Is nationalism obsolete?
The nationalists are winning, right?
They certainly think so. In the minds of far-right populists, the defining narrative of our age has already been written. It goes something like this:
In the first half of the 20th century, catastrophic conflict left Western leaders scrambling to invent a new global order, which might finally offer respite to the war-weary citizens of Western nations. They came up with a recipe for global peace. The primary ingredients were complex alliances, transnational organizations, and a broadly shared neoliberal outlook. It was a naïve plan, administered by corrupt and clueless people. We stopped fighting world wars, but culture stagnated, and ordinary people got tired of being "managed" by soulless technocrats. Now that neoliberal order is collapsing, as nationalist movements recall the dispossessed to the true sources of culture, life, and communal solidarity: their nation-states. The populists are forging a path to a revitalized future in which human beings will take priority over the obscure designs of detached elitists.
It's a humdinger of a tale, especially given the colorful characters: former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, far-right French politician Marine le Pen, Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, wannabe Italian strongman Matteo Salvini, and, of course, President Trump. Most of us, if we're honest, probably feel sympathy with at least certain parts of this populist story. When we map it onto reality, however, we should ask a serious question. Is it really "the neoliberal order" that's falling down on the job? Or is it the nation-state?
Western countries can't keep their promises to their citizens anymore. This is not primarily a consequence of their "globalist" commitments. It's more fundamental than that. In the mid-20th century, it made sense to entrust national governments with our security (both economic and military), our personal welfare (ensured by entitlements and social safety nets), and our loyalty. Nation-states seemed equipped in that post-war period to offer protection, provision, and a robust sense of belonging, and for awhile they did a tolerable job. But those days are behind us, and it's looking increasingly improbable that national governments can summon the wherewithal to sustain this role. It's nationalism, not neoliberalism, that's becoming obsolete.
Consider the external pressures on national governments all over the world. First, they are struggling to find a just solution to the problem of human migration. Nation-states can't maintain a robust sense of community without entrance requirements, but it doesn't feel morally acceptable to tell desperate people that they must suffer or die simply because they had the misfortune to be born in the wrong place. Then there are global trade networks, which deepen our interdependence in organic ways that can't be disrupted without causing real harm to ordinary workers and consumers. Many environmental and health-related threats affect the whole globe, but precisely for that reason, nation-states are inclined to downplay them until catastrophe is literally at the doorstep. It's also worth noting that neoliberal elites aren't the only ones who forge global networks. Terrorists do it too! The nation-state isn't obviously the most sensible unit for providing security when threats can extend so fluidly across national borders.
Then there are the internal problems. These vary by country of course, but we still see some patterns. Western nation-states are locked into social contracts that are fiscally and demographically unsustainable. Most have high levels of debt, low birth rates, and extensive commitments to provide benefits and social services to their citizens. Many of those programs are strained to the breaking point right now, and populations across the West are aging, which means that growing numbers of needy retirees will want to be sustained by an ever-shrinking workforce. Something has to give. Right-wing populists show very little interest in restructuring these commitments, however. Instead, they typically promise to maintain or enhance existing benefits and services, vaguely suggesting that spanking liberal elites will somehow make this possible.
The picture gets even worse when we consider that social solidarity is also at a low ebb. Across the Western world we see deep ideological fissures opening between the religious and the secular, between the rural and the urban, between rich and poor, and also among the sexes and ethnic groups. This is hardly a recipe for national solidarity. People might crave a revitalized sense of national pride and togetherness, but that's not where we are right now, and divisive populist tactics only erode social solidarity further.
All these data points lead us back towards the same conclusion. Nation-states are not equal to the Herculean role we've assigned them. We need to face this reality head-on, instead of losing ourselves in bitter scapegoating and dreamy reminiscences of the good old days. Nationalists are nostalgic revanchists, channeling an emotional desire to secure a world that's already slipping through their fingers.
Properly understood, these reflections should not inspire panic or despair. Countries are not just going to disappear, of course. Barring some truly apocalyptic event, nation-states will continue to play a non-trivial role in human affairs, though it will likely be a changed and diminished one. Some governmental functions (especially relating to security, trade, and the environment) may shift to beefed-up international organizations, while a larger share of personal needs (both social and material) might fall to a less-centralized network of private organizations, local governmental programs, or perhaps some new sort of institution that doesn't yet exist. In a diminished nation-state, people would not stop forming communities, nor would they all morph into urbane cosmopolitans or (more pessimistically) deracinated loners. Human nature predates modern nationalism by several million years, and it will continue long after the nation-state has been eclipsed.
When the future is uncertain, it's easy to fall into dystopian brooding. Do remember, though, that human societies have reorganized themselves innumerable times across history, adapting to changing circumstances. Instead of trembling, consider ways to accentuate the positives. For citizens of impoverished or failed states, for instance, the ebbing of nationalism might be a tremendous blessing. Even here in America, our culture wars might be more manageable if we all cared a bit less about conquering the national stage, and a bit more about building up the communities and regions that truly matter to us. Patriotism can be quite destructive when different camps of patriots are continually trying to assert their competing visions.
Nationalists will continue to excoriate "globalism" for the simple reason that people love their countries, whereas nobody's heart beats faster for acronym-toting super-institutions. Everyone prefers the motherland to the UNEUWTOWHOIMFNATONAFTATPP, and indeed, we should love our homes and the civil societies that formed us. But we can still sing Yankee Doodle, and love our amber waves, while fixating a little less strongly on the nation as such.
Nationalism is readily understandable as a social and emotional phenomenon. Are the populists truly prophetic, though? Don't count on it.