In the last decade nationalist political movements have emerged as a powerful force. From Brexit in the UK to The National Rally in France; from Donald Trump to Shinzo Abe, nationalist rhetoric has become a dominant language in the domestic political landscape.

Often these movements are intimately connected to ideas of anti-immigration, ethnic and religious homogeny, and the primacy of majoritarian culture. For example: the Brexit campaign targeted feelings of insecurity due to high immigration levels – hence “take back control”. Similarly, Marine Le Pen has stated that allowing Muslim face veils represents the ‘Islamification’ of France. In India, Hindutva ideology asserts that Indian national culture is inseparable from the Hindu religion. Further from mainstream news, white nationalism has caught sustained traction in the United States. Germany has seen the rise of far-right nationalist parties, and China is currently engaging in an ethnocide of Uyghur Muslims for the furtherment of their ethnic nationalism.

Each of these movements are unified by the term nationalist. But what is nationalism? To what extent can nationalism be blamed for these movements? Is nationalism inherently evil? Can we do away with nationalism? In this article I’m hoping to answer some of these questions and shed some optimistic light on the matter.

What is nationalism?

According to the Oxford Dictionary: Nationalism is the identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.

This definition is generally correct. The first part - that nationalism is the identification with one’s own nation - is uncontroversial. Most citizens identify with their own nation to some degree. Importantly, nationalism does not commit citizens to identify exclusively with their own nation. It is not an exhaustive identification. People can identify with multiple groups, their family, ethnicity, local community, even sports teams. National identity is one such group identity.

The second part, ‘especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations’, refers to something called national partiality, and could be considered more controversial. If a nation is partial to its own citizens, it puts the interests of its citizens above the interests of other nations citizens. It may sound unpleasant, but it is simply a fact of life that people tend to put their own interests (or the interests of their group), above the interests of others. Nationalism is no exception to this fact, and it is implicitly assumed by all nations that the interests of their own citizens trump the interests of others.

Fortunately, nationalism does not require nations to actively work against one another. In fact, the opposite is usually true. It is through cooperation that nations tend to get the best possible results for their citizens. What’s more, national partiality does not prevent nations or citizens from giving aid or personal remittances to other nations. It merely asserts that in some sense, the needs of the co-nationals are prior to the needs of non-nationals.

The level of national partiality is decided by the nation, and usually has more to do with the ideologies employed alongside nationalism (this is important!). Therefore, nationalism is committed to two things:

  1. Identification with one’s own nation.
  2. A minimal national partiality.

Having said this, there is no shortage of definitions for nationalism different from mine. Many of these include words like devotion, loyalty, superiority, absolute identification, etc. I think these are misleading. No doubt certain nationalists may be entirely devoted to their nation with unwavering loyalty. There are also probably some nationalists who identify only with their nation and no other group, all the while believing that their nation is superior to all other nations.

I don’t think this tells us much about nationalism as an ideology. Although some people will take the relatively moderate commitments of nationalism to the extreme, in the same way that people take liberalism, or Marxism, to the extreme, this does not mean that we must change the definitions of the terms. Instead, we can recognise the true nature of nationalism while keeping aware of its potential for excess. As we will see in the next section, this excess is always fuelled by something outside of nationalism itself.

The danger in nationalism

If nationalism is as moderate as I have defined it, how can we account for the prevalence of extremist nationalist groups?

The central charge against nationalism is that it promotes ‘Us vs. Them’ thinking. If the interests of citizens in your own nation are more senior than the interests of other nations citizens, a rift emerges between co-nationals and non-nationals.

This is somewhat true. Nationalism is committed to a minimal national partiality and is therefore committed to treating citizens and non-citizens differently. This does not necessarily mean that nationalism promotes an ‘Us vs. Them’ mode of thought. Instead, it promotes a mode of thought that recognises the seniority of co-national interests compared to non-nationals interests.

While this minimal national partiality is not altogether problematic – it is often used as an emotional trigger point in ethnic or majoritarian nationalistic rhetoric. This is where the danger in nationalism lies. Through the acceptance of minimal national partiality, we open the door for these groups to overstate it. Nationalist groups thrive off the intensification of this partiality, and by amplifying the ‘Us vs. Them’ mode of thought to a fever-pitch. This is only exacerbated by the emotional element of nationalism which I will come back to later.

There is no doubt that nationalism has the potential to be exploited by nefarious means, but is nationalism necessarily harmful? In the next section I will show how nationalism leads to extremist ideologies, thus answering our earlier question.

An incomplete ideology

Beyond the two commitments established in the previous section, nationalism doesn’t tell us an awful lot about how to actually organise our society. How partial should we be to other nations? Who counts as a citizen of our nation? Should we allow non-citizens into the country? Should we accept minority cultures or force them to assimilate into the majority culture?

Nationalism can provide few to no answers to these important questions because it is an incomplete ideology. It is incomplete because it requires some other framework of thought to provide concrete answers. In this sense, it may not even be correct to call nationalism an ideology per se.

For the time being, let me illustrate my point with some examples.

First, the question of how partial we should be to other nations. Well, some nations may decide that they want to restrict trade with other countries to guarantee domestic employment, or some other protectionist policy. This is what we would call economic Nationalism – the strain of nationalism that believes a countries economy should serve nationalistic goals.

Second, the question of who counts as a citizen of the nation. Famously, Adolf Hitler believed that only the Aryan race were German, and therefore all other races were to be eliminated, leading to the holocaust. This is known as ethnic nationalism – the strain of nationalism that believes citizenship is defined by a common ethnicity.

Third, the question of accepting minority cultures. In the UK, the government permits, respects, and positively includes minority cultures and most of their practices. This is known as multicultural nationalism – the strain of nationalism that celebrates cultural diversity. Other nations, such as the U.S., do not accept these cultures in the same way, favouring the primacy of their majority culture to the detriment of minority cultures. This is the strain of nationalism known as majoritarian nationalism.

I could continue, but I hope my point has become a bit clearer. Due to the inability for nationalism to answer specific questions regarding the organisation of society, another ideology must be employed, for better or worse. It is impossible to find a nation or movement that operates on a purely nationalistic basis.

Getting rid of nationalism

If nationalism opens the door to such dangers, perhaps we would be better off without it. This is a natural line of reasoning but a mistaken one. Nationalism serves several important roles in society – most of these are implicit, and so it’s worth making them explicit.

Nationalism promotes national solidarity. This is the feeling of unity one has with their co-nationals. The primary reason that national solidarity is valuable in a society is that it generates an ethic of membership that leads to; the provision of the welfare state, the maintenance of social justice, and the reciprocal treatment of fairness and dignity (Kymlicka, W. 2015. 3). This is illustrated through the paying of taxes. National solidarity aims to ensure the mutual benefit of the welfare state. I pay for taxes, these taxes help me and my co-citizens, and therefore I benefit from a safer, healthier society.

National solidarity is generally considered an essential ingredient for the successful development of a nation-state.

There is also a markedly emotional character to nationalism. J.S. Mill talked of ‘the sentimentality of nationalism’, referring to the shared sense of historical continuity found in nations. Everyone can share the pleasures, pains, prides, and humiliations of their nation’s ancestors (Mill, J.S. 1886. 360-361). Michael Freeden, the political theorists, asserts that an ‘emotional and sentimental sense of belonging’ is one of the core concepts of Nationalism (Freeden, M. 1998. 751-752). This emotional and sentimental sense of belonging is an ineliminable part of nationhood.

Of course, in the case of migrants, the shared sense of belonging does not come from a shared history – but there are equally powerful emotional forces that bring together co-nationals. Nationalism is the only ideology that explicitly addresses these emotions. No other major established ideology has anything to say on this matter. Emotion is not grounded in reason, so it is difficult to account for in ideologies that centre themselves around rational thought. However, emotion is a part of life, and the emotional elements of living in a nation cannot be ignored. If they are ignored, they are more easily manipulated by extremist groups.

Instead, we should acknowledge these emotions in a tolerant, accepting manner. For example, Tariq Modood, a Multicultural Nationalist at the university of Bristol advocates for ‘facing up’ to the emotional connection people have with a nation’s history in an uncompromising way. The UK’s colonial past, and associated atrocities, are not to be ignored. Through facing up to these historical events, the national culture can begin to develop in an inclusive fashion, aware of how it got here and therefore able to map an authentic path of where it is going. At the same time, the UK’s deep political history; the magna carta, the law of the people etc., as well as it’s literary tradition, can also be celebrated as an integral piece of the national story.

Getting rid of nationalism risks losing these two foundational pillars of society. Without national solidarity the provision of the welfare state fails, as does the ethic of membership, and the commitment to a mutually beneficial society. Furthermore, getting rid of nationalism sweeps under the rug the emotional elements to which it appeals. These emotions would not go away but would be subdued until they bubble up elsewhere in more resentful, reactionary forms.

Optimism about nationalism

In the preceding article I’ve tried to answer some of the questions I set out in my introduction. The conclusions can be summed up as:

  1. Nationalism is not inherently harmful.
  2. Nationalism is an incomplete ideology.
  3. Due to Nationalism’s incompleteness, it can be dangerous.
  4. Nationalism serves ineliminable roles in society.
  5. Due to Nationalism’s incompleteness, it can be successful.

Where to go from here? If harmful nationalism is on the rise, but nationalism also serves ineliminable roles in society, we seem to be between a rock and a hard place. Fortunately, there is a fifth conclusion that opens an optimistic avenue from which we can navigate this difficult situation.

The hidden conclusion of 2. is that Nationalism can take on the character of whichever ideology accompanies it. While the door opens for extremist manipulation (hence 3), the door also opens to tolerant, peaceful forms of Nationalism such as the Multicultural Nationalism of Tariq Modood, or the Liberal Nationalism of Will Kymlicka.

Nationalism looks like it’s here to stay. Ignoring, rejecting, or dismissing it because of its potential for danger is itself a dangerous tactic, and will likely serve to increase the instances and popularity of extremist nationalism. Fortunately, this flaw of nationalism (its incompleteness) ends up being it’s saving grace. There is no requirement for nationalism to be racist, xenophobic or culturally exclusive. Acknowledging nationalisms benefits, facing up to nationalistic emotion and incorporating nationalism into our ideological structures in a healthy way is the best answer to the problem of Nationalism.


Kymlicka, Will. (2015). “Solidarity in diverse societies: beyond neoliberal multiculturalism and welfare chauvinism”. Comparative Migration Studies. SpringerOpen Journal.
Mill, J.S. 2010 (1861). “Considerations on Representative Government”. Cambridge University Press. Pg. 360.
Freeden, M. 1998. “Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology?”. Political Studies. Vol. 46 (4): 748-765.