Mångfaldsliberalt samråd

för precisering av vår ideologi och diskussion om dess fortsatta utveckling


Populism, Nationalism, and Multiculturalism


Abstract. In the present state of the (political) world it is important that we shall 'think out of the box'. The present article is an attempt in that direction. It adopts an alternative perspective, leading to proposed amendments to the conventional nation/state concepts. The following is a summary of its arguments.

The political spectrum is usually perceived as an axis from 'left' to 'right'. This view suffers from several weaknesses, and in particular it does not characterize the variety of views of the nation and the nation-state in any meaningful way. This is problematic, especially today as nationalism is on the rise in the world, and not least in the Western world. There is a dire need to come to grips with what nations are, what they can be, and what they should be.

Another, related problem with the left-right model is that populism also can not readily be located in it. The need for discussing how to view populism and how to relate to it is also obvious today.

In this article I first propose a more structured model that better characterizes the various views of nations and states, as well as the populist positions. This model uses a multilayered structure instead of the usual, linear one, and it observes that nationalism is unusual in that it cuts across several of the layers. I then use this model for a discussion of the current challenges for our political system, and of how they can best be met. This leads up to my proposal for amendments to the traditional nation and state concepts and for how they are related.

The Inadequacy of the Left-to-Right View of the Political Spectrum

By way of introduction, let us observe that the views of nations seems to have no correlation at all with the left-to-right political spectrum. The 'right' contains conservatives that are nostalgic for the strongly knit and ethnically based nations of an earlier century, but it is also considered to contain economic liberals that like to reduce the state's role to an absolute minimum. Similarly, the 'left' accomodates social democrats that view the welfare state as a large family with strong solidarity for the family's weaker members, but with them it also contains cosmopolitans that view the nation as an obsolete concept that will gradually lose its importance as people have allegiance with international networks, and with cultural groupings that extend world-wide and that have global ambitions.

The Standard Political System

For the purpose of our better structured model of the political spectrum, I propose to introduce the term Standard Political System or SPS for the system that dominates today, especially in the Western world. This system must be the starting point in any discussion of the alternatives. It includes the Westphalian concept of sovereign states, the assumption or goal that each nation shall have its own state, the use of political liberalism as the organizing principle for each of those states, and on its basis the establishment of representative democracy. The litmus test for every such state is that it is considered to be successful if its citizens enjoy their universal rights, in practice and not merely in theory.

The concept of the Standard Political System must also include a moderate dose of multiculturalism, so that there is both an acceptance and appreciation of cultural diversity within the nation and, at the same time, an identified national culture and national cohesion around this culture. The national culture must contain whatever is needed for the proper functioning of the nation state, such as a sense of allegiance to the nation and of solidarity within it, as well as the adoption of a national language. It must also contain the principles of national liberalism and democracy, in line with the definition of civic nationalism.

Three Layers of Challenges

In order to understand the current challenges to the Standard Political System, it is useful to group them into three layers. The lowest layer contains those ideologies that reject the basic assumptions of the SPS. Movements that integrate orthodox religion with a political program will often reject the view that power originates with the people, and claim instead that all power comes from God as they understand him. Fascistoid movements propose instead that power shall belong to whoever is strong enough to take control of it, and to retain it with the consent of the population.

Above this lowest layer, there is a middle layer of movements that do not disagree actively with the principles of the SPS, but they claim that this system has lost its legitimacy because its 'elite' is corrupt. The imposition of 'political correctness' as a filter on the public debate is then often understood as one of the means whereby the 'elite' has taken control and retains control, against the true wishes of the majority of the population.

Populist leaders and movements belong obviously to this middle layer. Since they thrive on distrust and miscontent, it is not always clear what they propose to do in order to change the current situation. Vague promises about radical actions that will quickly change things for the better may serve in place of a concrete program.

The topmost layer, finally, contains political views that have emerged within the framework of the Standard Political System. This is where the traditional axis from left to right may be useful for characterizing different views, especially about economic policy. But for understanding different views about the roles of nations and of states, another, orthogonal axis is needed. An interesting proposal in this respect was offered by T.A. Aleinikoff in his article with the title Essay: A Multicultural Nationalism? [pan-2988] which was published already in 1998.

The Ground Rules According to Aleinikoff

The position that Aleinikoff advanced and defended in that article is quite close to what we propose to call the Standard Political System. He contrasted it with extreme multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, and wrote: Neither multiculturalists nor cosmopolitans lose much sleep over the fate of the nation-state or are overly concerned about preserving a strong American national identity. . . . Yet the idea of the nation -- of the American nation -- is worth defending against multicultural and cosmopolitan attack.

Aleinikoff mentioned only briefly the possibility of attacks from the opposite side, i.e. from ethnic ultranationalism. This possibility was maybe not as visible in 1998 as it is today. In the article he proposed two ground rules that should be important as guidelines in the nation-state, or as 'national values' to use the currently popular term. These ground rules are intended to foster a nation comfortable with cultural diversity and culturally diverse groups loyal to the nation, and the proposals are for mutuality and permeability. Mutuality means mutual respect for, and an active interest in the character of fellow citizens, including those belonging to other cultural groups. Permeability means that there shall be no strict borders between those cultural groups. People shall be able to adopt the characteristic features of other groups, to extend or change their allegiance, and to maintain personal relationships without regard to those borders.

These ground rules stand in clear opposition both to the views of ethnic nationalism, and to the views of religious extremists. They provide the degree of multiculturalism that is needed in today's world, but in a way that is compatible with the continued relevance of the nation that is the basis for the state. It is in this sense that Aleinikoff's position can be characterized, somewhat paradoxically, as Multicultural Nationalism. It is a common-sense position, and it should therefore be able to obtain broad support easily.

Reasons for Defending the Standard Political System

If the Standard Political System is attacked from the various sides that have been described above, then it is to be expected that those parties having an interest in the continued well-being of this system should come to its defense. The first question to ask is therefore who stands to lose if the SPS is eroded and becomes dysfunctional?

Some threats may affect the nation-state as a whole. Disengagement from, and distrust in its political system is likely to be a big handicap if the state has to face aggression from outside, or internal revolt.

Other threats concern individual citizens, or groups of citizens. The multicultural aspect of the SPS is important for minority groups in the country, and in particular for those having an ethnic or religious basis. A French researcher, Daniel Sabbagh, argued in [pan-3031] that a balanced combination of a multiculturalist outlook and an allegiance to the nation is important for minorities, and in particular for disfavored minorities. Adherents of ethnic nationalism can be expected to disregard their needs, and multiculturalism, if taken to the extreme, damages the national solidarity that is the only guarantee for the support of these minorities. Active support for the middle ground between ethnonationalism and cosmopolitanism is therefore arguably a requirement for national cohesion in the long run.

Responses to Challenges against the Standard Political System

One reason for distinguishing the three layers of challenges that were described above, is that each layer is associated with particular strategies for responding to the challenges. The systemic challenges in the lowest level are normally dealt with, in most countries, using a combination of education, information, and discouragement. One goal in the education of the young generation is to teach how the system works, and to obtain their commitment to it. Information about the dark sides of the lowest-level ideologies is provided through the media, and the activities of antidemocratic organizations may be obstructed in a variety of ways.

The populist challenges in the middle layer must ultimately be met by insuring that government and media are sufficiently responsive to the concerns of the population at large, so that trust is retained. At the same time, public media have a responsibility not to create distrust by using inflammatory reporting. Recent developments both in the United Kingdom and in the United States serve as reminders of these simple principles.

The variety of opinions in the top layer is of course a normal phenomenon in an open society. There is a risk, however, that a strong emphasis on cosmopolitanism may decrease the support for, and commitment to the state, for the reasons described by Sabbagh in his article.

Please observe, in this context, that there is a difference with respect to what parties should be expected to respond to these challenges. The challenges in the lower two layers are legitimate concerns for government bodies, but in their governmental roles they should maybe not be involved in the debate in the third layer. This must arguably be left to political parties and other ideology-centered organizations.

Responding to Multi-layer Nationalism

Most of the challenges and the diverse opinions that have been discussed so far are located within one of the three layers and do not go outside it. The case of nationalism is different, however, since variants of nationalism can occur in all three layers. Anders Behring Breivik's terrorism was an obvious example of first-layer nationalism, and Donald Trump's presidential campaign is second-layer nationalism as illustrated by his introduction of 'Americanism' as one of his brands. Furthermore, the surface activities of the Sweden Democrats party locates it on the third, more conventional layer, since their proposals and their activities are fully compatible with normal parliamentary procedure.

But the case of the Sweden Democrats illustrates also how the nationalisms in the three layers can be intimately connected. It has been observed repeatedly how the Sweden Democrats have a Janus face, and how even their leaders have behaved unacceptably during internal meetings or in street activities.

I shall use the term multi-layer nationalism for activism that operates in several of the layers in the model, for example combining racism or fascism with correct political behavior according to the third layer. From the point of view of mainstream society it is not obvious how to best deal with such multi-layer nationalism. The prevalent attitude, in Sweden at least, is that if an organization sometimes behaves acccording to the lowest level of the hierarchy, then one should avoid any contacts with it. Attempts on its side to open a discussion on the 'civilized' upper level shall be met with a cold shoulder, since the organization is known to be 'racist' or otherwise repugnant at heart.

There are two problems with this attitude. One is that one gives up on the possibility of improvement, so that the organization in question would abandon the lower layers of the model. The other problem is that if the organization in question advances issues and arguments that happen to be valid, for example on the question of immigration policy, then those arguments may be lost entirely. This may happen not only because the mainstream does not pay attention to arguments that come from the ill-seen organization, but also because no one else dares to adopt them for fear of being associated with the 'bad guys'.

The consequences go one step further, for the multilayer nationalist organization may actually attract more supporters when people observe that arguments that their make sense but they are being systematically ignored by what is then called the 'elite'. In this way, policies that are adopted in order to limit the influence of an organization with a populist or undemocratic agenda may in fact have effects that are the opposite of what was intended.

This analysis suggests that a better way of dealing with multilayer nationalism is to engage it separately in each of the layers where it operates.

Amendments to the Standard Political System

The concept of a nation-state was formed at a time when the world was very different from what it is today. Both cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism represent attempts to accomodate the changing reality with respect to international travel and contacts, as well as the greater variety within countries. But what should be done if one takes notice of the disadvantages of these approaches, and if one therefore wishes to defend the idea of the nation, to use the words of Aleinikoff?

The easiest is to just defend the established, standard political system as it is. This may not be convincing enough, however, and it can be criticized for not responding at all to those changes that are the driving force behind multiculturalism, such as the increased diversity within each country. Therefore, even for those who subscribe to the middle ground between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, it may be worthwhile to consider possible amendments to the basic principles of that system.

Several proposals in this respect have been put forward in my book Conversations about the Nation of Sweden, in Swedish: Samtal om Sveriges nation. These proposals are based on the observation that modern society harbors a very large number of organizations, in a way that could not have been imagined two hundred years ago (which was when the concept of a nation was conceived), and which is also quite different from what was the case one hundred years ago. This fact is one part of the reason for the challenges to nations today, but it also offers new possibilities for how we can define them.

My first proposal is therefore to consider organizations as 'members' of a nation, from the philosophical point of view, along with the individuals that traditionally count as its members. This should apply in particular for those organizations having an ideological stance of some kind, such as political parties, organized ethnic communities, organized religious groups, and the like. Under my proposal, a nation has two kinds of members: individual persons, and organizations. There will have to be a definition of the formal requirements that an organization must satisfy in order to be considered, but this should not be difficult. The important part of the proposal is that just as the nation defines the rights and the responsibilities of those individuals that are members in it, it shall also do so for organizations.

In fact, some of the currently recognized rights and responsibilities may be just as applicable for organizations as for individuals. For example, Aleinikoff's mutuality requirement applies equally well to organizations, and his permeability requirement is very important for organizations, in particular if we think of organizations that are defined in terms of ethnicity or religion. It says effectively that such an organization must not have internal rules that prevent or discourage members from leaving it, or from seeking 'dual membership' in another organization besides the one at hand.

National Values and the Membership Criterium

My second proposal concerns the membership requirements in the nation. The identification of 'nation' and 'state' is so entrenched today that one tends to assume that the citizens of the state are the same as the members of the nation. I propose that this coupling shall be loosened, so that it can be that some of the citizens are not members of the nation. The reason for this is that in the multicultural situation it is natural to adopt the view of civic nationalism, where the nation is defined by its national values. This means that only those citizens that subscribe to the national values should be considered as its members. Those who subscribe instead to the ideas of apartheid, or fascism, or a universal caliphate based on sharia legislation may still be citizens, but they are not nation members.

Since it is impossible to determine what a person's real opinions are, membership in the nation must be intrinsic rather than extrinsic; it must remain a question of personal conscience and choice. People should be free to declare whether they consider themselves as members or not, of course, but no one should be asked to prove his point. This is analogous to how one may define the intrinsic and the extrinsic (or formal) members of an organized religion.

The situation is different for organizations, which are proposed to also be members of the nation. Each organization of the type that may be of concern in this context can be assumed to have one or more policy documents stating its stance on fundamental questions, starting with its allegiance to the nation in which it operates. The document should also specify the organization's view of mutuality and permeability, for example. When such policy documents are compared in a systematic way with a definition of the national values, one may obtain an assessment of whether the organization satisfies the criteria for membership in the nation.

For example, if a branch of a religion advocates that apostasy will be punished by God, then it may well do so according to freedom of expression, but it disqualifies itself as a member of the nation since its beliefs in this respect violate the rule of permeability.

The use of the National Values as a criterium for membership in the Nation, in particular for organizations, requires a clear statement of those values, and an organized way of making the assessment. The development of such a document and such a procedure would not be easy, but it could be a quite valuable exercise.

I propose to use the acronym SPSO for the political system that would result from making these two modifications of the Standard Political System. The letter O indicates that the system has been modified so as to view organizations as members of the nation, with responsibilities and rights for them.

The Separation of Membership for Individuals

The concepts described above mean that some individual citizens would not be considered as members of the Nation. This idea may be difficult to accept at first. Why can one not consider a nation as being like a society that defines its own statutes by a majority vote, and those members that disagree with the outcome of the vote may remain members of the society none the less? But this analogy suggests at once a convincing answer to the question. If a member disagrees with minor aspects of the majority position then she is likely to remain a member anyway, but if she disagrees so strongly with that position that she does not even accept the legitimacy of the statutes and the leadership of the society, then it would not be natural for her to remain a member.

However, in the case of individuals there will not be much diffeence in practice between the two approaches. The difference is more important when it comes to organizations.

The Separation of Membership for Organizations

Under the SPSO model an organization shall be considered as a member of the nation or not be a member, based on an assessment of its statutes and policy documents. This may at first seem like a draconic system. The point is however that this is already being done in an informal way in our country, and the very informality of the system is a drawback. There is a variety of situations where an organization will be treated differently depending on whether it is considered to 'accept the principle that all individuals have equal value', as the standard phrase goes when acceptability is discussed. This criterium may determine whether an organization can receive government support for its youth activities, or whether a muslim group can receive government support for 'working against islamophobia', or whether a particular publisher will be allowed to participate at a fair. These are actual examples of situations that have occurred recently.

By current practice, the application of this moral acceptability criterium is done on the spot when a decision has to be made about government funding, participation at the event in question, or whatever the issue is. This ad hoc system means that the basis for a decision may not be thorough enough, and there is no guarantee that different organizations are treated equitably. Under SPSO the nation should have an institution that evaluates organizations for their compatibility with the National Values, in a way where the assessment can be published and discussed, and where it can also be appealed.

An additional possible advantage of the SPSO system shall also be mentioned. With the present way of doing things, the verdict that a particular organization violates basic values tends to emerge as a consensus after the publication of debate articles in major newspapers, combined with activity in social media. There is a clear danger that this kind of decision-making becomes a kind of bullying, for when a few actors have labelled the organization as unacceptable ('racist', for example), others may refrain from coming to its defense for fear of also becoming a target for the same smear.

A committee or board that assesses organizations for compatibility with a well-defined set of national values could help to remedy this problem. If an organization has been cleared by such an institution then that should close the matter, and bullying should be out of place. In fact, it would be appropriate to have a National Value to the effect that it is reprehensible to criticize an organization for something that the committee has cleared it for.

The Relation between Nation and State

The proposed differentiation between nation and state leads to a question about the character of the relation between those two. This question may be answered with a modification of the classical scenario of the 'social contract' proposed by Rousseau. We use it of course only as a 'convenient fiction', using the expression whereby Hume has characterized it.

In Rousseau's scenario, the individuals in the society or territory at hand have consented to submit to a ruler or a regime. The scenario allows in particular for the possibility that these individuals congregate and decide jointly to organize such a regime or state, and that they set the rules governing the regime. The scenario does not allow for the case that some of the individuals in the society do not wish to accept the contract.

The SPSO model can be characterized by the following, revised scenario. The individuals in the society at hand discuss how they want to organize their state. Individuals with similar views congregate and form groups, and each such group may formulate its proposal for a charter for the state. In the desirable case there is one such group consisting of a clear majority of the individuals, but there may be several smaller groups that do not accept the charter laid down by the majority. If such a strong majority emerges then it forms a nation, and this nation decides to create a state that will use the group's charter as the definition of its national values .

Hopefully the charter defines a democratic state where all members of the society are offered to become citizens with equal rights and responsibilities. However, the nation also defines a set of national values that the members of the nation are expected to live up to. To this end, the charter consists of two parts: a state section that applies to all citizens of the state, and a national section containing the national values.

The base section is kept to a minimum, in the expectation that all individuals will be able to accept it at least. The nation is inclusive in the sense that every individual in the society can become a member of the nation, simply by subscribing to the national section of the charter, besides the base section.

The national section should be limited to the formulation of 'values'. Defining additional rights and responsibilities that apply only to the members of the nation would be a gross violation of modern concepts of democracy of course. It is interesting to compare this model with the model used by caliphate-oriented islam as proposed by Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example. In their case, the 'nation' is defined as consisting of the muslims in the society at hand, and the nation's charter is based on the sharía which means that it defines many rights and responsibilities.

One problem that comes up in this context is how the notion of national values relates to the basic rights of individuals. For example, would it be acceptable if a restaurant or bar restricts access so that only bona fide members of the nation are welcome? Would this be a correct exercise of its rights to select its customers, or would it be an unacceptable form of discrimination? Questions like this need to be sorted out, but this issue actually comes up even in today's society, as evidenced by the examples that were cited above. The concepts described here might help treating such issues in a more systematic and even-handed way.

Summary and Conclusions

I have now described a three-layer model of the challenges to the Standard Political System, where fascistoid and other undemocractic ideologies operate in the lowest layer, populism operates in the middle layer, and the conventional political process operates in the top layer. I have discussed the case of nationalism as an idelology that may operate across all three layers. After this I have proposed some modifications to the Standard Political System that is the target of many of the challenges. The proposed amendment is called SPSO and consists of three steps:

1. Distinguish the concepts of nation and state, in a way where the nation is the founder of the state and formulates its charter. Most citizens of the state are members of the nation, but not necessarily all of them. It is assumed that the nation chooses to found a democratic state based on political liberalism.

2. The nation has two kinds of members, namely, individuals and organizations.

3. The charter consists of two parts: a state section that applies for all citizens of the state and all organizations there, and a national section that applies to the members of the nation. All citizens have equal standing and equal rights with respect to the state section. Every citizen and every organization may join the nation merely by accepting also the national section of the charter.

I submit that the adoption of these proposals would help to make sense of, and to alleviate some of the problems of politics in society today. In particular it may help towards a better handling of issues related to 'political correctness', or the perception thereof. It can do so by giving a certain formal status to the criteria for 'correctness' or 'national values', which would open them up for a sound debate where differing opinions are met with mutual respect.


pan-2988    Essay: A Multicultural Nationalism?.
T. Aleinikoff i The American Prospect, 1998.

pan-3031    Nationalisme et multiculturalisme.
Daniel Sabbagh i Critique internationale, 2004.

Links to additional articles on this topic are listed in the following webapge . It is part of a Swedish-language site which means that the section headings are in Swedish, but many of the articles are in English and some in French.

    Erik Sandewall



Senaste uppdatering:


Registrerad webbplats:
    Argument och fakta

Publicerande förlag:
    Volibri Förlag och IT

Ansvarig utgivare:
    Erik Sandewall


Länkar till:
   Andra artiklar

  Länk till denna artikel: www.argumentochfakta.se/artiklar/047/populism-nationalism-multiculturalism.html