The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How nationalism can actually help democracies

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on April 17. (Jean Francois Badias/AP)

Last week, the charismatic face of Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron, gave a rousing speech calling for European leaders to shun nationalism to protect democracy. Macron echoed the concerns of many Europeans that the rising tide of nationalism was dangerous to democracy.

True, political leaders have harnessed nationalism to undermine democracy. But that need not always be true. My research shows inclusive nationalism — based on shared ideas or principles rather than race, ethnicity or religion — has helped to create and support vibrant democracies.

Nationalism can have its good points. Really.

My research with co-author Dan Slater shows how inclusive nationalism can support democracy across time. We found that whether nationalism is dangerous for democracy does not hinge upon its intensity. Rather, it hinges upon whether a country’s nationalism is fundamentally inclusive.

Two types of nationalism

Nations are imagined communities: imagined because citizens will not encounter most fellow citizens face to face. Yet nations are still communities that fulfill a deep and basic need for human connection in the modern world.

That nationalism is imagined does not make it weak. To the contrary, a country’s founding ideas about who constitutes the nation are powerful and enduring political resources. This is because the founding ideas of who constitutes the national “we” gets mythologized, in the memories of founding generations, in history books, in public ceremonies and holidays, in the influence of religious organizations upon national politics and in constitutions — which often serve as the reference point for how such countries organize, share and transfer political power.

Yet not all nationalism is the same — it can be predominantly exclusive or inclusive. Inclusive nationalism treats all ethnic and religious groups similarly and uses national language that grants equal access to public education and state employment. Countries with an inclusive form of nationalism, we argue, are less likely to experience democratic breakdown of the kind that systematically deprives minorities of their civil and political rights.

Exclusive nationalism can stymie democracy 

Though nationalism is never wholly inclusive or exclusive, exclusive nationalism is a scenario where fixed identities — race, ethnicity or religion in much of the world — define a nation at its founding. The fact that ethnic heritage centrally defined German nationhood in the latter half of the 19th century was one important reason that 1930s Germany accepted the systematic depriving of Jewish Germans’ political and civil rights.

There are modern-day examples: The religious and ethnic heritage that historically defined Burma is one reason Burmese today do not stand up and object to efforts to deprive the Rohingya of their political and civil rights. These examples showcase how leaders can harness exclusive nationalism to undermine democratic institutions. It is this kind of nationalism that Macron sees as detrimental to democracy. 

How the Rohingya crisis is affecting Bangladesh — and why it matters

So how does nationalism support democracy? 

Inclusive forms of nationalism actually can help create and support democracy. Inclusive nationalism avoids centralizing fixed identities at their founding and relies on shared ideals or aspirations as the basis of the national imagining.

There are multiple examples from the 20th century decolonization process. Inclusive nationalism emerged when indigenous elites in European colonies sought access to greater power by using nationalism to bind together large, diverse populations in anti-colonial struggles. Sometimes, as in India and Indonesia, the founding nationalism was defined neither by ethnicity nor by religion, but by a set of principles.

India’s founding nationalism was predominantly defined by secularism, linguistic plurality and nonviolent self-determination. The decades-long commitment to these ideals before independence in 1947 led to the adoption of India’s formal democratic institutions upon independence.

Fast-forward to India’s most severe democracy crisis to date — the period known as the Emergency, from 1975 to 1977.  At that time, the centrality of nonviolent self-determination in India’s nationalism helped the political opposition mobilize against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Gandhi’s defeat was perhaps the only time in modern political history where voters stopped a populist autocrat at the polls and brought about a peaceful transition of power.

India’s neighbors give the best indication of what the country’s democracy might look like without inclusive nationalism. In Pakistan, which adopted a nationalism loosely based upon Islam, violence against religious minorities is virtually unchecked. In Burma, a historically hard-line Buddhist nationalism laid a clear foundation for extreme violence against the Rohingya, perhaps the world’s worst-persecuted minority.

Today is India’s 70th birthday. How it answers these 3 questions will define its future — and the world’s.

Though a more exclusive nationalism is on the rise in India today, many Indians are protesting this — in part because Indian nationalism has historically been understood as inclusive. This helps explain why a broad range of actors have spoken up to protect democratic institutions, including why the Indian Supreme Court has restrained the Hindu-nationalist agenda in the domains of marriage, mosque destruction and cow slaughter; and why celebrated writers have returned government awards. Within government, dozens of senior civil servants publicly protested majoritarian policies and communal violence. And there have been continued civic protests against communal violence.

Because nations are inescapably part of individual identities today, a country’s sense of nationalism is a usable resource for political actors. But as our research shows, declaring all nationalism anti-democratic is too simplistic. Inclusive nationalism that celebrates principles rather than fixed identities can support democracy.

Macron concluded his lofty speech by asserting that what keeps Europeans together is not just a treaty but a shared commitment to values, celebrating the power of an inclusive European nationalism. 

Maya Tudor is an associate professor of politics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, specializing in democratization and nationalism. Follow her on Twitter @MayaJTudor.