Over Memorial Day weekend in 2019, I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. The timing of the conference was particularly interesting given the meeting I attended — Global Populism: Its Roots in Media and Religion. Who wouldn’t want to discuss populist politics and religion during a holiday weekend?
One trend that I noticed in multiple presentations during the Global Populism meeting was that multiple populist movements overlapped with nationalist rhetoric. The Hindutva movement in India positions itself as the holder of the true Indian identity. In Hungry, President Orban centers Catholicism against Islam as the Hungarian culture. Brexiters want to make the UK “British” again. Lastly, Trumpian populism 100 percent participates in American nationalism, even declaring himself to be a “nationalist.”
You may be noticing two things already. First, all the political movements named are considered to be “right-wing.” Second, you could respond by saying that these movements aren’t just any form of nationalism, they’re ethnic nationalism. Let me respond to both by saying, that populism in the world today (new populism) has a very distinctive “right-wing” bent, but that doesn’t mean “progressive” populism is nonexistent, historically or contemporarily. Also, pointing out the caveat of ethnic nationalism is a fair point. But I want to turn us to my beloved Oxford English Dictionary.
Nations and Nationalism
Definitions are always a tricky issue, especially if you’re a scholar. We love to debate definitions and come up with our own. In this case, however, I want us to return to the origins of words. This isn’t to say that the living meaning of words does not matter. I do believe that one issue with the use of nationalism today is that we have lost its original significance.
We need to return to the root of nationalism — nation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nation” as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.” Seems simple enough. Sure, we could maybe see the U.S. as a “nation” because there’s a geographic place connected by an overarching history from colonial times until today (that overlooks Indigenous populations) there is a “primary” language. This is a bit flimsy though.
The U.S. has “a particular state or territory.” The U.S. does not have a “common descent, history, culture, or language” (yes, I know the counterarguments to this point). The people residing within the U.S. come from a variety of ethnic descents, have distinct histories within the country, have diverse cultures, and speak a multitude of languages. The U.S. is not a nation. It is a (collected) State.
Nationalism, then, is the promotion, affection, defense of the nation. We see this form of nationalism most clearly in the 1990s during the break up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, in the violence in the Balkans, and the political activism of Quebecois and Flemish nationalists. Ethnicity and nationalism are intimately connected.
If you’re still with me, then you may be coming around to the idea that saying ethnic nationalism is redundant and more of an emphatic label. If you’re gone, well, you’re not reading this and probably aren’t an etymology geek.
Who is the populus?
The Latin words populus (singular) and populi (plural) can mean a people, nation, State, with people being the most known definition. The populus was also understood as the “body of citizens” in Rome. However, not everyone was considered a citizen. Only Roman men had full citizenship, which was understood as the ability to be free, hold property, be protected by the state, participate in politics through voting and standing for office, and other privileges. Partial forms of citizenship existed and were probably rhetorically included in the populus, but in practice the populus was limited.
Populism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “support for the concerns of ordinary people.” Like “nation,” this definition of “populism” seems simple enough. Yet, if populus as the people of Rome or the “body of citizens” did not necessarily include all people, then who counts as the “ordinary people?”
In the U.S., we may classify “ordinary people” as the working class or the non-elite (and there’s precedence for this in American history). The narratives the U.S. and its inhabitants tell itself about itself would conceive of “ordinary people” this way, just as most would also claim the U.S. stands for democracy, liberty, and equality. We know how to participate in the common history and stories we’ve created.
Let’s look at two populist movements in the U.S. — Midwestern Agrarian Populism in the 1800s and Trumpian Populism. Midwestern Agrarian Populism was far from being an inclusive movement. Their definition of “ordinary people” was mainly limited to farmers and specifically “white,” Protestant farmers.
In Trumpian Populism…well we definitely know who isn’t included based on his remarks. By process of elimination, we could say that the “ordinary people” in Trumpian Populism are white, Christian, English-speaking, U.S.-born folks.
Look at that….it kind of looks like (ethnic) nationalism!
Populist (ethnic) Nationalism
Obviously this post is just a rough sketch of some ideas I’ve been processing. But I do think the connections between populism and nationalism should not be dismissed.
Nationalism is not always about a nation-state. Non-political entities can be nations and can experience nationalism. The definition of a nation has nothing to do with a governing body. We have morphed and modified the definition of nation and nationalism to better resemble the diverse, pluralistic countries in a globalized world. Yet, revisiting the etymology of “nation” may actually assist us in understanding current events like it did in the 1990s.
As for populism, there is no grouping of people without the exclusion of others. Even within a homogenous nation, “ordinary people” draws a line between class, education, political power, etc. Today’s populism, however, places the boundaries of “ordinary people” around whole (ethnic) “nations” of folks. This nationalist bent to populism illustrates how right-wing populists in Europe, Hindu Nationalism, and Trumpian Populism appear to be manifestations of ethnic nationalism.
Their populism only serves a particular nation.
Just something to keep in mind when reporting on, researching, or discussing current populist movements.