Electoral legitimacy of an observably racist leader legitimises and emboldens racist elements in public sphere.
Recent years have seen a global rise of self-proclaimed strongmen and Far Right movements to positions of political prominence. The election of Donald Trump (USA), Narendra Modi (India), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), the success of the Brexiteers in 2016 as well as the increased success of Far-Right parties across Europe in recent years all herald this undeniable and seismic shift across the world.
Social Scientists, analysts and journalists have scrambled to understand this phenomenon and increasingly have turned to the concept ‘new nationalism’ or ‘neo-nationalism’ to frame this seemingly sudden turn of global politics. Beyond the fashioning of a new “ism”, however, there is a critical need for us to deconstruct and analyse the various impulses that encompass and empower the recent rise to prominence of these movements across the world.
Let us first highlight some of the overt similarities shared by neo-nationalistic groups. Neo-nationalists tend to share a common focus on strengthening national sovereignty and a restoration of past national and cultural glory. As such, they often take up strong anti-immigrant positions, coupled with an acrid disdain for minority groups who are often cast as harmful ‘others’ who have taken away economic opportunities and weakened the socio-cultural fabric of a once glorious nation. Another key facet of these movements is a distinctly nativist suspicion of supranational institutions and the cosmopolitan elite who are seen to have weakened the nation and grown prosperous by feeding off hard-working, working-class citizens.
Neo-nationalism = Nationalism + Populism
My assertion is that ‘new nationalism’ is neither new nor simply just nationalistic. Rather, what we are observing across the world, is the re-emergence of the far-right, enabled by an effective synthesis of populism and nationalism. Both concepts are compatible parallel concepts that are forged by emphasising social antagonisms.
Nationalisms of this variationare premised on the fashioned hostility between a favoured socio-cultural in-group and a caricatured, “dangerous” out-group. They are necessarily exclusivist and are predicated on the attainment and preservation of some variation of ‘national sanctity’. Traditionally, these nationalisms are deeply embellished in notions of ethnic superiority and purity.
Populism focuses on the chasm that exists between the common “real” people and the invariably corrupt elite. Central to the populist claim, is the declaration to represent the “authentic silent majority” and the perception that only decisions made by, or in the name of this majority can be legitimate and morally superior. This then effectively casts all adversaries as illegitimate and inauthentic members of society, e.g. anti-nationals, un-American, Anti-Indian, and so on.
Understanding these two parallel streams of neo-nationalism is essential as it helps us make sense of the appeal and success of these movements. Donald Trump for example, a wealthy businessman, was able to position himself as the saviour of working-class Americans against the corrupt “Wall Street” class and ineffective political elites. He promised to “make America great again”, and a key aspect of that pledge was to keep immigrants, with a distinct focus on Muslims and Mexicans, away from the US.
Narendra Modi, with a cultivated image of a political outsider, was able to rail against the Gandhis and the Congress as traditional elites who had through rampant corruption and ineptitude destroyed India and denied everyday Indians their rightful place in the sun. Essential to make India great again was a need to return it to its glorious, Hindu roots. A key collaborative compartment of his rise to power has been a decades-long campaign by the Hindu Right to denounce Indian secularism and reservation policies as appeasement and vote-bank politics that had favoured minority groups against the majority, the genuine, pure citizens of a Hindu Rashtra.
The message here is clear and effective: Traditional Elites (You) are to blame for the empowerment of minority and immigrant groups (them) and thus culpable for the disenchantment and disenfranchisement of “real citizens” (us). A strong leader, a political outsider, not involved with the traditional ruling class (I) is the only person who can save this great nation (us).
What has been truly remarkable about neo-nationalism has been its networked nature. While many of these movements have decried globalisation and promoted exclusionary nationalistic policies, they have benefited from the hyper-connected nature of modern societies.
An essential aspect of this has been what I term networked legitimacy, where the success of one neo-nationalistic leader or movement has legitimised other nascent groups, often also offering a road-map to success. Networked legitimacy also explains how success of these groups has enabled racist and discriminatory propaganda to come to the forefront of the public sphere, particularly in online spaces.
The presidency of Donald Trump in many ways, legitimised the rise of leaders like Duterte and Bolsonaro. In turn, as they increase in number, they legitimise other movement and leaders. Academic Jan-Werner Müller has noted that a “potent combination of nationalism and populism has spread in recent years”. He has further contended that “a populist playbook… has emerged as politicians in disparate countries have studied and learned from one another’s experiences”, leaning on one another for lessons and legitimacy.
Hyper-connectivity via the internet and in particular social media has also enabled many Far Right groups to lean on one another for propaganda purposes, sharing hate propaganda and positioning success in different places as a global revolution against corrupt elites and poisonous cultures. This has been particularly observable with the palpable common thread of Islamophobia that connects these movements, with disinformation and hate propaganda shared between these groups on social media to highlight the insidious global threat posed by Islam. It has also enabled online echo chambers to have global resonations, which increase the sense of threat and panic that has been the driving force for these movements.
The electoral legitimacy of an observably racist leader legitimises and embo-ldens racist elements in the public sphere. Prolonged exposure naturalises racist discourse and enables it to become accepted common sense in society. Networked societies enable this legitimised discourse in one country to spread swiftly into another, highlighting how networked legitimacy has been a primary functionary in the rise of neo-nationalism.
The Road Forward
There is little to suggest that the rise of neo-nationalism is likely to abate anytime soon. Initial optimism that this would be a nationalistic or populist blip in the history of global politics has been proven to be unfounded.
An effective response continues to confound liberals and traditional silos of power. As societies continue to debate and evaluate effective responses, there are definitive indications of what would not work. The politics of appeasement and quick fixes will not solve this new crisis. While these movements have often brandished hate, they are often also rooted in legitimate concerns over the economy, immigration and social inequality. At the core of the manifest anger is a deep resentment against the gestural and symbolic reform often undertaken by traditional politicians. A deeper reflection and structural solutions are absolute necessary to combat neo-nationalism. Equally, the response cannot seek to adopt neo-nationalistic frames and concepts, adopting stances that propound softer versions of neo-nationalisms. Such a position will be unsatisfactory to proponents of neo-nationalisms and will be seen as a betrayal of liberal ideals and principles by everyone else and will only lead to more disenchantment towards traditional politics.
The way forward must be substantive and must chart a new path forward, resisting the temptation to take roads already travelled.
(The author is an independent political analyst and formerly Associate Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. His research interests include state-society relations, ethno-nationalism, secularism, communal relations and violence as well as the experiences of diasporic communities.)