New Book Reveals Rise of Ethnic Nationalism in Western Democratic Politics
Political leaders are drawing on age-old myths and symbols of white ethnic majorities in their campaigning, say the authors of a groundbreaking new book on the rise of nationalism in the West.
Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Brexit campaigners have all drawn on rural and indigenous identities dating back to the early 19th century for use in their social media communications.
Through analysis of more than 16,000 tweets surrounding the 2016 Brexit campaign, the US presidential election and the 2017 French presidential election, the authors of The New Nationalism in America and Beyond discovered that far from truly ‘new’, recent nationalist movements evoked language and sentiment consistent with that used in relation to Irish Catholics in the 1820s, and migration from southern Italy and eastern Europe into the 1870s.
“Analysis of these political events has tended to focus on the ‘left behind argument'”,
says Dr Eric Taylor Woods, co-author of the book and a sociologist at the School of Society and Culture at the University of Plymouth.
“In other words, income inequality is the source of growing resentment and alienation among the working classes of the West. But that doesn’t explain why people are attracted to populist and nationalist campaigns. It only explains “why now”. What we have discovered is that this “new nationalism” is actually not new at all. It’s deeply rooted, it recurs, and when it does, we see incredible continuity in the types of ideas that are used.
Dr. Woods and co-author Dr. Robert Schertzer of the University of Toronto began researching Trump’s communications strategy after his 2016 election victory. But once it became clear events in Europe followed a similar theme, they widened their scope.
They began with a “historical dive” into political literature and history spanning several hundred years to build a model of each country’s core ethnic myths and symbols. What they found were recurring themes and ideas, particularly around immigration and religion, such as those expressed in the United States in the early 19th century, with criticisms of “liberal elites” who facilitated Irish Catholic immigration which threatened “to erode America”. Culture’. It resonated during a 50-year period at the turn of the 20th century, when migration from southern and eastern Europe dominated politics – even with an early reference to ‘making America great again’. .
“Across all three countries, we identified strong similarities, such as how rural areas are framed compared to cities,”
says Dr. Schertzer.
“There’s this feeling that the ‘real America’ or the ‘real England’ is rural, and the cities are places where culture is in danger of being eroded.”
The team then examined the political communication surrounding the three events and looked for examples of the reappearance of these historical themes. In Britain, they found that Brexit campaign tweets evoked long-held views of Europe as a place of “chaos”, taking historical views of France and Germany as “authoritarian and anti-democratic” and replacing them with the European Union. They also raised religious concerns surrounding Turkey’s potential membership in the union, echoing the anti-Catholic tone of the 19th century.
Trump’s tweets, meanwhile, have focused almost exclusively on nationalist ideas, as opposed to politics. They discovered that he focused his efforts on creating an “in” and “out” group, with white suburban Christian Americans firmly at one end of the spectrum, and Muslims at the other – and others racial minorities somewhere in between.
In France, they found that Le Pen was ready to go even further, openly attacking Islam as “anti-liberal”.
“What our research has shown is that tackling income inequality will help – but it won’t necessarily change people’s ideas about immigration and religion,”
concludes Dr. Woods.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening, as these ideas are endemic and entrenched in the West – and we need to recognize this if we are to confront them.”
The New Nationalism in America and Beyond is published by Oxford University Press. More information is available on the publisher’s website.