Political Identity and the New Nationalism

If there has been no convergence of CEE countries on Western identity-supported democratic participation, there does seem to be evidence of the opposite process, of the West moving towards CEE and increasingly sharing the characteristics of democracies that try to cope with weak social identities: declining electoral turnout, weak attachment to parties, and the emergence of new parties lacking strong social roots.

Abstract theories of democratic participation fail to answer the fundamental question: how do the great majority of people, who are not very interested in politics and find it hard to understand the complexities of political questions, work out how they should vote? The theory of representative democracy says that they consider which candidate will be most able to represent them, because (s)he is competent and able to respond to their concerns. However, very few voters in mass democracies know anything about the personal qualities of the candidates they vote for and may not even know their names. The theory of rational voting says that voters calculate which candidate (or, most likely, party) best represents their interests and vote accordingly. But few of us have the time and resources to make such calculations in a truly scientific way, and may not even be sure what our interests are across a wide range of issues. A less ambitious rational theory says that voters decide whether a government seems to have been competent. If so, they vote for it; if not, they vote for another party. This is becoming more realistic, but it fails to account for the fact that many people continue to vote for a party after it has demonstrated itself to be incompetent. It also cannot explain which of various parties voters will choose if they think the government has been incompetent.

Considerably closer to reality is a far rougher form of rational choice. The voters start with some idea of “who they are” in a politically relevant sense. They then work out which party seems to stand for “people like them,” unless for some reason that party seems at the time to be particularly incompetent. The crucial step here is working out “who they are” politically.

“Who am I?” is a question about identity, and we have many of these. We are members of families, workers at an occupation, believers in a religious faith, residents of an area, supporters of sports teams, practitioners of various spare-time activities, lovers of various cultural and leisure activities. Most of these have no political significance at all, but they might suddenly acquire it if one party or another makes it an issue. Historically this has been most important when some of these identities have been the subject of struggles over exclusion and inclusion from political participation itself and other rights. Most European countries the 19th and early 20th centuries saw important attempts to use religion as a basis for inclusion and exclusion. When this happened, people found that their religious identity also had political implications, leading them either to be excluded or to see themselves as insiders with an interest in excluding others. Where they stood on this question would bring them to identify with particular parties and to be opposed to others. Another major source of struggles was property ownership and occupation, giving rise to class struggles over inclusion in and exclusion from citizenship and, again, leading to political identities.

Struggles over religion and class became the two great sources of political identity that enabled people to answer the question “Who am I, politically?” by working out which party or parties seemed to stand for their religious and/or class identity. Other struggles were sometimes involved, such as the sides people found themselves on during civil wars (important for Ireland and the USA); sometimes regional identities became the objects of political struggle, giving rise to sub-national parties of the kind found today in parts of Belgium, Spain, and the UK. Still, class and religion were dominant.

In Western Europe and other parts of the world where more or less stable democracies were established by the second half of the 20th century, these struggles lost their bite as universal political citizenship ended most forms of exclusion. However, the political identities that had been forged lived on, informing people of their basic political attachments, especially when the achievement of formal citizenship was not followed by a substantive change in social position. Despite their turbulent history, they became the basis of the stable and orderly forms of conflict with which mass democracy is most easily able to flourish.

With time the power of these identities declined, becoming just a memory of parents’ and grandparents’ struggles. Then the two great bases of social identity that themselves had conferred political meaning weakened. In most of Western Europe—though not the USA—religion declined. In all advanced economies the proportions working in mining and manufacturing– the main centers of class struggle—also weakened. New generations worked mainly in the various services sectors, often in new occupations that had no links to the past class struggles. From around the 1980s parties rooted in religious and class identities began to decline; new ones without strong roots emerged. The proportions of electorates bothering to vote at all declined, as did membership of political parties.

The story in central and eastern Europe (CEE) is different, having been cut off for decades by the spurious democracy of communist one-party states. There had been a similar experience in the three European capitalist dictatorships of Greece, Portugal, and Spain, which entered liberal democracy only in the mid-1970s. However, in these cases party structures quickly took on the form already common in the rest of Western Europe, with large parties attracting loyalties based on religious and class identities. In CEE this did not occur so clearly. One can identify Christian democratic, social democratic, liberal, and residual communist parties, but these have rarely achieved dominance. Parties come and go and are often just based on rich individuals. It is as though communism, having in theory included everybody but in practice excluding everybody from political participation, left behind no legacy of rival identities that could be used in electoral conflict. Immediately after the arrival of democracy in the 1990s was electoral participation in most CEE countries high, but it fell away rapidly to reach low levels.

If there has been no convergence of CEE countries on Western identity- supported democratic participation, there does seem to be evidence of the opposite process, of the West moving towards CEE and increasingly sharing the characteristics of democracies that try to cope with weak social identities: declining electoral turnout, weak attachment to parties, and the emergence of new parties lacking strong social roots.

The New Nationalism

In many established democracies one social identity that can rapidly acquire political meaning has survived the general decline: nation. Since the most important level for democratic politics is the nation, political leaders have always needed and liked to stress its importance and their attachment to it. However, since Nazism and fascism demonstrated how violent and destructive nationalism can be when unleashed as a political emotion in conflict, the great majority of politicians have been restrained and quiet in their appeals to it. Occasional individuals who departed from this consensus were quickly ostracized as reversions to fascism.

This is now changing rapidly. Not only has national identity been left strong, if quiet, while those of religion, class, and the memory of past civil wars have declined, but major developments in the contemporary world have given it new salience: the globalization of the economy, which takes important decisions beyond the reach of national democracy; extensive immigration, which confronts people with unfamiliar cultures; a rise in refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, which produce even starker cultural confrontations; and the growth of Islamic terrorism, which has connections to the refugee crisis.

If national identity can be used for partisan political identity only when external and internal enemies of the nation can be identified, globalization provides the former and population movements the latter. The latter pro- vide new groups for ostracism, enabling the majority population to feel a new comfort of inclusion. Then those members of the nation who resist its politi- cal use can be branded as not true members, even as traitors, providing new candidates for exclusion and increasing the comfort of those “inside.”

So far the most important expressions of this new role for national identity have been the votes of a majority (52%) of British people who decided that the country should leave the European Union (the so-called “Brexit”) and the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA (albeit with a minority of the votes cast). Both campaigns identified an external threat to the nation (the EU in the former, and a variety of foreign countries and international organizations in the latter). Both depicted immigrants, refugees, and Muslims in general as undesirable—the Brexit campaign did this last even though the Islamic population in the UK has nothing to do with the country’s membership of the EU.

Other examples are gathering, predominantly in France where the Front National, once marginalized as a fascist movement, has become one of the most powerful forces in a politically fragmented country; in Austria, where a far-right party, once seen as the continuation of Nazism, has become the single biggest party; and Hungary, where the governing party has combined hostility to existing ethnic minorities, such as Jews and Gypsies, with that towards Islam.

Very few European countries have not seen a rise in parties and movements stressing various forms of hostility to globalization, the EU, the settled ethnic minorities, the immigrants, the refugees, and the Muslims. These movements are concentrated in prosperous countries of north-west Europe: the UK, France, the Nordic lands, Netherlands, Austria, though in Germany the phenomenon is concentrated in former East Germany. They are found in Greece and Italy but weaker; very little in Portugal and Spain.

The role of national identity in CEE countries is more complex. One might have expected national liberation movements to have been prominent in opposing Soviet domination and then to have become established as dominant parties, in the same way that such movements had done in earlier campaigns in several of these countries against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or against colonial rule in other parts of the world. However, the only clear cases of this kind were Estonia and Latvia, where hostility towards the large Russian minority populations left behind by the Soviet Union certainly played a part in consolidating democratic politics. Matters elsewhere were different. The Civic Forum movement in what was then Czechoslovakia and Solidarność in Poland performed something of the role of national liberation movements, but both split soon after the end of Soviet domination. In general and outside Estonia and Latvia, nationalism did not appear as a powerful force in creating political identities in CEE until more recently, with the turn in Hungary and the more recent opposition in several countries to the attempt of the EU to make CEE countries help share the burden of Greece and Italy in receiving large numbers of refugees from conflicts in the Muslim world. This event has now provided a base for those envying the success of the Hungarian governing party, Fidesz, particularly in Poland. These movements are, paradoxically, encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also has connections to Donald Trump. The Russian government itself pursues a strongly nationalist policy in order to integrate its population, seen most strongly in the conflict in Ukraine.

After decades of resting dormant following the defeat of fascism and Nazism in the Second World War II, national identity is re-emerging as a major source of political identity in a world where other social identities have been becoming featureless. An important question for the future is the form that opposition to it might take. Is it a matter of national identity politics against those who reject having such an identity imposed on them, either because they reject being defined by hostility to people from other cultures, or because they see themselves as individuals with no collective attachments? And do these non-identities have the capacity to become identities (another paradox), driven by a passion similar to that from which nationalism draws its strength?

Colin Crouch

Colin Crouch is a professor emeritus of the University of Warwick and external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies at Cologne. His most recent books include Post-Democracy (2004); The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism (2011); Making Capitalism Fit for Society (2013); Governing Social Risks in Post-Crisis Europe (2015); The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life (2015); and Society and Social Change in 21 st Century Europe (2016).

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