Although populism is increasingly being entangled into the mainstream, that does not dissolve the need for framing the phenomena. Irrespective of frames and competing definitions, however, populist nationalism commonly entails a nostalgic longing for bringing back the glory days of the post-war nation-state. It can thus partially be seen as a call for national restoration—if you will, a return to the nation. Ruth Wodak (2015) calls this the renationalizing of nativist tendencies. In other words, the story told on these pages, the contemporary rise of nativist populism, is one of Neo-Nationalism—which I will return to discussing further in the following chapter when examining the contemporary convergence of the otherwise distinct phenomena of populism and nationalism.
In the wake of the Second World War, the system of nation-states within a shared international architecture brought the promise of ever-increasing prosperity. Indeed, the post-war era was a period of spectacular growth and far-reaching welfare systems were instated around Western Europe. However, with growing globalization it has become increasingly difficult for governments to make good on that promise. Countries have become embedded in the same system. This has led to the gradual waning of the nation-state, a decline in national authority.
Surely, globalization of the economy has enriched many, and even brought wide economic gain to large swaths of perhaps most populations. However, while the wealth of the richest has skyrocketed, globalization has also brought increased inequalities. This has led to distrust within society and a growing feeling among many people of their lives increasingly being dictated by a detached and aloof elite, who are no longer listening to the ordinary person. A feeling of being left behind in fast-moving contemporary society while others might be prospering has fuelled support for political actors that position themselves against the globalized liberal democratic system.
The control of public authority has to an increased extent shifted to domestic non-governmental actors such as specialists, media and financial elites. Special interest has become increasingly stronger in many Western countries, often hiding behind armies of lobbyists and public relations people who guard their interests.
Politicians and public officials often become captives of these immense special interest actors, who in many cases fund their political campaigns. In addition to that, politicians have seen their influence on unelected public bodies, such as independent agencies and central banks—and, of course, on global corporations and supra-national institutions. Then there are globalized social media conglomerates, like Facebook and Twitter, who seem to be regulated by no one.
Critiques of this change have pointed to governments becoming captured by internal and external constraints which prevent them from offering a viable and plausible future for their lower-income citizens. These critics argue that governments are no longer in control of capital, which flows across border from the nation-states—for example into booming offshore zones. This, they maintain, is causing national decay.
In positioning themselves against this convulsion of national politics, one of the Neo-Nationalists’ claims to power is, then, calling for the resurgence of the nation-state, and, indeed, to free governance from the constraints of this globalized state system.
The weakness of the internationalized capital system becomes most evident in crisis, when those feeling left out from the benefits of boom-periods find themselves in further dire straits. Austerity, such as the severe measures that were instated widely in Europe in the wake of the Financial Crisis starting in 2008, brings fury against governments. Suddenly, authorities find themselves accused of not guarding their people, and, as result—thus also by default—betraying the very people they should be serving. This kind of feeling was mounting again in several countries during the Coronavirus Crisis of 2020.
In some sense then, we are dealing with a revolt of the underclasses who have become disillusioned with mainstream politics. This is the uprising of those who feel left out in the new liberal, high-tech and internationally connected economy. In some respect this is the roar of those who have grown frustrated with being silenced and sidelined within society.
In this situation, all sorts of chauvinists and other mischievous figures can rally support. Often they point to scapegoats, such as immigrants, who in turn become victims of irrational rage. This sort of politics thus brings a call for reaffirming borders, kicking out migrants, building walls—then a longing for strongmen leaders to guide the ordinary people out of a bad situation. Ironically, the rise of nativist populism brought the globalization of nationalism.