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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Margaret Wente

Why populism triumphed Add to ...

The year 2016 will go down as a watershed in history. It will be remembered as the year when the postwar dreams of liberal internationalists were shattered, and populist nationalism staged a roaring comeback.

The global elites are in shock. They were sure the arc of history would bend the other way, as Barack Obama promised. They thought that ugly nationalism would decline as the forces of progress and modernity, of international treaties and institutions, grew ever stronger. As Ross Douthat pointed out in The New York Times, they thought we were destined to evolve into the kind of world John Lennon imagined in Imagine – no countries, no religion, nothing to kill or die for, all the people living life in peace.

Then came Brexit. Then Trump. Across Europe, borders have hardened again as countries insist on asserting their sovereignty to check the flow of unwanted newcomers. The common people have rejected their leaders with a thunderous roar. We don’t care what you think is good for us, they said. We want our country back.

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In this context, the Trump triumph is not so baffling. He rode the wave, but he didn’t create it. He articulated the feelings of millions of Americans who believed their leaders, of both parties, had miserably failed to put America’s interests first.

The notion that nation-states will ultimately fade away is nothing new, as political scholar Ghia Nodia points out. Marx thought it was inevitable. So did the neo-liberals of the 1990s, and the people who invented the United Nations and the European Union. They were certain that the globalization of trade and human-rights norms would dampen the forces of nationalism.

But it didn’t turn out that way. “Globalization is not necessarily good for advanced capitalist countries because it hits some people hard,” Mr. Nodia says. “That explains Le Pen, Brexit, Trump.”

Mr. Nodia is an expert on post-Cold War nationalism and democracy. (In January, he will be at the Munk School in Toronto to give a lecture on this theme, a version of which you can already find on YouTube.)

His basic argument goes like this: The internationalist ideal is floundering because enlightened liberals cling to a view of humanity that is essentially incorrect. They believe that both religion and nationalism are early stages of human development that people will grow out of. As they become more educated, they will evolve to become more rational and individualistic. Religion will fade away, and nationalism – the silly and dangerous idea that my country is better than yours – will become a quaint anachronism.

This, at least, was the hope. It was based on the idea that countries are essentially social constructs, whose foundations are contingent and relatively new. People, too, are blank slates who can be moulded by their environment and social forces.

“The core idea of a European union was hatched by big thinkers who were skeptical about people,” Mr. Nodia says. “They thought they were going to outsmart them gradually by stealth, and move integration to the point of no return.” Those thinkers are not so different from the 19th-century liberals who resisted universal suffrage because they were afraid the uneducated class would make wrong choices. (You can hear exactly the same dismay today from people who are appalled that the ignorant masses elected Donald Trump.)

But it turns out that these assumptions about human nature are all wrong. The overwhelming lesson from behavioural science is that people are guided by passion and emotion far more than they are by reason. As Mr. Nodia goes on to explain, most of us are fundamentally attached to the idea of countries and of borders. Borders are what separate us from them – my group from the group next door. People believe group differences matter a lot. Even if we’re basically alike, we’re different. (Just ask any Canadian about the United States)

We’re accustomed to witnessing populist revolts in less-developed democracies. But now, as he notes, they are unfolding in the three most deeply rooted democracies in the world – Britain, the United States and France. The growth of internationalism since the end of the Second World War has come, for now, to a crashing halt. For better or for worse, we’ve entered a post-postnationalist world.

“We think that populism and nationalism are a kind of virus that has hit democracy,” Mr. Nodia says. But perhaps these conditions are an organic part of democracy. Perhaps you can’t have one without the others. And perhaps the liberal internationalists will have to do a major rethink about where the world is going.

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