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The Resurgence of Nationalism

Why is ethnic nationalism rising now?

As a rule, when countries become more affluent, their residents get more liberal, more open to other groups. In recent history, wealth increased but politics became increasingly conservative and xenophobic. Why did the rule fail?

The Rule

As countries become more developed, there are measurable changes in social attitudes that move away from ethnocentrism in the direction of social tolerance and inclusiveness across a range of topics, from gay marriage and women's rights to humane treatment of prisoners (1).

Painted in broad strokes, wealthier countries are more liberal, whereas poorer ones are more restrictive and less tolerant of diversity. The driver here probably is economics. We can draw this inference because when economic contractions occur, attitudes revert to being less liberal (1).

Why do such shifts occur? Social scientists have not offered any good causal explanation, but a Darwinian approach to animal behavior offers useful perspective.

Darwinian Competition?

Mammals growing up in a stressful environment differ from those inhabiting a more secure habitat where food is plentiful and predators are scarce.

One consequence of more competitive environments is that mammals are more fearful and hostile, less trusting of others. Another is that they are less open to taking the risk of exploring their environment.

The implications for humans are quite profound, ranging from academic under performance, and academic failure to troubled personal relationships and increased risk of crime (2)

There are possible political ramifications given that political conservatives are more strongly motivated by fear, including fear of others.

Interesting as such developmental phenomena are, they cannot account for the rapid shifts in political attitudes due to recessions that typically recur on a time scale of less than a decade. It is nevertheless reasonable to assume that human behavior, and that of other species, responds adaptively to changing social conditions. When times get tougher, people get tougher too.

Can this reasoning account for the resurgence of nationalism and extreme right-wing opinions? There are several reasons that the lives of ordinary people have become more stressful, accentuating their shift to the right even in a period of unprecedented affluence.

Income Distribution

One obvious problem in the US and some other affluent countries is that, in a period of increasing financial wealth, the share of income going to the lower half of the distribution is not rising. This generates unhappiness and disillusionment. We must not forget that the extreme right wing movements of Europe in the 1930's were bred of the Great Depression and crushed dreams of working people, who were offered ethnic minorities as scapegoats for their problems.

Financial despair gets expressed in drug addictions. One thinks of soaring alcoholism rates in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union or the epidemic of addiction to opiates, crack cocaine, and amphetamines today, which are worst in economically depressed districts.

Perhaps the biggest source of a shift to the right is the sense that our society is crumbling and needs to be restored—that our lives are haunted by insecurity and crime.

Low Social Cohesion

Trust in other people is low in the US compared to other developed countries (3). This phenomenon is associated with higher crime rates and ethnic hostilities.

Social malaise rises from failures of government signified by collapsing infrastructure, declining school performance, soaring incarceration rates, stubbornly high poverty levels, and so on. Everyone feels vulnerable in such a climate, including political leaders and financial elites.

Many of these problems surfaced in the Great Depression immediately before a rise of nationalist extremism. In our own time, economic and political realities are very different. Also different is the level of our exposure to disturbing news stories, sensational videos, and other paranoia-inducing aspects of modern media.

Mass Media and The Internet

Since the early days of television, psychologists fretted over the possibility that exposure to violent images in entertainment and news would increase violent behavior in the society as a whole. While such fears were exaggerated, it is becoming clear that a diet of sensationalist gore has a rather different outcome.

People are convinced that we live in a very dangerous world, despite the fact that violent crime is lower than it has ever been in history (4). News media are partly to blame for the distorted view of reality that is propagated with their “if it bleeds, it leads” priorities.

If legitimate journalism may have that effect, people who are exposed to Internet news feeds that filter out balanced reporting in favor of a one-sided political perspective are more vulnerable to paranoid representations of other opinions and ethnicities. That is true even if they do not fall for the fake news that has recently invaded trusted social media platforms.

It does not help that mainstream political leaders are aligning themselves with white supremacist groups and neonazis, contrary to a six-decade tradition of eliminating hate speech from politics.

International Politics

Similar trends are playing out around the globe with the zenophobic British trying to wall off their island from refugees. Then we have the insanity of impending protectionist tariff wars that end badly for everyone. Meanwhile, we have China-first maritime imperialism, Russia-first territorial expansion, and even Canada-first rhetoric.

We have seen this movie before. The previous two versions ended badly. No one should want to see it again.


1 Inglehart, R., and Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

2 Delaney-Black, V., Covington, C., Ondersma, S. J., Nordstrom-Klee, B., Templin, T., Ager, L., et al. (2002). Violence exposure, trauma, and IQ and/or reading deficits among urban children. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 156, 280-285.

3 Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.

4 Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking Penguin.