalism can be viewed as both a means and an end. As a means, it can be used to galvanize support for some further goal. As an end, the state and its values become hierarchically dominant to everything else and serve as a driving force for all decision making. It is also entirely possible that what starts as a means can itself become an end. Because nationalism draws on natural human instincts it is difficult to predict how those instincts will exhibit on the national level once activated, and what may have short term predictable benefits may have less predictable results over time. Think of this as a nested game problem. What makes sense on one level may become totally irrational as the level of analysis changes. Similarly, something may be normatively good when examined from one perspective yet normatively bad when examined from another.
In many ways it makes little sense to ponder whether nationalism is itself good or bad. Nationalism is just one particular type of a natural human response to change or threat. The instincts underlying nationalism cannot be done away with, and the very existence of the present normative debate illustrates that there are enough positives associated with nationalism to create conflicting views. Instead, nationalism scholars should turn their focus to the things that tend to drive and manipulate nationalist instincts. Why and how do certain people take advantage of this natural human impetus towards nationalism and what does it mean in terms of people’s best interests? How do nationalist perspectives transition from being a means to an end? Do nationalist movements adequately reflect the values of a state or are fervent nationalists willing to put aside entrenched values in order to protect the future of the state? These questions and more are the types that need to be examined rather than simply debating the goodness or badness of nationalism itself.