What’s New About Neo-Nationalism, Anyway?

Autocrats Are Ancient. But Globalization, Migration, and Technology Are Giving Them Fresh Power

What’s New About Neo-Nationalism, Anyway? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Protesters wearing masks of world leaders including (from left), Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Courtesy of AP Photo/Scott Heppell

Led by a new breed of demagogues and autocrats, neo-nationalism describes the emergence, and in some cases revival, of extreme right-wing nationalist movements and governments. And throughout the world, the number of autocratic and autocratic-leaning governments is on the rise.

How can we decipher the nuances of today’s form of extreme nationalism? And what is new about it when compared to, for instance, the ultra-nationalism that led to fascism and dictatorships in the 20th century?

To answer that question, consider today’s nationalist political movements like you do the vegetable section in your grocery store. There are a variety of neo-national movements and leaders, but they are all metaphorically vegetables.

Varieties of neo-nationalism range from political movements and parties (think Brexit or the National Front, rebranded the National Rally, in France under Marine Le Pen), to neo-nationalist leaning governments (with wannabe autocrats like Trump or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and the evolving story of Modi’s India), to illiberal democracies (Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Andrzej Duda’s Poland and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey), to authoritarian states (think China, Russia, and North Korea at the extreme end).

Hybrids abound. But most neo-national movements, parties, and governments are characterized by some combination of right-wing anti-immigrant, nativist, anti-science, anti-globalist (sometimes couched as anti-Western), and protectionist sentiments. When in power, they seek to squelch or even eradicate criticism.

And neo-nationalist leaders often have a core constituency that includes conservative religious groups—a marriage one finds in India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and here in the U.S., but not in secular China where the Communist Party is the state religion.

Some of this is familiar. Like right-wing populist movements in the past, neo-nationalist supporters and parties are often reacting to their own sense of waning political power, and perceived declines in social status and economic opportunity. Demagogues, then, step in to feed off a desire to preserve or reclaim a seemingly lost national cultural and political identity.

In Russia, you can find such backward-looking neo-nationalism. Vladimir Putin is infatuated with asserting Russia’s power and place in the world in order to revive nationalism and reclaim in some modern form both Russia’s tsarist and Soviet empire.

But if you really want to go back to the future, go to China.

Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” is a rewind to hero-worship politics. He demands increased loyalty to the party, and has built a personal cult around himself reminiscent of the founding leader of China’s Communist Party, Mao Zedong. Xi’s goals are to preserve the existing domestic political order, to restore territory seen as lost (namely Taiwan), and to pursue a new global economic dominance and increasingly military presence in Asia, and beyond. Xi’s autocratic China is also portrayed as a superior model to established democracies that seem incapable of governing.

One of Xi Jinping’s earliest nativist edicts—in 2013, just a year after assuming power—was for the Chinese people to avoid Western values and what he called the “seven unmentionables.” These included “Western constitutional democracy,” human rights, media independence, promoting “universal values” in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership, judicial independence, pro-market liberalism, and “nihilist” criticism of the party’s past.

For all the attention on autocratic regimes like Russia or China, it is the illiberal democracies that are growing the fastest in number. These are nations that often in the aftermath of dictatorships elect their leaders but have no history or culture of participatory democracy and civil liberties. Elected right-wing nationalists then establish a political environment that employs a mixture of corruption, demagoguery, and a lighter version of repressive regimes of the past, often with wide popular support.

Perhaps democracy is more fragile than many of us would like to think.

Some illiberal democracies border on being authoritarian regimes. These are characterized by indefinite presidential terms, the repression or control of media outlets, erosion of judicial independence, the transfer of state resources to an oligarchy, and the persecution of opponents—along with the maintenance of some semblance of open elections.

Perpetually staying in power is often one major objective of neo-nationalist leaders. An example is Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. In a call to arms, in 2014, Orbán infamously declared the end of liberal democracy in Hungary and his intention to build “an illiberal new state based on national values.” He cited China, Russia, and Turkey as his inspiration and encouraged others to follow. Indeed, autocratic leaning states and their leaders are supporting each other, sometimes to mitigate international sanctions, other times militarily—Putin’s support of Belarus’s autocratic government being one example.

What fuels the popular support for neo-nationalism? Orbán and other protagonists leverage the politics of fear to attack and blame perceived enemies, domestic and foreign, wrapping themselves in a mantle of patriotism. Such tactics were prevalent in previous forms of extreme nationalism.

But the causes and practices of today’s breed of nationalism (and hence the prefix neo) are newer and modern, and have three accelerants.

The first is the rapid pace of globalization and the economic uncertainty and fear it produces. While globalization, and specifically the growth of transnational trade, promised cheaper goods and a rise in living standards, it also led to economic stagnation and oftentimes an actual decline in living standards among lower- and middle-income populations in regions of the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and elsewhere.

The second accelerant is the pace of immigration and demographic changes among and within many countries. Today’s shifts in demography are historic, and are marked by mass immigration, mostly to Western economies, caused in part by the search for jobs as well as displacement caused by war, poverty, climate, and dysfunctional societies.

Open borders, open markets on an unprecedented scale, and the shock of the Great Recession, are all widely recognized causes for a populist reaction characterized by anti-globalism, nativism, protectionism, and opposition to immigration.

The third accelerant is the ability of a new generation of populists and demagogues to use technology and social networks to promote themselves, find allies for their movements, both at home and abroad, and attack enemies. The ease at which social media and its algorithms can distribute false narratives has added considerably to the power of political movements. Right-wing populists in many nations now bypass conventional media and build followings—like President Trump using Twitter for significant policy directives sandwiched between aspersions on political opponents.

Technology in the service of neo-nationalist leaders does not end there. In China, Russia, and in many illiberal democracies, new technologies offer paths for monitoring and punishing dissent, for spreading disinformation, and concerted efforts to subvert established democracies—what is termed sharp power.

Xi’s China, for all its backward-looking cult-making, has led both technologically and tactically. The state has imposed firewalls controlling access to websites and strict rules on what can be discussed. The 1989 events in Tiananmen Square are off limits to the web and discussion in China. So is the mass incarceration of ethnic Muslim Uighurs, again part of a nationalist drive for conformity.

Such suppression is blatantly overt, but other tools are more subtle and decidedly novel. Beijing has developed a Social Credit System using data sources, such as artificial intelligence and face recognition technologies, to give each citizen a score on their social and political conformist behavior—with the threat of penalties and even jail for those that stray. Putin’s Russia is experimenting with this in Moscow.

Combining new and more conventional forms of surveillance, like encouraging citizens to report on each other’s broadly-defined seditious activity, sometimes leads to arrests, or the loss of a job. It is not so much the number of academics, civil rights lawyers, or other pro-democracy advocates put in jail, but the message it sends to induce fear and encourage political conformity—whether in China, increasingly in Hong Kong, or elsewhere. One objective is self-censorship. And it works, particularly if practiced over a long period.

It’s crucial to note that nationalism—whether in new forms, or in revivals with new characteristics—is not solely the domain of right-wing politics. Modern nationalism also has a variant on the left side of the political divide. The left shares anti-globalist views espoused by nationalists of the right—for example that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), multilateral trade agreements, and even the EU, are conspiracies to increase inequality and erode national sovereignty. And there is intolerance for civil debate on both sides of the political spectrum.

One might also consider the nuances of nationalism that led to the Arab Spring. Nationalist movements that started with calls for participatory democracy and economic opportunity eventually resulted in religious conservative governments or new autocratic regimes—think Egypt under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and, perhaps, Tunisia since Kais Saied’s presidential coup earlier this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic should have eroded the attraction of neo-nationalists’ messaging. Think about the remarkably short period—just one year—from discovery of the virus to the creation of multiple effective vaccines. This governance and scientific success was built on decades of publicly funded biomedical research and it should have elevated the value of global collaboration and scientific inquiry.

Instead, the virus provided an opportunity to reinforce extremist views, spread fantastical conspiracy theories, and thus solidify and expand the power of savvy neo-nationalist leaders in much of the world. China used the pandemic as partial cover to crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong. In other corners of the globe, extreme nationalists used the pandemic to argue that international organizations are ineffective and pose a threat to national sovereignty.

Where is the world headed? Numerous non-profits monitor and provide data on this march of autocrats and right-wing nationalist movements. Freedom House, an NGO that monitors global freedom, has chronicled a long-term decline in democratic governments “broad enough to be felt by those living under the cruelest dictatorships, as well as by citizens of long-standing democracies.”

Varieties of Democracy or V-Dem, which uses an extensive dataset relying on local country experts, estimates that some 68 percent of the world’s population live under autocrats and autocrat-leaning governments—up from 48 percent in 2010.

Optimists might see a few signs of slowdown in the march of neo-nationalist political leaders and autocratic-leaning governments. The desire of young people in Hungary and Poland to stay in the European Union poses a political obstacle for nativist policies. The neo-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AFD) party just lost seats in the Bundestag. Trump lost to Biden. In France, Le Pen’s party is not making major gains, at the moment.

Societies with strong democratic traditions and civil discourse may appear to be partially immune to the worst scenarios of nationalism gone haywire.  But danger lurks for both established and new democracies. Donald Trump, despite his near-coup, remains a viable political candidate and has created a playbook for Brazil’s Bolsonaro, who has insisted that he can only lose the pending presidential election if it is stolen.

Perhaps democracy is more fragile than many of us would like to think.

Writing in the midst of the Great Depression and reflecting on nationalist movements in Europe and America, Sinclair Lewis warned in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here of a dystopian American future in which a charismatic and power-hungry demagogue leverages fear and nationalism to become president. The first American writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, Lewis gave voice to a worry that fascism could emerge in arguably the world’s first modern republic as an outgrowth of economic disruption and populist anger.

The United States has an antiquated electoral process, a justice system seemingly incapable of swiftly prosecuting a treasonous political leader, and a Republican Party cheering on a possible autocrat. Only a year ago the U.S. was close to a complete constitutional meltdown instigated by a morally bankrupt neo-nationalist.

It can happen here.


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