It’s a global phenomenon. Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi won in India. Shinzo Abe in Japan hits nationalist notes. Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist party in Ukraine, has become an important player. The Golden Dawn in Greece is another ultra-nationalist party. Great Britain’s anti-EU party is on the rise, as are nationalists in France and the Netherlands.
What’s going on? The answer is, I think, both complicated and simple. Each nation has its own political culture that influences the rise of nationalism. (For obvious reasons nationalism has a bad odor in Germany.) That’s the complicated part.
The simple answer is globalization. Our increasingly globalized economy and bureaucratic/NGO/academic culture means that elites throughout the world now have a place to stand outside their homelands. Their interests and loyalties are increasingly globalized. By my reading of the signs of the times, this shift in loyalty poses a threat to the nation state. Nationalism, therefore, is an intuitive populist reaction, one that seeks to recover that loyalty.
Take, for example, hedge fund managers in Connecticut. They’re managing money for Japanese pension funds, Brazilian sovereign wealth funds, Chinese banks, and more. They fly to all over the world and stay in the same hotel chains, eat at the same high end restaurants, and talk to their Asian, European, and South American counterparts in airline lounges and in business class.
Or take for example John Sexton, President of NYU. He’s very explicit: NYU should be a global brand. Ivy League schools today are also explicit. They want to train the global elite, not just the American elite.
And so, at some point the idea of an AMERICAN elite starts to make less sense. That’s not a judgment on their personal sentiments. Many of course remain deeply patriotic. But their outlooks, sensibilities, and interests start to correspond more with elites throughout the world than with folks in Peoria. (A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that large companies in small townsCaterpillar is in Peoriaare having trouble attracting top talent, because hard charging elites don’t want to live too far from their own kind of people and they tend to congregate in the global cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and New York . . . and London, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, etc.)
Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary citizen senses this shift. Thus populism and nationalism. Shouting “France for Frenchman” or “India for Hindus” has an us-against-them urgency. That can be very dark and dangerous indeed. But we’d be foolish to ignore the fact that it’s also a way of renewing the social contract, a way of demanding loyalty throughout society, from top to bottom, to the shared weal and woe of the national community.
I worry about the detachment of elites from ordinary citizens. (That’s a cultural analogue of income inequality.) I’m in favor of renewing their loyalty to the national projects of different countries rather than the fool’s gold of “global citizenship,” a bloodless abstraction that will largely serve as a license for self-interest gilded with philanthropy. But nationalism has proven to be a very, very dangerous way to achieve that goal.