How to Compromise With Populism

It’s still possible to prevent the West from collapsing into permanent culture war—but only if it takes a totally new approach to nationalism.

Two women stand next to women wearing the niqab in the Hague, the Netherlands, on Nov. 23, 2016. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Two women stand next to women wearing the niqab in the Hague, the Netherlands, on Nov. 23, 2016. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, alongside then-British Prime Minister David Cameron and other Western leaders, proclaimed that multiculturalism had “failed, utterly failed.” In its place, an inclusive nationalism based on liberal values and state institutions would integrate minorities and attract voters from the populist right. That dream is over. The problem arises because state nationalism is uniform and rigid: neither liberal nor nationalist enough to resonate with competing constituencies.

What’s needed is a new, flexible form of nationalism, one that permits immigrant groups and white conservatives to connect to the nation in their own way. Rather than multiculturalism or civic nationalism, what the West requires is an approach to cultural politics I call multivocalism.

We are far from such an approach today. Increasingly desperate to burnish their nationalist bona fides to prevent voters defecting to the populist right, mainstream politicians from Quebec to Switzerland have been banning symbols of conservative Islam such as minarets and burqas. In 2004, France clamped down on the wearing of hijabs in state schools. From 2011, France and Belgium banned the burqa in public spaces, followed by the Netherlands in 2015, Switzerland in 2016, and both Austria and Quebec in 2017. There are also local bans in Italy and Catalonia. A philosophy of state secularism ostensibly justifies these restrictions. In Bavaria, by comparison, the Christian Social Union (CSU), fearing defection to the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) over its complicity in Merkel’s decision to welcome a million refugees into the country, made it obligatory to hang a cross in the entrance of public buildings.

Bans are secular, crosses are religious, but both reflect the same state-led, one-size-fits-all national identity. What’s the problem? First, these measures are illiberal: Bans violate the religious liberty of conservative Muslims. This is not the same as throwing religious minorities in jail, but restrictions prevent individuals from exercising their freedom to dress or worship as they please. Crosses are fine if they symbolize the nation, but the Bavarian ones arguably force a symbol of one religion on those of other faiths—or people who have none. All told, these measures leave minorities feeling excluded.

At the same time, this form of civic nationalism does little to address the grievances of conservative white majorities who view the nation as inextricably tied to their own group. Though few say you need to be white to be a member of the nation, roughly half of Western Europe thinks having ancestors from the country is at least somewhat important for being a “true” national. When the state waters the nation down to universals such as British values or even liberté, egalité, fraternité to promote inclusion, this grates on populist voters, who consider their nation to be more than a set of ethical principles. The cross goes part way toward addressing majority grievances, but by thickening the content of nationhood, it alienates non-Christians. It seems we are on the horns of a dilemma: thin out the content of national identity to a set of meaningless inclusive essentials such as the electricity network or “liberty,” which offends nobody, or thicken it and rub some the wrong way.

Civic nationhood accepts this zero-sum equation, splitting the difference between minorities and white conservatives. Yet its banal brand of identity satisfies neither. Only during moments of what Michael Billig terms “hot nationalism”—international sports competitions, national days, crises, or wars—does it become truly meaningful. Yet the decline of ideology and interstate war means those moments are rarer than ever. On the other hand, we live in a period of unprecedented ethno-demographic change, which heightens the salience of ethnicity in everyday life. As a result, civic nationhood often fails to supersede the ethnic ties that are increasingly relevant due to demographic change.

The old model of nationhood is that of the French Third Republic: synthesize a standard language from a dialect like Parisian, write an official history, and use state institutions like schools and the army to forge “peasants into Frenchmen.” But there has always been a popular, bottom-up aspect to nations. Sports teams such as FC Barcelona, consumer goods displaying the American flag, and popular culture played an important part in shaping national consciousness. More importantly, local associations fashioned their own version of the national identity. In fin de siècle Hamburg, Germany was imagined as a maritime nation, interwoven with the city’s pre-unification Hanseatic past. In the Rhineland, the idea of Germany was linked to the long local history of resisting French oppression. In other words, the nation looks different depending on which region you view it from. National identity also differs depending on the ethnic group or political party you belong to. In today’s market societies, the bottom-up, peer-to-peer aspects of national imagining are becoming more important, while the state’s version of nationhood is just one voice in the conversation. Moreover, ethnic majority conservatives, liberals, and some ethnic minorities often contest the official national identity.

The way forward is a national identity that works with, rather than against, the grain of ethnicity—be this that of the white majority or minorities. As the Yale University professor Amy Chua reminds us, ethnic tribes matter. They play a key role in how we vote, whom we befriend, and where we live. A national identity that works with ethnicity permits a wider variety of national imaginings to coexist in the bosom of the same state. Muslim and Christian, white and minority, left and right, core and periphery—all “see” the nation differently.

Looking at the French tricolor or the Stars and Stripes brings different images, myths, symbols, and stories to mind in different people. The anthropologist Victor Turner coined the term multivocality to refer to the various meanings that may attach to the same symbol. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” has been used as a humanist, Nazi, and European anthem. The Union Jack has been a symbol of British mods, Ulster Unionists, far-right activists, and civic nationalists. A multivocalist approach to nationhood recognizes that people will project their own identities onto the national one, strengthening their bond to the nation.

A large BBC survey in England conducted in March discovered that 81 percent of white English people said the countryside was very important for their English identity compared with just 50 percent of nonwhite English people. 62 percent of English folk who voted to Remain in the European Union said the country’s “diverse cultural life” contributed to their English identity compared with only 38 percent of Leave voters. In America, I find that cowboys, country music, and pickup trucks mean more for the national identity of Donald Trump voters than Hillary Clinton voters, whose Americanism is more closely tied to the idea of America as a diverse mix of people. In other words, there should be space for different ideas of what it means to be French, Swedish, or American.

This is not multiculturalism, because minorities are not being asked to define themselves as belonging to an overseas ethnic group with different customs from the host society. Rather, minorities are encouraged to identify with the nation and its symbols but to do so in their own way. Herein lies one difference between multiculturalism, with its focus on homeland identities, and multivocalism, which focuses on minorities’ distinctive national identity, not their overseas-facing ethnicity. This also points them toward local, creolized versions of their ethnicity, not homeland traditions—though they are of course free to opt for this hyphenated form of identity if they wish. For instance, Sikh Britons identify with the Sikh regiments that fought in the British army in World War I as a component of their British identity. The symbolic stuff of Sikhs’ British identity differs from that of white Britons. This is not a Punjab-oriented Sikh identity but rather concerns the Sikh variation on the theme of British national identity. Sikhs are thereby encouraged to view themselves as a British-Sikh ethnic community, distinct from Canadian-Sikhs or Indian-Sikhs.

Complex systems, such as flocks of birds or markets, emerge as spontaneous orders from below, based on large numbers of seemingly chaotic actions that, unlike machines, aren’t centrally controlled. Everyone in the market has their own idea of what things are worth, and they transact in a way that sets prices and adjusts supply to demand, producing more output than a central administration can. So, too, with much of modern nationalism, in which the content of nationhood differs to some extent between groups and individuals. As people experience different environments, consume different media, produce cultural symbols, and share their ideas, the national identity takes shape. The government is an important player, but so is the media and people’s social networks. The nation is everywhere and nowhere and cannot be located in any person’s mind or reduced to a single document. It is under nobody’s control.

Accepting that nationhood is a complex system that governments may tap into, guide, or shape is very different from thinking it is a script states can roll out from the top down. Permitting people to identify in their own way with the nation offers the possibility of enhancing both liberty and cohesion. Minorities identify with their group’s creolized version of ethnicity, their diverse cities, and the state’s future-oriented projects. Conservative whites’ national identity will tend to draw more on their many generations’ native ancestry, the countryside, and the long sweep of national history. This is fine, so long as all recognize that there is no single way to be British, French, or American. Notice that multivocalism is more tolerant than multiculturalism or civic nationalism, permitting it to address the majority frustrations that power populist sensibilities. Canadian multiculturalism, for example, only recognizes a form of national identity that appeals to minorities and cosmopolitans, repressing the identity of white conservatives. Quebec’s official nationalism, based on the French language, clamps down on both minority and French-Canadian majority imaginings.

Filling in the canvas of one’s national identity with ethnic, class, region, and ideologically inflected viewpoints is more natural and meaningful than simply reciting the state’s list of values or its constitution. It allows for liberty with loyalty, which isn’t possible in zero-sum civic nationalism. Muslim Bavarians are less likely to identify with a cross in a public building than Catholic Bavarians. American Indians can’t be expected to celebrate the settling of the West, and black Britons will generally be less enthusiastic about empire, with its history of slavery, than other Brits. Yet this doesn’t mean these national symbols aren’t important to the national identities of some groups. There should be space for conservatives to incorporate them into their sense of nationhood, and politicians can reference this when speaking to particular audiences.

Robin Cook’s celebration of chicken tikka masala as a symbol of diverse Britain and Prime Minister John Major’s invocation of traditional rural England—“Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds”—are both valid expressions of national identity. Ideally, a politician would say both, preferably to different audiences. Instead, the left tries to install diversity as the only acceptable version of the nation, silencing white conservative understandings—which gives oxygen to right-wing populists. This is a major difference between multivocalism, which sees polyglot diversity as just one form of national imagining, and multiculturalism, which forces everyone to imagine their nation as defined by it. Meanwhile, the right in some countries annoys minorities and progressives by propounding an exclusively white version of national history or insisting, as does the CSU, on Christianity as a symbol of the nation.

Much of this essay focuses on the content of nationhood because the debate in Europe over national identity is mainly about symbolic issues. There are, however, certain instances where the rubber meets the road, and societies must come down squarely in favor of one set of values. Western societies must stand for women’s equality, the separation of religion and state, reasoned argument, and freedom of expression. Here there can be no room for dissent. However, despite the high-profile exceptions, most members of Western societies—of all faiths—back such values. The few that don’t generally accept the rules. These ethical conflicts are rare and don’t account for the rise of populism.

Values are not the issue. Pinning national identity, which is particular, to a set of universal values only works if your values are totally unique, such as those of Islamic State. For liberal societies, banging the drum about “our values” erects a banal nationhood that fails to substitute for the rich symbolism that ethnic perspectives—including those of the majority—bring to national identity. Multivocalism grasps this nettle. Civic nationalism doesn’t.

Where does multivocalism leave government policy? Multivocalism is about symbolism—the content of constitutional preambles, rhetoric of politicians, and mission statements of policy documents. Only where exclusive versions of national identity are written into statute, such as French republicanism or Canadian multiculturalism, would legislative amendments be required. Policies such as affirmative action could remain in place, but their multiculturalist scaffolding—which elevates one form of national identity over others—would need to be excised in favor of other rationales.

Politicians should recognize the different forms of national identity that exist in a population. A nod to regional traditions of nationhood is appropriate when visiting a distinct part of a country, such as Bavaria or Brittany. Talk of multiculturalism and diversity resonates with a liberal or multiethnic audience in Paris. Remarking on the history of Western settlement or la France profonde strikes the right chord with the white American and French conservatives who may be attracted to right-wing populism. Most importantly, officials can speak of multiculturalism to minorities and liberals yet reassure conservative voters that immigrants are assimilating, leaving the country relatively unchanged in the long run. A survey experiment I ran in Britain shows this message dramatically reduces support for right-wing populism.

Championing both diversity and timeless continuity is not hypocrisy; after all, a river is both eternal and always changing. Much is in the eye of the beholder, and, given a tolerant “many ways to be American” attitude, people can tune in to the frequencies they prefer while screening out the rest. The point is that mainstream politicians will be seen to be validating and including the national identities of a wide range of people, much as political parties such as Britain’s Labour tap into mutually contradictory local Labour identities based on, for example, being white working class, feminist, or a theologically-conservative Muslim.

There are broad limits to the palette of acceptable national narratives: There can be no truck with Nazi symbols. Yet history is usually not so simple, with many figures doing and saying a mix of positive and negative things. Confederate symbols, associated with slavery, should be removed from official flags, with Confederate statues moved to museums. However, an American politician addressing a conservative Southern audience could still acknowledge the suffering and bravery of the overwhelmingly non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers who were sent to die for a noxious cause. Southern popular culture is a valid regional expression of Americanism, which a politician could laud. Gestures such as these from a liberal politician could help mitigate the distrust of disaffected conservative whites. Conservative politicians could reach across to liberals by tapping into their version of American identity, celebrating the authentic Americanism of reference points such as Woodstock, diverse New York, American art, or hipster culture. So long as leaders recognize a range of national expressions, this will unite rather than divide.

Politicians should aim for what Henry Kissinger termed “constructive ambiguity,” and when challenged about contradictions should reply “there is no single way to be French” and one must allow many variations on a theme. This validates the national identity of populists and progressives, majorities and minorities, delivering greater liberty and cohesion than today’s civic nationalism allows.

Eric Kaufmann is a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of the forthcoming book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities.

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