The dangers of a renewed nationalism

22 Nov 2016


"We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an 'us' and a 'them'." President Obama made this comment in Greece last week in the wake of the Trump election and in a possible reference to the Brexit vote. The nationalist voice has become hugely important this year and the winning sides have changed the image nationalism creates to their advantage.


Across Europe nationalist political parties are gaining ground, or power, through their focus on a national identity that in many areas no longer exists. From Marine Le Pen’s National Front, that could win power in 2017, to Alternative for Germany which is quickly gaining ground before the German election next year. Across the western hemisphere a nationalist message is winning votes which could be a threat to safety, economic progress and an open society.

Whether it is ‘Take Back Control’ or ‘Making America Great Again’ the messages in recent elections have focused on nationalism. It suggests taking countries back to an age that has long gone or arguably never existed at all. The simplistic messages have changed what images nationalism evokes and this is the heart of why the Remain and Clinton campaigns were defeated.


Neither of the two campaign slogans explain when America was great last or who control is being taken from and for what purpose. What the slogans did manage was to evoke an emotional, fearful and nostalgic response which subconsciously plays to the fears of immigration and globalisation without being overtly divisive or negative. It is a sublimely successful re-branding by the right of politics and a major mistake by the left, who have allowed the image of national identity to be altered without response.


Taking back control overtly suggests control has been lost which then begs the question to who, allowing the public to make up their own mind which could lead to division over race, wealth, class and much more. The message is simple but suggestive, positive at first but deeply negative and divisive on closer look. "We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up...the 20th century was a bloodbath." President Obama knows how vital it is that the messages are exposed and answers are found.

 The opportunity to take your country back appealed on a nationalist level and changed how many thought about their country. As little as five or six years ago the identity of Britain might have been of a multicultural and creative society, the Brexit vote summed up a change in what the meaning of nationalism meant. If any voter thought that progress had stalled within the country, the message was an implicit blaming of the multicultural, global society that has developed and stands accused of taking control of the UK.


The Brexit vote represented a chance to ‘take the country back’. The message was subtle and cleverly designed to play to fears over jobs, public services and community spirit at best or divide by race, sex and class at worst. It was found in research for openDemocracy that “57 percent of voters who identify themselves as “English” supported leaving the EU at the beginning of 2016.” This shows that the messages Leave sent out appealed on a nationalist level and split a country over an image of what England represents.


The mistake of the Remain and Clinton campaigns was to allow this subtle message to take hold without an adequate and equally emotional response. Without pointing to the positives of a multicultural and open society, the opposite message instead flowered that those same factors were to blame for issues within the country. Instead of pointing to UK austerity or US Republican stalling or the fact that migrants are an economic plus meant that the division took hold and a large enough number of people believed they could ‘take back control’.


In order to win future elections the left must present their own vision of nationalism which represents a positive, future focused image of the country. With the current austerity regime it has become too easy to pass the blame on to one particular section of society, whether it is benefit recipients, immigrants or the millennials.

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