Nationalism, What It Means and Its History

Comparing Nationalism and Patriotism

Wall on Mexico border
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Nationalism is a system created by people who believe their nation is superior to all others. Most often, this sense of superiority has its roots in a shared ethnicity.  

Other countries build it around a shared language, religion, culture, or set of social values. The nation emphasizes shared symbols, folklore, and mythology. Shared music, literature, and sports may further strengthen nationalism.

Nationalism Explained

What exactly is nationalism, and how does it work? Nationalists demand to be independent of other countries. They don't join global organizations or collaborate with other countries on joint efforts. If the people are part of a nation, they want freedom and their own state.

Because they believe in the superiority of their shared attribute, nationalists often stereotype different ethnic, religious, or cultural groups. The resultant prejudice keeps their nation unified. Intolerance can lead to a desire to rid the country of those deemed as "different." In an extreme form, it can lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Nationalists work toward a self-governing state. Their government controls aspects of the economy to promote the nation’s self-interest. 

It sets policies that strengthen the domestic entities that own the factors of production. These four factors consist of:

Nationalists also don’t care whether the government or private businesses own the factors, as long as they make the nation stronger.

Nationalist trade policy is based on protectionism. It subsidizes domestic industries that are deemed of national interest. It also includes tariffs and quotas on foreign imports. If it escalates to a trade war, it reduces international trade for all parties. For example, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 reduced global trade by 65 percent and worsened the Great Depression.

Nationalism Versus Patriotism

Nationalists believe their shared interests supersede all other individual or group interests. They oppose globalism and empires. They also rally against any philosophy, such as religion, that supersedes national loyalties. They are not necessarily militaristic but quickly become so if threatened.

Nationalists' feeling of superiority differentiates their nationalism from patriotism. The latter equates to pride in one's country and a willingness to defend it. Nationalism extends that to arrogance and potential military aggression. Nationalists believe they have a right to dominate another nation because of their superiority. They feel they are doing the conquered a favor.

The History of Nationalism

Nationalism didn't arise until the seventeenth century. Before that, people focused on their local town, kingdom, or even religion. The nation-state began in 1658 with the Treaty of Westphalia. It ended the 30 Years War between the Holy Roman Empire and various German groups.

Industrialization and capitalism strengthened the need for a self-governing nation to protect business rights, and merchants partnered with national governments to help them beat foreign competitors. The government supported this mercantilism because the merchants paid them in gold. The steam-powered printing press helped enable nations to promote unity within and prejudice against outsiders.

In the late 18th century, the American and French revolutions formalized large nations that were free of a monarchy. They ruled by democracy and endorsed capitalism. In 1871, Otto von Bismarck created the nation of Germany from different tribes. By the 20th century, the entire American and European continents were governed by sovereign nations.

The Great Depression created economic conditions so harsh that most countries adopted nationalism as a defense. Fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy used nationalism to override individual self-interest, subjugating the welfare of the general population to achieve social goals.

Nationalism under fascism works within existing social structures, instead of destroying them. It focuses on "internal cleansing and external expansion," according to Professor Robert Paxton in "The Anatomy of Fascism." The thinking justifies violence as a way to rid society of minorities and opponents.

World War II convinced the Allied nations to endorse global cooperation. The World Bank, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organization were just three of many global groups. In the 1990s, Europe's nations formed the European Union. Nationalism became dangerous, and globalism became salvation.

Nationalism Since the Great Recession

In the 21st century, nationalism returned after the Great Recession. In 2014, India elected Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. In 2015, Vladimir Putin rallied Russians to invade Ukraine to "save" ethnic Russians. In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to Brexit, the British exit from the EU.

In 2016, the United States elected populist Donald Trump to the presidency. In 2018, President Trump declared at a Texas rally that he was a nationalist. That was already evident from his protectionist policies. He and his former adviser Steve Bannon have often advocated for economic nationalism.

What Is Economic Nationalism?

Economic nationalism is a form of nationalism that specifically prioritizes domestic businesses. It seeks to defend them against multinational corporations that benefit from globalism. It advocates protectionism and other trade policies that protect local industries. President Trump espoused economic nationalism when he announced tariffs on steel and Chinese imports.

Economic nationalism also prefers bilateral trade agreements between two countries. It says that multilateral agreements benefit corporations at the expense of individual nations. It would even adopt unilateral agreements where the stronger nation forces a weaker nation to adopt trade policies that favor the stronger country.

The policies were proven to fail during the Great Depression. After the stock market crash of 1929, countries began adopting protectionist measures in a desperate attempt to save jobs. Instead, it helped send the world economy down, plummeting 65 percent. As a result, those measures likely prolonged the depression.

To compensate for less trade, economic nationalism advocates increased fiscal policies to help businesses. This includes increased government spending on infrastructure and tax cuts for businesses.

Economic nationalism opposes immigration because it takes jobs away from domestic workers. Trump's immigration policies followed nationalism when he promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico.