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Divisive Nationalism in today’s world

in Opinion/Politics by


Nationalism is always divisive. Like all ideologies that foment a strong “us vs. them” relationship, nationalism polarizes people. The title of this article is an oxymoron on purpose, to call attention to a very old strategy that is becoming a worrisome trend: The use of nationalism as the ideological backbone of a populist strategy where the leaders use politics not as the means, but as the end itself.

Populist leaders put politics before any other consideration (like economic or social issues) because their aim is to stay in power and enjoy the spoils of power. To that end, the recurring populist strategy is social polarization: We are good; they are bad. One sees that in Saxony the Pegida/Legida movement claiming that “we” (white Christians – “Wir sind das Volk”) are legitimate Germans, and not “they” (Muslims and other non-German-looking immigrants or refugees). In America, the populist trend has followed a similar logic with the popularity of Donald Dumpf (no, it’s not Donald Trump, it’s Donald Dumpf). Closer to home, and more worrying than Pegida, is the rise of the PEKOs (Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdoğan, Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.). Two of these leaders are heads of government in EU states; it would be disastrous for the future of the European Union if the rise of such type of populism became a trend.


Although the fears arising from the emergence of divisive nationalism are well placed, I think that we should not look at it as the devolution of democracy, but as a negative reaction to the positive aspects of the globalization of the democratic welfare state (when a representative government protects collective socioeconomic well-being). Globalization is more than free trade agreements, or finding a Starbucks store everywhere. It is also the movement of people, cultural exchanges, and the standardization of norms and good practices across countries. One of those good practices is the democratic welfare state. For example, the American presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is gaining a large following, and causing a headache to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, because of his plan to expand the American welfare state is very popular, especially among young people. However, Donald Dumpf’s plan, in economic terms, is actually not very different.

Like many right-wing conservatives, Dumpf loves the military and increasing its budget. In the United States, like in most developed countries, the military is a perfect welfare mini-state: All of its members are guaranteed a salary, clothing, education and healthcare at low or no costs. In fact, the recruitment campaign of the American military is not based on nationalism, unlike in World War I, but on the promise of a free college education. This shows that there is a general approval, even if indirect, of the welfare state. Divisive nationalism as a populist strategy arises as a reaction to global trends, such as the movement of people and cultural exchanges, which threaten the availability of resources for the maintenance of the welfare state (whether in the more relaxed American version or the more robust European variant).

I do not believe that we should see the rising trend of divisive nationalism as the return of white identity politics, based on racism as an end in itself, because it is a discourse hiding reactionary economic fears of globalization. The discourse of Pegida/Legida against the “Islamization” of Saxony, and Germany in general, shows a fear that the high influx of refugees  and other migrants will strain the German welfare system, and especially the Hartz IV unemployment protection concept. Naturally, the group most worried about the strains on the welfare system is the low-income social class that depends on it. This is why the support base of Pegida, Dumpf and the PEKOs is the low-income racial majority. The racial component of the discourse is no more than a “dignified” rallying point of the aforementioned base: It is more motivating to support a candidate or movement for protecting the purity of your great nation, than admitting that you want protection from poverty since it is stigmatizing.

Radical leaders mobilize support based on a fear of foreigners or different races, because the majority of the low-income class is easily threatened by “outsiders” who appear to be straining the welfare system and taking away their entitlements. The low-income base is reacting to basic survival instincts, and certain leaders are supplying what they are demanding. Therefore, we should look beyond the discourse and see that we are not looking at the devolution of Western democracy, but a negative reaction to some of its achievements. It is those achievements that deserve our primary collective attention and efforts, not the racist discourse from the likes of Donald Dumpf or Pegida. That should help render the divisive nationalist discourse less effective, and keep the real bigots (or opportunists) out of government.

A political scientist who follows global events with pious devotion. A Venezuelan by virtue of being born in that interesting tropical place, but who has lived and studied in several places around the world. He will write some analysis on important global issues, especially if they have an impact on Germany or Leipzig.


  1. Unless some completely new facts came up recently, the claim that Pegida has low-income earners as its participants is simply wrong. German surveys show also consistently (that is, over longer periods of time) that not the unemployed but those who are employed but fear unemployment tend to support extreme right views. The contribution starts with “nationalism” and ends with lower class “welfarism”. While nationalism and the welfare state went together in some European countries, they never did in Russia and, if at all, then very unevenly, in Turkey. So one cannot explain populism (nationalist defense of welfare) in these two countries by pairing these. And how does nationalism turn racist? What is the difference? The article does not tell. But it asks an important question and proposes one answer. What are some of the others?
    yours truly,
    P.S. Turkey just made a good deal trading in its promise to keep refugees for the EU funds and voiding Schengen making it more difficult for its citizens to enter the EU zone. So at least E of PEKO is not just about more power for the head of the state. Whether nationalism or racism – it should never be reduced to economic interests – it is very much about own sense of dignity and importance . . . as compared to others.

    • Thanks for your comment HF! You are right that the article is reductionist to economic welfare, but the point is to discuss that facet of the problem, not to say that it is the only cause. You are right that Pegida members are not unemployed, but fear unemployment. This is in essence the same thing. Economic fears play a role in their decision to support Pegida. Now about your claim that E of PEKO is not about more power, let Erdogan’s new presidential powers (giving the office of the president executive powers, which not common in parliamentary systems where the office of the president is largely ceremonial) and his new 1,000-room presidential palace speak for itself…. regarding Putin, I do not think that he would enjoy the popularity that he does (at home), if the economy had not improved significantly during the last 16 years. With oil-prices collapsing and economic sanctions, his popularity might change, if not, then economic factors probably do not explain Russian populism.

  2. Nice read!

    It’s probably fair to say that people cherishing the idea nationalism – an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries – tend to reject people from other nations. Just watch those marching and chanting at Legida demonstrations in Leipzig to be put in the picture. It’s a rather disturbing picture at that: the sound of the public speakers’ incitive voices, marchers equipped with Imperial War Flags of the Reich and those vitriolic slogans you hear from your average Wutbürger aka the angry mob will make your toenails curl.

    • Thanks for your comment Kapuczino! You description of “your average Wutbürger” shows that any collective ideology that has a strong in-group bias is going to produce xenophobia, i.e., hatred of perceived non-group members. It also explains fundamentalist religious ideologies, or G.W. Bush’s infamous “either with us or against us.” That is why such narratives, like Pegida, Islamic State, or Georgie’s “coalition of the willing,” are dangerous to society at large.

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