Lloyd Kramer: Why the History of Nationalism Matters in a Global Age, Part 3

This is the third in a series of three guest posts from historian Lloyd Kramer, author of Nationalism in Europe and America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities since 1775. You can read Part 1 here and read Part 2 here.–ellen

The Similarities of European and American Nationalisms

I suggested in my earlier posts that the history of nationalism offers good examples of how political and cultural movements often share similar ideas on both sides of the Atlantic. The general argument in my book thus emphasizes overlapping nationalist themes that have shaped modern societies in Europe and America alike; and I develop an “Atlantic approach” to nationalism that challenges a long-popular theme in America’s own national identity—the belief in American Exceptionalism.

The idea that American culture and politics are fundamentally different from the history of other nations is itself an exemplary theme of nationalist thought. It is of course true that each nation’s history differs in specific ways from other national histories, and yet the essential themes of American Exceptionalism go beyond “difference” to a broader assertion of national superiority: America’s difference from other nations also makes it better than all other nations.

My historical comparison of the overlapping themes in American and European nationalism stresses that such claims for “exceptionalism” are typical of the ideas that have shaped national cultures across every historical era and region of the modern world. As I note in the book, “all nations and nationalisms are similar in that they claim to be different from others.”

Placed within this wider pattern of beliefs in national uniqueness, American “Exceptionalism” becomes another historical example of how similar nationalist ideas defined collective identities throughout the Atlantic world.  Influential nationalists in France, Germany, Britain, Poland, and elsewhere have long claimed (like American nationalists) an “exceptional” and “universal” significance for their national cultures.

The Fears, Hopes, and Endurance of Nationalism in our Global Age

The history of nationalism thus requires ongoing analysis and critical debate because nationalist assumptions continue to shape political parties and public policies as well as the identity of almost every modern person. Individuals always carry a collective national identity, even when they strongly affirm their own selfhood or personal independence.

Like other powerful ideas, nationalism can push people toward diverse real-world actions. It often contributes to repression and violence when it encourages fears of other nations, races, and religions as well as anxieties about immigrants, multicultural diversity, and moral decline within changing societies. In many times and places nationalists have mobilized collective and personal fears to justify wars or social injustices. It should also be stressed, however, that nationalism often fosters new hopes for human rights, economic progress, democratic institutions, and cultural freedom. In many times and places nationalists have encouraged altruism and social justice to achieve their vision of a better national future.

This complex interaction of fears and hopes makes nationalism an inescapable component of modern political cultures and a still-powerful force in our globalizing era. Nobody can truly understand or transform politics, economics, education, or family life without a careful analysis of nationalism’s pervasive influence in modern history. Nationalism thus remains the most influential “ism” among all of the political and cultural movements that have flourished in the modern world.

My book, Nationalism in Europe and America, provides a concise account of nationalism’s historical development, but it also seeks to provoke historically informed discussions of nationalist dangers and values in contemporary societies. Such discussions are important, even essential, because nationalism still matters everywhere in our global age.

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.