The last century of rapid global development has led to the defining social challenge of the 21st century; modernizing the widespread notion of national identity to transcend culture and ethnicity.
Perhaps ironically, today’s world of migration, interdependence, multiculturalism, and free trade has only stoked the flames of fervent national devotion. Nationalistic citizens from across the Western world, with their innate tendency of mentally categorizing our complex society and embracing their perceived place in it, have become terrified of the growing challenges to their understanding of belonging and nationality. Once easily given to us by whichever government we were born into, national identity is now less easily defined in a time where the free market has replaced sovereign governments as the primary driver of our society. Thus, it is now in the hands of the people (and the leaders who represent them) to choose what role the State and national identity will play in the globalized 21st century — and there has been little consensus.
Perception of national identity has repercussions in almost all aspects of political science as it serves as the lens from which we view the concepts of statehood and nationality altogether. Likewise, it has immense repercussions in the daily lives of citizens as, for many, the borders of their nations are also the borders of their tribe; their perceived shelter to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. Predictably, as the world’s languages, ethnicities, and cultures begin to blend even more so, the debate over national identity has only intensified as nations struggle to reform government policies (most notably immigration and trade) to correlate with modern trends of globalization. However, to truly understand the role of national identity and the threats to it which arise from globalization, it is pivotal to first understand the complex debate in contemporary politics as to what national identity actually is (a fixed set of genetics and traits or a flexible set of values and goals) as well as the implications of such conclusions.
Humans have an innate tendency to categorize their society (one of extreme linguistic, ideological, cultural complexity) into easily defined groups based on religion, culture, nationality, etc. National identity often serves as the ultimate categorization method as it lumps many characteristics (language, ethnicity, religion) into one, easily digestible stereotype (i.e. ‘I am an American because I am white, I speak English, I am a Christian, and I love capitalism’). However natural and universal such a cognitive process may be, such a framework often breeds an incredibly fragile view of society, especially when radicalized and then confronted with challenges such as those who lack the mutual perception of national identity (which has indeed occurred alongside the movement of people and cultures). Moreover, as individuals feel a stronger sense of belonging to their perceived social group, there tends to arise a stronger sense of detachment, fear, and competition towards those who do not match their perception of a fellow American or challenge their current perception of belonging and nationality. The result is often a dangerous, defensive view of society which pigeonholes unique individuals into distant, easily villianizable categories.
Therefore, it is pivotal that we redefine national identity and offer a more malleable, modern definition of nationality. Ross Poole, in his 2012 book Nation and Identity, takes a rather idealistic approach to nationality as he asserts that nations are “imagined communities” and all which unites citizens is rooted in a shared objective or mentality, opposed to mutual genetics, geographic descent, or even culture. This mentality, he claims, is composed of shared intentions, values (morally or politically), and a shared obligation to others; meaning nations are collective agents composed of common-minded citizens set to achieve a similar objective or goal. What is the purpose or binding ideology of the United States? Poole, along with others, would likely answer ‘to further the pursuit of equal representation and legitimate self-determination’. If this is the case, nationality is indeed independent of other personal factors and anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or descent, can become a legitimate “American” by simply embracing, and acting upon, the American values of self-determination. Perhaps a solution along the lines of Poole’s would be more constructive in a globalized society as, instead of discriminating based on uncontrollable and unchangeable factors, national identity would consist only of the mutual goals and values which nationals cooperate to achieve.
However, despite such developments in the perception of national identity, nationalistic sentiment has only thrived in the past decade of neoliberal globalization. As the free world divides, radicalizes, and panics to confront the complex and urgent challenges before us, we have lost a considerable amount of voting citizens to the extremist ideologies which reflect humanity’s most tribalistic tendencies. As a result of such discontent (as well as the efforts of far-right leaders), such trends have been reflected, not only within the bounds of respective governments but also in the functioning of the very international system which binds the world in trade and diplomacy.
Even in the United States, with its founding rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and minimal government, blatant far-right extremism has found its way to the White House in the form of Donald Trump and his supported “America First” approach; a direct reflection of the nationalistic sentiments and beliefs presented above. The Trump administration, waging war in the name of economic nationalism, has aggressively raised tariffs on imports in an attempt to blockade the flow of goods entering the United States and, theoretically, making America less dependent on the economies of other nations while protecting American companies from overseas competition. In the eyes of himself and his supporters, the current loss of jobs, raise in cost for consumers, and disruption to business is worth the long-term goal of economic isolationism. Such isolationist objectives are not only reflected in his economic policy, but also his approach to migration and diplomacy. The exponential decline of refugee admissions since he took office (reportedly the lowest levels since the resettlement program was first created in 1980), cancellation of DACA (which threatens deportation of roughly 690,000 unauthorized immigrants), proposal of spending billions of dollars on a wall along the US/Mexico border, and complete travel ban on eight African nations expose the Trump administration’s intolerance of immigrants and relentless skepticality of those who don’t match the conservative portrait of an “American”. Such policies reflect the United States’ (the nation which hosted the Bretton Woods Conference and founded modern liberal globalization) retreating position from the systems which have shaped our global project. Instead of encouraging global cooperation and diplomacy, we now act in the interest of nationalism and isolationism.
Thus, as much of 20th-century liberalism was primarily defined by the values of globalization and free movement of goods, people, and cultures, the next step in Enlightenment thinking may be ultimately defined by tribal tendencies in a modified, protectionist version of capitalism. The ultimate result of such an ideological shift is yet to be determined. However, the diplomatic reflections of radical nationalism, as history tells us, are seldom compatible with a supportive community of interdependent democracies. Indeed, modern globalization surely has its many flaws, as does the liberal democratic system itself, as we struggle to battle political corruption, bureaucracy, grotesque global inequality, and many other urgent discontents which have arisen because of the current system. However, it is impossible to solve such complex issues with a mentality of fear and division over logic. Therefore, we must either proceed with a universal mindset or alter our perception of nationality to allow for the unification necessary to conquer the global problems which we currently face. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of nationalistic regimes of the past and, instead of setting the stage for global prosperity, the West’s advanced project of liberal globalization was only constructed to be dismantled by our tribal instincts.
Dahbour, Omar. “National Identity: An Argument for the Strict Definition.” Public Affairs Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 1, 2002, pp. 17–37. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40441311.
Poole, Ross. Nation and Identity. Taylor and Francis, 2012.
Pierce, Sarah, and Andrew Selee. “Immigration Under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year Since the Election.” Migrationpolicy.org, Migration Policy Institute, 22 Jan. 2018, www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigration-under-trump-review-policy-shifts.