Ethnic nationalism bad, civic nationalism good?

There is a tendency among progressives to think that civic nationalism is good and ethnic nationalism is bad. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

First off, let’s define what we mean by civic and ethnic nationalism.

Civic nationalism is the belief that a country is not defined by any particular language, culture or race, and that anyone can be part of it as long as they adhere to its institutions.

(This is what people think: I don’t think this is actually the case, as I’ll argue in a minute.)

Ethnic nationalism, despite its name, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with race. It can be cultural nationalism, linguistic nationalism, or even religious nationalism.

At first glance, civic nationalism appears to be much the superior form of nationalism.

It is inclusive. It does not discriminate against anyone on the grounds of language, religion or their culture.

Of course, nation states and national movements don’t face a straight choice between ethnic and civic nationalism. It’s more of a gradient.

If you look at Wales, for instance, there are elements of linguistic ethnic nationalism in support for the Welsh language, and civic nationalism in institutions such as the Welsh Assembly, National Library, National Museum, etc.

But if you look under the bonnet it’s clear that civic and ethnic nationalism are inexorably intertwined.

Civic institutions such as museums, universities and libraries play a leading role in shaping a country’s ethnic nationalism.

They can put the emphasis on particular aspects of a country’s history in order to argue that the country’s culture, language or religion has always been such a way and should remain that way in the present.

These institutions produce ethnic nationalism as a means of increasing their own power. They emphasise that the people of a particular nation are different to others and therefore they should have their own independent institutions.

National political institutions also clearly have a part to play in emphasising ethnic nationalism. Politicians use the discourse of ethnic nationalism all the time in order to increase their own power.

However, ethnic nationalism isn’t necessarily bad because it can be a way for minority groups to protect a culture or language that would otherwise be swallowed up by the majority group.

I would argue that ethnic nationalism is only bad when it is used by a majority group in order to try to erase the language and culture of minority groups.

So, for instance, ethnic nationalism among African-Americans is perfectly fine in my book as they’re a minority protecting a culture that could otherwise be in danger of being wiped out.

In the same way, I believe ethnic nationalism among Welsh-speakers to be all to the good, as it is aimed at preserving a language and culture that has nowhere else to go.

However, ethnic nationalism by the majority English-speaking population against Welsh speakers would not be OK as there's no threat to their language and culture from Welsh speakers.

In the same way, if Welsh-speakers ever became a majority in a Welsh nation-state, it would be wrong for them to employ ethnic nationalism as a means of getting rid of the country’s English-language culture.

I tend to think of ethnic nationalism as ‘change’ nationalism, while civic nationalism is ‘status quo’ nationalism.

Despite seeming morally superior, what an emphasis on civic nationalism usually suggests is that a country is already so ethnically homogenous that it doesn’t need ethnic nationalism.

An absence of ethnic nationalism tends to signal a country where cultural change is no longer needed because it already has its own independent national institutions and there is no challenge to the culture of the majority.

Ethnic nationalism is pushed into the background largely because the majority ethnic group is so secure that there’s no need to react to any threat to it.

I think what we’ve seen in the United States and the United Kingdom is a swing back from civic to ethnic nationalism because the majority group suddenly feels under threat.

In the US, they realised they’re likely to be a minority in the country by 2050 and so the pendulum has swung back from civic nationalism to ethnic nationalism once more.

Because the change in the United States is driven by demographics, it’s unlikely that this ethnic nationalism will revert to a civic nationalism anytime soon.

In the UK, they realised they were likely to become part of a much larger super-state where their language and culture could be in the minority. The spectre of immigration even suggested that they could one day become a minority in their own nation state.

If Brexit does happen, it’s possible we’ll see this ethnic nationalism die down a little as the status of the majority cultural group is secured.


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