The Importance of Political Community

Political Community
The Sunflower Movement was a nationalist, pro-democracy movement in Taiwan. Photo by Kirby Wu via Wikimedia Commons.

By Logan M. Williams

Nationalism as a Bulwark Against the Populist Threat to Democracy

The latest Latinobarómetro – an annual survey designed to measure the attitudes towards democracy across Latin America (alternatively, Ibero-America) – has been released, and it contains harrowing data, which confirms the greatest fears of democracy advocates around the world: Latin America may be poised to usher in a new era of authoritarianism.

The metric recording the region’s support for democracy is at the lowest value that has ever been recorded, since the survey began in 1995, with less than half of those surveyed by the Latinobarómetro Corporation expressing their support for democracy.  While the percentage of those surveyed who expressed explicit support for authoritarian forms of government did increase to its highest level within a decade, the value was still within – if only just barely – its historical range, thus, it isn’t the most concerning statistic presented within this year’s report.  What should be the cause of great concern is the ratio of those surveyed who expressed no preference between democratic and authoritarian governments, this metric leapt out of its relatively-low historical range in the 2016 Latinobarómetro, and it has increased by nearly fifty-percent in less than a decade. This trend is particularly acute amongst young citizens of Ibero-America, as well as those who are less educated, and this trend is slightly more noticeable amongst surveyed women than men.

This comes on the heels of the concerning, but not necessarily shocking, rise in support for populist authoritarians within the supposed “community of democracies,” consisting of the United States, Canada, Australia, and much of Europe. These trends have caused many scholars and policy-makers a great deal of consternation, and it has catalyzed a global discussion on what – if any – methods exist to defend against this extraordinarily pervasive form of democratic backsliding.

The Solution Emerges from the Realm of Emotion.

Democracy runs on faith. Liberal democracy has inherent to its function, foremost, the notion of decentralization and popular sovereignty. Put another way, democracy seeks to accomplish widespread enfranchisement, by providing as many rights as possible to as many people as possible. Additionally, democracy is characterized by a certain degree of ardent competition. This system is unlikely to provide stable governance in a society bereft of trust — of faith.

For democracy to succeed, members of a society must exist in a community, bonded by a mutual faith in one another. This faith has to exist between members of a society who likely will never interact with each other at any point in their lives, and between those individuals who, on the surface, seem to have nothing in common at all. Members of a society must be able to have faith that each individual — regardless of their pre-existing loyalties to ethnoreligious, linguistic, or ideological (etc.) identities — has an interest in the preservation of the society as a whole, and thus, is acting (or at least intends to act) with due regard for the best interests of the entirety of the community. Should this trust not exist, or if it is not nurtured and cultivated, empowering those citizens with whom one shares little in common and whose interests may come at the cost of one’s own, becomes an unacceptable risk.

For democracy to survive in large countries, that nation needs to possess an emotive sense of imagined community. In other words, they must possess a potent politically-based national identity, based on shared principles and a common history, rather than upon immutable identities (e.g. religion or ethnicity). This imagined community provides the sense of sameness that is necessary for a democracy to function, amongst nations comprised of peoples that may have very little in common in the way of surface culture (ethnicity, religious habits, appearance, etc.), and thus, provides the foundation for a sense of trust. Additionally, while all persons are motivated solely by their own self-interest, citizens of a nation who are inculcated with the values of nationhood, conflate their self-interest with that of the entire nation – and they begin to behave accordingly. Thus, a healthy political national identity may even help to reduce the corruption and violence which plague unstable democracies, in turn reducing the citizenry’s distrust or dissatisfaction with democratic processes.

Populist dictators rise out of the dissatisfaction that occurs within societies governed by failing democracies or polities with a moribund sense of political community. The people in these societies are enraged by inequalities, the feeling as if they have been left behind, the feeling of not being listened to (real or imaginary), and the feeling of isolation. Without a strong, political sense of national identity, a person trapped in a failing democracy will be motivated by a conception of self-interest which is entirely disconnected from the well-being of the rest of society; this person will be willing to accept extraordinary abuses of the state, as long as those abuses don’t directly victimize them, and as long as their grievances with democracy are resolved. In simpler terms, these isolated individuals are especially sensitive to the demagoguery and “other-ing” rhetoric of right-wing populists, which weaponizes the image of an ill-understood minority segment of the population to foment fear and rage amongst the “core” of the demagogue’s new “chosen” and hyper-exclusionary national community. Their self-interest can easily begin to manifest itself as political nihilism – the desire to destroy a state’s political institutions and elites. This is especially common amongst young people, who not only want change but, because of their youth, want rapid and radical change. Populist authoritarians offer those individuals who feel left out in floundering democratic societies a semblance of community and significance, but it occurs at a high cost.

After the end of the Cold War, the global community was overtaken by a sense of overwhelming optimism, and thus, the intellectual class cast aside essential knowledge which seemed to belong to a bygone era. Nationalism, which was until then understood to be the essence of the state and the single most powerful driving factor in international relations, was “contemporized” as a backward and “oriental” ideology, synonymous with factional hatreds and unparalleled violence. Now, the survival of the world’s democratic states may just depend on their ability to reclaim the erstwhile conceptions of nationalism from the “dustbin of history.”

About the Author

Logan Williams is a first-generation college student at the University of Connecticut, studying History and International Relations, with a focus on U.S. security policy. He has experience researching Ukrainian history and national identity, hegemonic theory, the Cold War, and international development/liberalization processes. He is beginning a career in foreign policy research at The Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington D.C. The Center for a Free Cuba is a human rights organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses within Cuba and to advocating for Cuba’s eventual liberalization. He has previously been published in Geopolitics Magazine, The American Spectator, Modern Diplomacy, etc.

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