Let Globalism and Nationalism Coexist
Several months ago social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offered a very insightful and plausible explanation for the global rise of nationalism and authoritarianism. His analysis challenges globalist cosmopolitans with some frustration. If Haidt and Karen Stenner, whose book The Authoritarian Dynamic he refers to, are right Fukuyama-style optimism would have a hard time standing empirical evidence: “Her core finding is that authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait. It is rather a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat.” This threat being a change in social structure and the overall cultural environment which gives people the impression of being overrun and a stranger in one’s own country. Stenner assesses also that people that respond with intolerance to such a situation get “more aggravated than educated by the cultural promotion of tolerance”. How much hope is there left for optimists who thought that “we shall overcome”?
Being no psychologist, no sociologist or anything of that sort I certainly would not challenge Haidt’s observations. Yet, his conclusions and recommendations ought to be contested. He suggests that globalists “speak, act, and legislate in ways that drain passions and votes away from nationalist parties”. The price for reaping “the gains of global cooperation in trade, culture, education, human rights, and environmental protection” would, however, be high: “It would require abandoning the multicultural approach to immigration and embracing assimilation.”
Haidt’s main suggestions are: Adapt to those who perceive diversity, changing values and globalization as a threat. End the crusades of political correctness and change strategy and policy to “a way that is less likely to provoke an authoritarian reaction”. Ditch the concept of multiculturalism and focus on homogeneity and identity instead. Basically: Expect minorities to adapt to majorities, and newcomers to the tried and true instead of the other way around. This boils down to two consequences: Change the way you communicate and prepare to abstain from your own moral convictions, at least to some extent.
Preaching versus experiencing diversity
Changing the way you communicate can often make a huge difference. That is certainly one claim you do not have to explain to progressive minded people. Hence, Stenner suggested in her book: “it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness”. She concludes this from her hypothesis that “the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference—the hallmarks of liberal democracy—are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors.”
Now, it appears to be true that stressing a point too fervently and maybe also with a presumptuous attitude can actually drive people into opposition. The tendency of depicting difference as something that is not only to be tolerated or accepted but also as something that in some mysterious way gives those people a higher moral value that differ from others is often counterproductive. On the other hand, exposure to difference can have a very different effect than these verbal displays of moral superiority have.
When the Swiss people got to vote on an initiative to restrict immigration in February 2014 the results showed clearly: In those cantons where many foreigners lived already – where people are exposed to diversity – the initiative was rejected whereas in those cantons where only few foreigners lived people voted for the motion with great majorities. Following the rapid surge of refugees coming to Europe in the summer of 2015 those countries with a higher degree of diversity in their population tended to be more willing to take in refugees than the more homogenous one. You could even observe the phenomenon inside a country like Germany where the right-wing populist AfD performed best in the regional elections in those states where ethnic and cultural diversity is rather limited. All of this makes sense: We tend to be more scared of what we don’t know. And it is much easier to resent something abstract and someone anonymous.
Preaching diversity can actually raise opposition – experiencing diversity, however, often leads to a higher acceptance. Hold on to that thought while we turn to the second suggestion of Haidt.
Globalists won’t compromise
Haidt advises globalists to rethink “the value of national identities” and to abandon the “multicultural approach”. This is a far greater leap to take than just changing the way you speak, write and argue. It implies actually changing your convictions. The idea of nations – as large groups that are bound together by shared history, traditions, values, public goods and the like – is a modern concept that evolved in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the emergence of the modern state. Open-minded and cosmopolitan intellectuals have been fighting this idea for two centuries now. Even if they would try to re-think national identity they are not very likely to come to the point of embracing it.
Bidding adieu to the multicultural approach might not be that hard since the ideal has now been under fire for quite a while already; not least from left-wing intellectuals who doubt its ability to protect the values of emancipation and equality. Yet, changing from multiculturalism to assimilation may still be a difficult step, too. It would require agreeing on a certain ideal to which people are supposed to assimilate. And there, fierce conflicts are inevitable, especially between the progressive and the conservative sides of the political spectrum. It will be hard to find some common ground aside from the constitution of the respective country. And even here you can differ extremely about the interpretation. Who would know that better than the United States …
Being opposed to the concept of national identity and in favor of multiculturalism or at least some comprehensive idea of diversity is not just a lifestyle choice for globalists. It is not a mere option they chose – they have reasons for favoring this approach. It is not likely that the majority of the globalists are just going to dismiss these reasons. They are convinced that a society that cherishes diversity is going to thrive. They hold the possibility to live your life in the way you deem good to be a self-evident truth. They expect to learn from the encounter and at times also the confrontation with other concepts, traditions and ideas. They believe that – as Karl Popper once said – “it is the supreme strength of the West that we can afford that”.
Many globalists, cosmopolitans, progressives will not be willing to compromise or appease their opponents. The sounder minds amongst them will try to find ways of communicating with and especially listening to the other side. But they, too, will not be ready to betray their beliefs.
The great divide
Being in such a quandary what can the solution be? Do we simply have to live with the clash of cultures inside Western democracies? Are we to get used to a big divide between the self-righteous and the grumpy? In the last sentence of his article Haidt already hints towards a possible solution: “In what kind of world can globalists and nationalists live together in peace?”
Possibly the solution isn’t to find common ground but rather to provide people with opportunities to follow their own values. In order to live together in peace, it sometimes helps to separate and to let everyone go his way instead of trying to find a one size fits all solution. Haidt determines in his article that “the globalists are concentrated in the capital cities, commercial hubs, and university towns”. Inside these communities most people are comfortable with globalism and progressive values. We have also observed above that personal experience can shape your own attitude a lot and that these experiences obviously differ even inside of small countries like Switzerland according to your environment.
Maybe the main problem is the concept of the nation state itself. It combines profoundly diverse entities. What do people from North Dakota and California, London and the Scottish Highland, Vienna and some Alpine valleys really have in common? On what grounds do we justify making decisions that affect people within such a wide range of different socio-economic backgrounds and cultural traditions? Why should it be necessary to implement policies that are binding for tens, sometimes hundreds of millions?
The divisions and frictions that seem to grow over the last years will not have one single cause. But the fact that we have been experiencing a phase of rapid change of values over the last 50 years in combination with growing influence of state and government might just have been working like a combustive agent. Because the state has widened its activities and most decision makers are members of a generally globalist-minded elite their view has been formative for many policies in areas that don’t necessarily have to be organized by the state: for designing curricula, for implementing affirmative action, for promoting same-sex marriage or contraceptives. Of course, this mechanism can also work the other way around: Progressive or libertarian minded people in countries such as Hungary, Poland or the Philippines are subject to laws and policies they deeply resent.
It might be worth a thought reflecting on the role of politicians and the state. The more powerful they get the more people on all different sides of the political spectrum will feel uncomfortable with their decisions. It could be a way to smooth tensions in society if we move responsibilities back to a lower level. People in New York or San Francisco should be empowered to live by a completely different concept than communities in Wyoming or Tennessee. There is nothing wrong about this. And especially from the globalist view this actual diversity should be desirable.
Throughout history we have always had separations in societies and countries, just think about the huge differences between cities and rural areas in the 19th century. Living together in diverging contexts and with very different views of the world is actually quite normal. Probably, an illiterate Catholic construction worker in 19th century Paris had less in common with his educated Jewish neighbor who owned a grocery store than nowadays a transgender Professor from Oslo has in common with a handyman from Rio de Janeiro, for that reason alone that they watch the same movies and listen to the same music.
The point is: Identity is a very oscillating concept. It is already difficult to define it for a small group of people – let alone for whole countries. Therefore, it might be best not to impose something on people. Don’t impose your globalist view but don’t impose some national identity or some leading culture to which you are supposed to assimilate, either. The solution to the phenomenon of nationalism, authoritarianism and disrupted societies is not necessarily giving in to one side or accommodating it at the price of departing from one’s conviction.
The solution could be to really embrace diversity. And that must always mean to let people decide on their own. That might be a little bit impractical on the level of individuals. But it is possible on the local level of cities and of counties. It has been done before. Before a growing government assumed competences, responsibilities and authority on an ever higher level. You don’t need to share values and convictions in order to live together in peace (although, of course, it helps). You just have to respect the others choices. That could be a task for both sides to work on.
Picture: Creative Commons Andrew Smith
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