What Is Nationalism? Definition and Examples

Four American flags flying with the Capitol building in the background
Four American flags flying with the Capitol building in the background.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Nationalism is an ideology expressed by people who fervently believe that their nation is superior to all others. These feelings of superiority are often based on shared ethnicity, language, religion, culture, or social values. From a purely political standpoint, nationalism aims to defend the country’s popular sovereignty—the right to govern itself—and to protect it from the political, social, and cultural pressures posed by the modern global economy. In this sense, nationalism is seen as the antithesis of globalism.

Key Takeaways: Nationalism

  • Politically, nationalists strive to protect the nation's sovereignty, the right to govern itself.
  • Nationalists’ feelings of superiority are usually based on shared ethnicity, language, religion, culture, or social values.
  • Extreme nationalists believe that their country has the right to dominate other nations through military aggression if necessary.
  • The ideologies of nationalism are contrary to those of globalism and the modern globalization movement. 
  • Economic nationalism strives to protect a nation’s economy from foreign competition, often through the practice of protectionism.
  • Carried to its extremes, nationalism can lead to authoritarianism and the exclusion from the society of certain ethnic or racial groups.

Today, nationalism is generally recognized as a shared sentiment that because of the extent to which it influences public and private life, serves as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, determining factors of modern history.

History of Nationalism

Despite the common feeling that people who believe their country is the “best” have always existed, nationalism is a relatively modern movement. While people have always felt an attachment to their native land and the traditions of their parents, nationalism did not become a widely recognized sentiment until the end of the 18th century.

The 18th century American and French revolutions are often considered to have been the first impactful expressions of nationalism. During the 19th century, nationalism penetrated the new countries of Latin America and spread throughout central, eastern, and southeastern Europe. During the first half of the 20th century, nationalism arose in Asia and Africa.

Pre-20th Century Nationalism

The first true expressions of nationalism occurred in England during the Puritan Revolution of the middle 1600s.

By the end of the 17th-century, England had assumed a reputation as the world leader in science, commerce, and the development of political and social theory. After the English Civil War of 1642, the Puritan work ethic of Calvinism merged with the optimistic ethics of humanism.

Influenced by the Bible, an expression of English nationalism emerged in which the people equated their perceived mission to that of the people of ancient Israel. Swollen with pride and confidence, the English people began to feel that it was their mission to usher in a new age of reformation and individual liberty throughout the world. In his classic 1667 work “Paradise Lost,” English poet and intellectual John Milton described the English peoples’ efforts to spread what had by then become "England’s vision of liberty as being “celebrated for endless ages as a soil most genial to the growth of liberty,” to all the corners of the earth.

The nationalism of 18th century England, as expressed in the “social contract” political philosophy of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau would influence American and French nationalism during the rest of the century.

Influenced by ideas of liberty put forth by Locke, Rousseau, and other contemporary French philosophers, American nationalism arose among the settlers of the North American British colonies. Stirred to action by current political thoughts expressed by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, the American colonists began their struggle for liberty and individual rights during the late 1700s. Similar to the aspirations of 17th century English nationalism, 18th-century American nationalism envisioned the new nation as humanity’s guiding light to liberty, equality, and happiness for all. Culminating with the American Revolution in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the influence of the new American nationalism was clearly reflected in the French Revolution of 1789.

In America as well as in France, nationalism came to represent a universal adherence to the progressive idea of a future of freedom and equality rather than the authoritarianism and inequality of the past. The new belief in the promise of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “Liberty, equality, fraternity” following the American and French revolutions inspired new rituals and symbols, such as flags and parades, patriotic music, and national holidays, that remain the common expression of nationalism today.

20th Century Movements

Beginning in 1914 with the onset of World War I, and ending in 1991 with the dissolution of Communism in Central-Eastern Europe, the 20th century saw the emergence of new forms of nationalism shaped largely by World War I and World War II.

After World War I, Adolf Hitler based a new brand of fanatical nationalism in Germany on racial purity, authoritarian rule, and the mythical glories of Germany’s pre-Christian past. After the Second World War, most new forms of nationalism were driven by independence movements in the wake of decolonization. As they struggled to free themselves from their European colonizers, people created national identities to distinguish themselves from their oppressors. Whether based on race, religion, culture, or the political entanglements of the Cold War in Europe, all of these new nationalistic identities were in some way connected with the drive for independence.

Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg.
Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

World War I proved to be a triumph of nationalism in central and Eastern Europe. New nation-states of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania were built from the remains of the Habsburg, Romanov, and Hohenzollern Russian empires. Budding nationalism in Asia and Africa produced charismatic revolutionary leaders like Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, Mahatma Gandhi in India, and Sun Yat-sen in China.

After World War II, the establishment of multinational economic, military, and political organizations such as the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and NATO in 1949 led to a general reduction of the spirit of nationalism across Europe. However, the policies pursued by France under Charles de Gaulle and the bitter Communism versus democracy division of East and West Germany until 1990 proved the appeal of nationalism remained very much alive.

Nationalism Today

A man wearing a Donald Trump themed tie joins supporters before President Donald Trump holds a rallyin Lititz, Pennsylvania.
A man wearing a Donald Trump themed tie joins supporters before President Donald Trump holds a rallyin Lititz, Pennsylvania. Mark Makela/Getty Images

It has been argued that at no time since Words War I has the power of nationalism been as evident as it is today. Especially since 2016, there has been a significant increase in nationalist sentiment across the world. For example, it was a nationalism-driven desire to regain lost national autonomy that led to Brexit, the controversial withdrawal of Great Britain from the European Union. In the United States, presidential candidate Donald Trump rode nationalistic appeals to “Make America Great Again” and “America First” to the White House.

In Germany, the nationalist-populist political party Alternative for Germany (AfD), known for its opposition to the European Union and immigration, has become a major opposition force. In Spain, the self-proclaimed conservative right-wing Vox party won seats in the Spanish parliament for the first time in the April 2019 general election. Nationalism forms the basis for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to make China a world economic leader. Similarly, nationalism is a common theme among right-wing politicians in France, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and Turkey.

Economic Nationalism

Most recently characterized by the reaction to the global financial crash of 2011, economic nationalism is defined as a set of policies and practices designed to create, grow, and most of all, protect national economies in the context of world markets. For example, a 2006 proposal to sell port management businesses in six major U.S. seaports to Dubai Ports World based in the United Arab Emirates was blocked by political opposition motivated by economic nationalism.

Economic nationalists oppose, or at least critically question the advisability of globalization in favor of the perceived safety and stability of protectionism. To economic nationalists, most of not all revenue from foreign trade should be used for what they consider to be essential national interests such as national security and building military power, rather than for social welfare programs. In many ways, economic nationalism is a variant of mercantilism—the zero-sum theory that trade generates wealth and is stimulated by the accumulation of profitable balances, which the government should encourage through protectionism.

Based on an often unfounded belief that it steals jobs from domestic workers, economic nationalists oppose immigration. For example, President Trump’s Mexican border security wall followed his nationalistic immigration policies. In convincing Congress to allocate funds to pay for the controversial wall, the President claimed the loss of American jobs to undocumented immigrants

Issues and Concerns

Today, developed nations are typically made up of multiple ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious, groups. This recent increase in anti-immigration, exclusionary brand of nationalism could become dangerous to groups considered to be outside the politically favored group, especially if taken to extremes, as it was in Nazi Germany. As a result, it is important to examine the potential negative aspects of nationalism.

A Chinese teenager waves a national flag during a festival to mark Chinese National Day in Beijing, China.
A Chinese teenager waves a national flag during a festival to mark Chinese National Day in Beijing, China. Guang Niu/Getty Images

First of all, nationalism’s sense of superiority differentiates it from patriotism. While patriotism is characterized by pride in one’s country and a willingness to defend it, nationalism extends pride to arrogance and potential military aggression. Extreme nationalists believe that their country’s superiority gives them the right to dominate other nations. They justify this by the belief that they are “liberating” the people of the conquered nation.

As it did in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, nationalism was used to justify imperialism and colonization. Under the shield of nationalism, western nations overtook and controlled countries in Africa and Asia, the crippling economic and social consequences of which linger today. During World War II, Adolf Hitler mastered nationalistic propaganda to rally the German people to rationalize his tactics of ethnic Aryan supremacy as being in the best interest of Germany. When used in this manner to establish one group to be the only rightful citizens of a country, nationalism can be extremely dangerous in an increasingly globalized world.   

Partition of China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, 1900.
Partition of China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, 1900. Heritage Images/Getty Images

At several times throughout history, nationalistic fervor has led nations into prolonged periods of isolationism—the stifling and potentially dangerous doctrine of playing no role in the affairs of other nations. For example, widely supported isolationism during the late 1930s played a significant role in preventing the United States from becoming involved in World War II until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Nationalism inevitably creates a competitive “us” vs. “them” or “love it or leave it” attitude among the people. As George Orwell put it in his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism, “A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”

Nationalism can also contribute to domestic division and unrest. By demanding that the people decide who is and isn’t truly part of the nation, it encourages discrimination against anyone within the nation’s borders who is identified as part of “them” instead of “us.”

Sources

  • Nationalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 2, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nationalism/.
  • Sraders, Anne. “What is Nationalism? Its History And What It Means in 2018. The Street, 2018, https://www.thestreet.com/politics/what-is-nationalism-14642847.
  • Galston, William A. “Twelve Theses on Nationalism.” Brookings, August 12, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/twelve-theses-on-nationalism/.
  • Pryke, Sam. “Economic Nationalism: Theory, History and Prospects.” Global Policy, September 6, 2012, ttps://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/articles/world-economy-trade-and-finance/economic-nationalism-theory-history-and-prospects.
  • Walt, Stephen M. “The most powerful force in the world.” Forbes, July 15, 2011, https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/07/15/the-most-powerful-force-in-the-world/.
  • Holmes, Ph.D., Kim R. “The Problem of Nationalism.” Heritage Foundation, December 13, 2019, https://www.heritage.org/conservatism/commentary/the-problem-nationalism.
  • Orwell, George. 1945. “Notes on Nationalism.” Penguin UK, ISBN-10:‎ 9780241339565.
  • Manfred Jonas. “Isolationism in America 1933-1941.” Cornell University Press, 1966, ISBN-10: 187917601
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Nationalism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 12, 2021, thoughtco.com/nationalism-definition-4158265. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 12). What Is Nationalism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/nationalism-definition-4158265 Longley, Robert. "What Is Nationalism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/nationalism-definition-4158265 (accessed October 21, 2021).