Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Western, liberal democratic project has shown chinks in the armor of what was once seen as an irreversible trend towards a globalized society based on a framework of universally shared values. Though much of the hype has been attributed to empty political rhetoric, the impact on our current discourse has been substantial. In Europe, for instance, the Brexit vote signaled the power of populist platforms and encouraged a minority of vociferous candidates in France, Italy, and Germany to bring their message to the mainstream. Our own divisive 2017 election likewise indicated the appeal of populist platforms among a significant segment of voters.
In light of this growing wave of nationalism, we must ask: What’s next? What can we do to address this issue, and what will we learn in doing so?
IVY Magazine sat down with Katherine Fleming, the provost and Professor of History and Hellenic Studies at NYU, to get an account of her views on the issue. In giving a historical context to nationalist movements, Provost Fleming makes the point that the trends we’re seeing are cyclical in nature, and thus subject to past precedents. We can begin to confront the problem, Provost Fleming contents, by providing an opportunity for those in need and ensuring freedom of thought and a forum for many voices.
Katherine Fleming | NYU Photo Bureau
As a historian, what do you view as the key indicators of rising nationalism in Western societies? Were there any developments that presaged it?
In my view, Nationalism (as distinct from “patriotism” ) is fundamentally an expression of negative sentiments: resentment, fear, bitterness, anger, and confusion. Historically, circumstances that spur rising nationalism connect to crisis. Economic hard times, in particular, make people resentful and make them search for someone or something to blame. As do times of war (particularly of military defeat), moments of mass migration (immigration and emigration), and times of rapid social and cultural change.
Does early 20th Century history offer any guidance? Xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric appeared to gain traction after the financial crisis that began in 1929.
The arc of the 20th century is the history of nationalism in a nutshell: with the close of World War I, the so-called “Age of Empires” came to an end, and the European map became a map of nation states. There was a move away from large conglomerates towards smaller units. Over the course of the century, Europe’s nations have been alternating between greater and lesser levels of isolationism — right now, we are moving from a period of semi-imperial revival, in the form of pro-European and pro-EU sentiment — to an increasing retreat into national separatism. In the first part of the century, as new nation states emerged from the excitement of independence and began to face the realities of independent nation status, they became ever more aggressive in defining who did and did not “count” as a member of the nation. And in the case of Germany, the experience of losing in WWI, compounded by the obligation to pay open-ended war reparations, was a major crucible for nationalist sentiment, which only hardened with the global financial slump of the 1930s. And after World War II, huge efforts were made — mainly in the form of the creation of a unified Europe — to make sure the cycle didn’t repeat itself again. But it seems to be doing just that.
Francis Fukuyama envisioned that Liberal Democracy represented human society in its most developed and inclusive form. Is populism a threat to that idea? Has Western hubris played a role in the liberal reversals?
Well, I don’t agree with Fukuyama — but Liberal Democracy definitely seems to be under fire, if not in full collapse. Certainly, Western hubris has played a role in this — starting with the hubris of thinking that the West’s form of political and social organization (Liberal Democracy) was the most developed, and thus worthy of exportation around the world.
Has the rise of nationalism and populism revealed an inherent weakness in a democracy? Based on your work in Greece, did philosophers such as Plato (and by extension Socrates) predict this?
I don’t believe that Plato and Socrates have much more of a connection to the present workings of modern Greece than they do to other western polities, except perhaps a sentimental connection. But certainly democracy — the notion that in some sense it is “the people” who rule or decide -—leaves itself open to nationalist and populist takeovers. But if democratic institutions are strong and independent, they can save democratic societies from themselves.
With Theresa May’s decision to trigger “Article 50” for Brexit, are we seeing the first evidence of the unraveling of the EU?
Yes and no. No in the sense that the United Kingdom was always a bit on the sidelines of the EU project, and in some respects Brexit is simply putting an end to a situation of the UK’s picking and choosing only the perceived good bits of EU membership. Yes in the sense that with Brexit we are now on a path to something that had hitherto been thought impossible: the shrinking of the EU. Until a few years ago, all discussion was focused on its seemingly infinite expansion. In terms of populism and nationalism, the bigger European story is the rise of the use of referendums to decide major issues: we’ve seen them in Greece, the UK, Italy, and Scotland, among other places. They are a major abdication of responsibility on the part of duly elected rulers, and they fan the flames of nationalism, populism, and division.
Does the rejection of Geert Wilders’ message in the Netherlands provide a counterpoint to the notion that the EU project is doomed to failure?
Possibly. But it ain’t over til it’s over…
How will the elections in France and Germany be impacted by the Netherlands vote, and which way are the political winds blowing now in those countries?
I think French and German voters will be more focused on their own national problems than on developments elsewhere in Europe. Though Brexit will be in their minds.
Is the election of Donald Trump a warning for the EU and its voters of the dangers of a populist government?
I think that Donald Trump’s election is more of a warning for the EU that the United States’ support for the post-WWII European order isn’t god-given, and won’t necessarily last forever. Trump has already made noises about NATO and other major institutions that have determined the geopolitical map for decades. He has no problem suggesting that things we’ve all regarded as sacrosanct givens may actually be up for debate. This is what Europe should be paying attention to.
Was the rise in nationalistic rhetoric an unexpected development, or is there recent historical support for it?
It was not an unexpected development, particularly given the flagging European economy.
What have been the most effective ways to counter populist rhetoric? Are there any historical examples, or does the nature of democracy simply render it prone to these trends?
The best way to counter populist rhetoric is to create a just society! When people feel that they have opportunities, and that the system isn’t rigged against them, populism is reduced. But since this lofty goal is an elusive one, I’d say: make sure we have a free and objective press, and make sure that the press isn’t in the pocket of the populists.