• Thane Brueschke

Beyond the Tipping Point: Causes of the Rise of Modern Nationalism

Updated: Feb 24

Thane Brueschke will start at Stanford University in 2021, where he plans to Double Major in Classics and Computer Science.

The great European dream was to diminish militant nationalism. We would all be happy Europeans together. But we are going to see the old monster of militant nationalism being awoken…. We are already seeing political disintegration in Europe.

Anthony Beevor

The gelid wind of intolerance, authoritarianism, and nationalism appears to be sweeping across Europe and America.[1] Thirty years ago, “xenophobic, deeply conservative, and even extreme right-wing parties” in Europe failed to pass the five percent minimum voter threshold required to enter government.[2]Today, however, extreme nationalist parties are on the march across the Continent.[3] See Fig. 1. In the United Kingdom, right-wing populists such as Nigel Farage and UKIP helped convince 52% of voters to vote to Brexit. And it’s not just a European phenomenon: Donald Trump is the President Elect of the United States, having run on what was, in many ways, a platform just as xenophobic and extreme as many European right-wing parties.[4]

Fig. 1: Rise of Nationalism in Europe: Results of Most Recent (2016) National Elections

This “new nationalism” takes different forms: economically, it is anti-globalization, pro-state capitalism, pro-trade barriers and its policies favour domestic workers; politically, it is extremely populist, anti-immigration, and in some cases, outright racist and anti-Semitic.[5]

The causes of the rise of nationalist ideas are highly complex and varied. Although an in-depth analysis of all of them is beyond the scope of this short paper, even a cursory examination reveals that there are four primary causes, acting to reinforce each other, which are propelling a rise in nationalism.

At the Core: Economic Insecurity – The Middle/Working Class is Slowly Dying

The starting point for understanding the spread of nationalist ideas is this: the working classes are getting poorer at the very same time that the wealth-gap is growing significantly.[6] Specifically, the living standards of the middle class, especially the non-college educated, blue-collar worker, is worse today than it was ten years ago,[7] and the recovery remains the weakest of the post-World War II era.[8]See Fig. 2. The recovery simply has not created enough full-time jobs or increase in wages. [9]

Fig. 2: Economic Expansion Is the Weakest Since 1949

Add to this the unprecedented rise in income inequality in most OECD countries – specifically, the income of the richest 10% of the population is about nine times the poorest 10%[10] – and it is no wonder that the perception of a “winner-take-all” economy that benefits only elites and distorts the political system has become widespread.[11]

The working classes are insecure, anxious and quite frankly angry. This situation has provided an opening for nationalists to promote protectionist policies and to place the blame on foreign trade and foreign workers. Unsurprisingly, the economic insecurity is most acute in those countries in Europe where nationalist parties have performed the best, [12] and the same is true of a number of “swing states” that propelled Trump to victory.[13] See Fig. 3.

Fig. 3: The “Rust Belt,” Home to Blue Collar Factory Workers, Abandoned Clinton for Trump

Fuelling the Anxiety: Physical Insecurity – The Terrorist Threat

Fear of ISIS-backed terrorism reached a new level following the November 2015 Paris Attacks, the March 2016 Brussels Attacks, the July 2016 Nice Attack, and the shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando, and threat levels remain elevated across the Continent. See Fig. 4. The resulting clamour for better security strengthened the “cult of the insular state that far right parties in Europe espouse,” and far-right politicians have seized on the apparent failure of existing governments to keep the homeland secure.[14] For example, a swing towards far-right parties was seen in France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, with the Front National (FN) gaining nearly seven million votes in recent regional elections.[15]

Fig 4: Terrorist Threat Levels Remain High

A Group to Blame: The Immigration Crisis – “Us” versus “Them”

If economic and physical insecurity are two distinct sources of fear and anger giving rise to broader support for nationalist ideas, then immigration is the glue that binds them together. Political Scientist Ian Bremer has observed that, in part, “the rise of the far right coincides with fears aroused across Europe by a tidal wave of desperate migrants.”[16] Far-right parties have seized on this fear to manipulate the public. See Fig. 5.

Fig 5: UKIP Anti-Immigration Poster

Unfortunately, mainstream parties are bogged down by their enlightened views about respect for other religions and nationalities, and hence they are undermined when defending the expenditure of public funds on immigrants. This makes way for nationalist parties in Europe to position themselves as the protectors of the strong welfare systems that their citizens currently enjoy. The migration crisis thus is a blessing for Europe’s far right because it gives nationalist parties “an opening to capitalize on the rising fear of voters that might never otherwise consider supporting them.”[17]

“Friending” Nationalism: Social Media – Manipulating Working Class Anxiety

The three traditional causes for a rise in nationalism (economics, security, immigrants) have existed more or less for the past 30 years, and yet nationalism was largely contained to the fringe. Clearly, until recently, these typical sources of working class anxiety have been necessary but insufficient for nationalist ideas to go mainstream.

And yet, today, as illustrated best by Brexit and the election of Mr. Trump, the rise of nationalist ideas has passed the inflection point. What, then, is the key trigger? Intuitively, the answer must be something new that has coincided with the recent rise of nationalism. The answer, I believe, is the rapid rise and wide-scale use of social media by the far-right.

As a result of the complete lack of censorship on these sites, social media platforms have become breeding grounds for the spread of radical, anti-establishment ideas, fake news and “alt-right” (aka far-right) groups.[18] Multiple studies, in fact, have shown the important role that social networks play in the processes of “socialisation into radical social or political action.”[19] There are two primary reasons for this: first, social networks are highly effective in recruiting new members into extremist groups; and second, social networks accelerate the process of radicalisation post-recruitment.[20] Social media allows un-committed individuals to join a radical Facebook group or follow an offensive Twitter feed in the privacy of their home, and that is a first step to attending meetings, workshops, rallies and voting.[21] This radicalization occurs in the shadows, which helps explain why the polls have been so wrong on the US elections and Brexit.

Given the viral power of social networks to recruit and radicalize participants, it is not surprising that many nationalist groups now have more Facebook fans than mainstream political parties, and have grown at a faster pace.[22] See Fig. 6.

Fig. 6: Social Media Helps Propel the Rise in Popularity of Nationalist Ideas

The growth of extreme ideologies on social media in the United States follows a similar pattern.[23] In fact, there are troubling and growing accusations that Facebook actually influenced the outcome of the US election by being used by these alt-right groups to spread misinformation and fake news stories that influenced how the American electorate voted.[24]

Social media is clearly the new and indispensable catalyst for the acceleration in the rise and spread of nationalist ideas.

Reject the Far-Right Messengers – But Don’t Ignore the Message

Each country has its own specific features that contribute to the rise in support of nationalist ideas. However, as discussed herein, there are four primary factors present in almost all of them. Economic and physical insecurity leads many people to see a threat from immigration, and hence they are attracted to political promises that have protectionist leanings.[25] And while this dissatisfaction and anxiety has been long festering, there can be no denying that social media is the crucial catalyst, i.e., the critically important tool for radical movements to broaden their base, to bypass traditional media (real news) and communicate their message directly (often using fake news), and to effectively mobilize new followers.

This backlash against free trade, globalization, immigration and the EU should be viewed in the context of what we know from history could come next: in the 1930s, the Great Depression gave rise to authoritarian governments in Italy, Germany and Spain. And it’s far from over.Populist/nationalist movements are setting their sights on the next five “dominoes” at risk: specifically, elections are being held in less than a year in Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany.[26] Frighteningly, if the rise of nationalist ideas is not effectively confronted and defused, a repeat of the authoritarianism of the 1930’s in the coming years could become a reality.


For a full list of footnotes and a full bibliography, please see below:

Beyond the Tipping Point Causes of the R
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