Lloyd Kramer: Why the History of Nationalism Matters in a Global Age, Part 1

Today we welcome the first in a series of three guest posts from historian Lloyd Kramer, author of Nationalism in Europe and America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities since 1775, which we published this month. In the book, Kramer discusses how nationalist ideas gained emotional and cultural power after the revolutionary upheavals in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world. In this series of posts, he explains why nationalism continues to have significant political and cultural importance throughout the world.–ellen

Nationalism is Everywhere—including political and cultural blogs

The United States is moving toward another presidential election year in which nationalist symbols and rituals will become all the more visible in American public culture.  Although nationalism shapes the long trajectory of ongoing wars and flows through our lives every day, it is especially prominent in political campaigns, national holidays, major sports events, and public memorials for deceased soldiers.

In most general terms, nationalism can be defined as the widely-held belief that people living in particular geographical spaces share distinctive cultural and historical traditions and that such people have the right to live in an independent political state. This definition, however, provides only a starting point for the more specific question of why national identities carry a strong emotional power in people’s lives; and it is the emotional identification with national communities that makes nationalism so important in contemporary public events and personal identities. The commemorations of September 11 in American society, for example, suggest how collective national memories also become deeply connected with personal memories and a complex sense of national selfhood.

Despite the inexorable “globalization” of modern culture and economics, almost everyone still carries a specific national identity. Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to live in or travel around the modern world without such an identity because legal rights, government services, education, international travel, and most jobs are deeply connected to nationhood and national citizenship.

The history of our global era is therefore still mostly a history of interacting nations, national citizens, and national identities; and my desire to understand this enduring historical reality led me to write Nationalism in Europe and America.

Nationalism in Modern Societies

Nationalism influences all kinds of daily activities—from the post office to weather reports, scout meetings, history classes, and the printing or spending of money—but it shapes the most self-conscious public actions and identities when people believe that they face strong threats from external enemies, internal social changes, or economic instability.  The financial uncertainties that accompany extreme inflation or high unemployment, for example, often contribute to a national anger toward foreigners, immigrants or ethnic minorities, all of whom become the common scapegoats for nationalist political groups.

Political leaders typically appeal for popular support during times of internal social tensions or international conflicts (times that seem never to go completely away) by stressing the need for national unity, warning about perilous threats to the nation’s well-being, and invoking the sacrifices of past generations who exemplified national values that are now at risk.  Nationalists thus promote nostalgic images of the national past as well as idealized visions for the national future.  Their conceptions of both the past and future, however, link national politics to specific cultural, religious, and linguistic identities.

These aspects of modern nationalist cultures all flourish in the contemporary United States, so the historical analysis of America and other modern societies leads to similar questions: when and why did nationalism become such a powerful “ism” in politics and public life? And how did nationalist fears and aspirations gain so much emotional power in both the social communities and personal lives of modern people? These are the historical questions that I explore in my new UNC Press book and that I want to discuss in other postings on this blog.

Nationalism shapes the competing arguments of the opposing parties in all modern political debates—a pattern that we have seen, for example, in recent American debates about government spending, taxation, debt ceilings, and foreign wars.  I’ll therefore discuss the political foundations of nationalism in my next blog posting and also suggest how the politics of nationalist movements intersect with culture.

Lloyd Kramer is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He is author of Nationalism in Europe and America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities since 1775 and Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions. You can listen to the podcast of Kramer’s August 2, 2011, radio interview with D.G. Martin on WCHL.