The share of younger Americans with roots in Latin America and Asia is expected to increase substantially, as is the number with mixed parentage. Will they see themselves as full participants in American life or will they feel like marginalized outsiders? The country’s future prospects hinge on the outcome. If these young people are invested in the success of the American experiment, our various social and economic challenges will be far more tractable. But if they experience the sting of exclusion, and are disaffected as a result, it is easy to imagine things going from bad to worse. Which leads me to the work of Columbia University’s Andreas Wimmer.
“Among liberal elites in the West,” writes Wimmer in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “nationalism’s bad reputation is getting worse. They associate it with white supremacy, the newly restrictive immigration policies of many Western countries, the resurgence of economic protectionism, or the illiberal populism of U.S. President Donald Trump.”
But, Wimmer suggests, nationalism’s reputation is due for a rehabilitation. The sentiment makes citizens less likely to cheat on their taxes, he points out, and politicians more committed to providing public goods rather than pleasing only their bases. As positive a force as nationalism can be, though, it is something that not every country has in spades — and why that is the case is a question that has long interested academics and nation-builders alike.
Some believe that ethnic homogeneity helps. Others have posited that the key is globalization, with exposure to and integration with other countries spurring nationalism. A record of defeating one’s enemies in wars, Wimmer notes, has also been named as a factor. But in a survey of data from nearly every country in the world, Wimmer finds that the real key is representation. Simply put, if your group is represented in the national government — if you are an Alawite in Syria, for example — you are more likely to be patriotic. If you belong to a group that is not well represented — if you are a Sunni in Syria, say — you are less likely to be so. In turn Wimmer writes, “the larger the share of the population that is not represented in executive government, the less proud, on average, citizens are of their nation,” even though diversity per se is not less conducive to nationalism than homogeneity.
So what is someone looking to inspire nationalism to do? “Citizens will not embrace the nation as a community of shared solidarity if they have not established beneficial exchange relations with the state,” Wimmer concludes. “Policies designed to foster a sense of national belonging in severely divided societies should therefore focus on issues of power, representation, and governance. Power sharing remains the most effective tool for fostering national identity, even if coalition regimes face challenges building trust.”
What does this mean in practice? For one, Wimmer’s work strengthens the case for a more proportional voting system. And it’s a reminder of why it is so important for both of our major parties to redouble their efforts to represent a changing American electorate. When Democrats fail to represent rural and working-class whites with more traditionalist views, they risk losing touch with large swathes of the country. Republicans, similarly, have done a less than stellar job of representing urban voters and first- and second-generation Americans, with lasting consequences for the party’s reputation. The partisan enmity that pervades our discourse can be attributed at least in part to these failures of representation. Nationalists in particular should be concerned.