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Going Back to the Future – Today’s Varieties of Neo-Nationalism are Both Old and New

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Going Back to the Future – Today’s Varieties of Neo-Nationalism are Both Old and New

John Aubrey Douglass – Research Professor, UC Berkeley/Recent Fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE’s The Future of Democracy Program

Led by a new breed of demagogues and autocrats, Neo-Nationalism describes the emergence, and in some cases revival, of extreme nationalist movements and governments. And the number of autocratic and autocratic-leaning governments worldwide 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? Furthermore, how does neo-nationalism threaten existing democracies?

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), illiberal democracies (Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Andrzej Duda’s Poland and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey), and authoritarian states (think China and Russia, with Iran and North Korea at the extreme end).

Hybrids abound. However, 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.

Furthermore, neo-nationalist leaders often have a core constituency that includes conservative religious groups—a marriage one finds in India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Iran’s theocracy, and the U.S., but not in secular China, where the 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 can 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 empires.

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 he has built a cult of personality 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, restore territory seen as lost (namely Taiwan), and 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. Although, this is an image seemingly waning in the midst of severe COVID crackdowns in major cities and signs of a significant economic slowdown.

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.

Illiberal democracies are characterized by the election of populist political leaders, often in the aftermath of dictatorships, in nations with no history or culture of participatory democracy and civil liberties.

Elected nationalists use the democratic process of election to then establish a political environment that employs a mixture of corruption, demagoguery, the rigging of elections, and a lighter version of repressive regimes of the past, often with wide popular support.

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, while claiming the semblance of open elections.

Perpetually staying in power is often the primary 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 support 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 (hence the prefix neo) are newer, more 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 EU, 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 at home and abroad, and attack enemies. The ease with which social media and its algorithms can distribute false narratives has added considerably to the power of political movements.

Populists in many nations now bypass conventional media and build followings—like President Trump using Twitter for significant policy directives sandwiched between crass aspersions on political opponents.

Technology in the service of neo-nationalist leaders doesn’t end there. In China, Russia, and 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, as is the mass incarceration of ethnic Muslim Uighurs, again part of a nationalist drive for conformity.

Xi has further solidified the surveillance state and consolidated his power during the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, elevating him to near Mao status.

Such suppression is blatantly overt, but other tools are subtler 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 has been experimenting with this in Moscow even before the crass invasion of Ukraine and has implemented a new law threatening jail for anyone who criticizes the “special operations.”

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 here 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.

There are examples of politicians espousing populist rhetoric that led to autocratic governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In much of the world, the left shares anti-globalist views espoused by the 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. There is often intolerance for civil debate on both sides of the political spectrum.

The COVID-19 pandemic should have eroded the attraction of neo-nationalist messaging. Think about the remarkably short period—just one year—from the 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 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 crack down 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 uses an extensive dataset relying on local country experts and estimates that some 68 percent of the world’s population live under autocrats and autocrat-leaning governments—up from 48 percent in 2010.

Putin’s war, Xi’s nationalist shift and centralized power, the rise of a new form of cold war politics, and more generally, a disillusion with globalism are all dark clouds. The war in Ukraine, inflation, energy and food shortages, and economic downturns, could add fuel to the fire of extreme nationalists.

Still, optimists might see a few signs of slowdown in the march of neo-nationalist political leaders and autocratic-leaning governments, with many caveats.

The desire of young people in Hungary and Poland to stay in the European Union poses a political obstacle for nativist policies.

Trump lost to Biden, and Democrats recently did much better in the mid-term elections (which are elections between presidential elections). Trump might well be indicted for, among other charges, inciting and abetting his January 6th 2021 coup attempt.

The neo-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AFD) party lost seats in the Bundestag --although it found strength in former East German states and, more recently, a fringe group’s fantastical coup plot was foiled.

In France, Le Pen’s party is not currently making major political gains. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni is the new prime minister heading a far-right and center-right coalition, but thus far appears not to be echoing anti-EU sentiments and supports Ukraine in its war with Putin’s Russia.

Although by a slim majority, Lula beat neo-nationalist Jair Bolsonaro; yet, Brazil’s National Congress now has a significant representation from Bolsonaro’s right-wing party.

In Iran, the murder of an innocent woman by the so-called “morality police” has ignited a protest movement against a steadfast theocracy, part of a growing thirst for greater civil liberties—although with an unknown outcome.

Societies with strong democratic traditions and civil discourse may appear to be partially immune to the worst scenarios of nationalism gone haywire. But clearly danger lurks for both established and new democracies.

This all proves that democracy, in whatever form, is more fragile than many of us would like to think.

The United States has an antiquated electoral process, a justice system seemingly incapable of swiftly prosecuting a treasonous political leader, and with much of the Republican Party still cheering on an aspiring autocrat—at least for the moment.

Only slightly over a year ago, the U.S. was close to a complete constitutional meltdown instigated by a morally bankrupt neo-nationalist.

It can happen here. Projects on protecting and promoting democracy, such as here at THE NEW INSTITUTE, need to explore the causes and paths for mitigation and, one hopes, salvation.


John Aubrey Douglass is a recent Fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE and Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor in Public Policy and Higher Education at the University of California - Berkeley. This essay is adopted from the book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins University Press is an Open Access book accessible via Project Muse.

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