Why is nationalism such a powerful concept? Why would many people die for their country but not for their political party or hometown?
In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson says nationalism is a form of personal identity that creates bonds of loyalty and love. The only other identity that is as strong as nationalism is religion.
Here’s what Anderson has to say about nationalism.
The Power of Nationalism
According to Benedict Anderson, nationalism is a powerful force. He observes that today, the nation—a polity exercising full sovereignty over a well-defined and contiguous piece of land with clear boundaries—is the universal political model. Nearly all of the planet’s territory is claimed by one nation or another and nationality, the status of belonging to a nation, is something that nearly all persons are assumed to have.
|Membership in a national community has become so central to our political thinking that some commentators have argued that nationality itself is the wellspring from which all other political, legal, and human rights flow. |
Hannah Arendt observed the difficulties of millions of people who’d been displaced and rendered stateless in the aftermath of World War II and argued that citizenship (membership in a political community) was a fundamental right—in her famous words, it was “the right to have rights.” She reasoned that, in the modern world, all rights began with nationality. Without it, individuals had no protection against dispossession, exploitation, and, ultimately, extermination. Her work influenced the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares, in Article 15, that “Everyone has the right to a nationality.”
Beyond just a form of political organization, however, Anderson notes that a person’s nationality is also a powerful form of personal identity. The deep emotional bonds of love and loyalty that people have for their nations far outstrips that which they have for other forms of political identity.
|Belonging and Identity: The Psychological Roots of Nationalism|
Some observers have argued that nationalism is psychologically rooted in the universal human desires for belonging and identity. All human beings have some innate need to be part of a community. Indeed, this is essential to a child’s process of emotional maturation, as they progress from an egocentric view of the world (as in the first six or seven months of life, when newborns believe that the entire world around them is literally an extension of themselves) to a sociocentric state, in which they view themselves as part of a group of individuals who collectively fulfill one another’s needs. The idea of the nation is powerful because it can simultaneously satisfy a whole host of needs—political, social, economic, and even spiritual—proving a deep and lasting sense of community.
And since our group membership forms the basis of so much of our individual identity, we place a tremendous psychological weight on perceiving our in-group—in this case, the nation—being seen as greater than or superior to others. Because our personal identity is so intertwined with our group identity, to belong to a “weak” or “inferior” group is to be a “weak” or “inferior” individual.
Nations Transcend Other Identities
Anderson observes that people commonly express a willingness to kill or die for their country. Few, however, would be willing to make such a sacrifice for their political party, for a political ideology like liberalism or conservatism, or for a more local unit of political organization, like their hometown or county.
He argues that this is evidence of the nation’s status as the most immutable, deep-rooted form of political identity, transcending all other forms of political organization in its ability to inspire this degree of fervent commitment.
Some more recent history would perhaps suggest that secular, non-nationalist ideologies can indeed inspire intense and even militant commitment. In the United States, the political philosophy of neoconservatism advocated the use of force by the American military to promote liberal democracy and free-market capitalism around the world. This was not an ideology of nationalist aggression based on ethnic or religious rivalries with other nations, but rather, a genuine belief that spreading these ideas would make the world a safer and more humane place. These figures were primarily, although not exclusively, associated with the Republican Party and the administration of President George W. Bush.
Their high point of political influence came with the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the ostensible mission of which was to turn these countries into Western-style liberal capitalist democracies. Notably, self-proclaimed nationalists on the right—associated with President Donald Trump—today explicitly reject the neoconservative vision, arguing that American foreign policy should be concerned solely with the promotion of U.S. interests rather than wars to promote abstract ideals like capitalism and democracy.
Nationalism as Secular Religion
Anderson argues that religion is the only other form of collective, shared identity that can inspire the same degree of emotional commitment.
According to Anderson, religion has an advantage over most secular political ideologies because it can provide meaning to universal human experiences like death and existence. Religions like Christianity can provide purpose for believers, because they teach that your immortal soul lives on after death—your day-to-day experiences are just one part of an endless cosmic story.
Anderson writes that purely secular political ideologies like Marxism and liberalism have no answer for these universal human experiences, because they are inherently concerned with worldly, material things. By definition, these ideologies cannot address humanity’s spiritual hunger.
But, he writes, nationalism does have this power. This is because nationalists imagine their national community as being an almost-eternal entity that will continue to exist long after they are dead and gone. This allows nationalists to believe that they are part of something greater than themselves—and that to sacrifice your life for the nation is to attain a form of eternal life.
(Shortform note: Of course, religion and nationalism can feed off of and support one another. Indeed, some nations define themselves largely in terms of their separate religious identity from their neighbors. This is the case with predominately Muslim Pakistan, which has defined itself as fundamentally different from its predominately Hindu neighbor, India, since the 1947 partition that created the two independent states. Some nationalists go a step further and define membership in the national community almost entirely on religious grounds. Some critics have argued that this is precisely what current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done—using the power of his office to transform India’s multiethnic democracy into a Hindu nationalist state that harshly suppresses its large Muslim minority.)