Political Concepts of Democracy and Nationalism

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world has seen significant growth in liberal democracy. The simultaneous development of globalization has led to the rapid sharing of cultures and general diversity around the world as political and economic ties grew. Democracy was thriving as individuals saw an unprecedented level of freedom, economic prosperity, and choice. However, as the world opened up, each country saw an emergence of nationalism, which has seemingly grown to highly influential levels in recent years. Nationalism as a concept is not a negative aspect, it seeks to benefit and focus on a specific nation or ethnicity. Analysts typically see nationalism and democracy as contradictory phenomena, particularly because nationalism is considered anti-democratic. Nevertheless, there is potential for the two concepts to co-exist in a political system without creating inherent contradictions. The relationship between nationalism and democracy depends strongly on the type and extent of nationalism involved, but historic reality generally supports the Western perspective that the concepts are mutually hostile and conflicting.

Basics of Democracy

Democracy is a fundamental concept in politics but remains one that is commonly disagreed upon. Its general definition is characterized as a system of government where the whole population or eligible members of a state drive governance and policy through popular vote or elected representatives. This form of government is associated with “rule by the people” which signifies certain rights and liberties for its citizens (Fox and Miller-Idriss, 2008). Two key characteristics of democracy are universally agreed upon, the presence of political rights and civil rights. Political rights provide the right to participate in political life, through means such as voting, political speech, and the ability to join political organizations. Meanwhile, civil rights are the right of citizens to participate in civic life such as freedoms of speech, assembly, equal access to public institutions, and the protection of fundamental human rights.

The procedural or minimal definitions of democracy determine if a country is a democratic regime because it follows certain procedures and methods. Democratic regimes have free and fair elections held periodically that have open access to eligible citizens and have a variety of choices, with most everyone being able to run for political office. It must also fulfill the civil liberties discussed above. Some scholars have also noted that democracies cannot be overruled by an outside power and have a clear distinction between civilian and military rule (Dickovick and Eastwood, 2019). There are much deeper characteristics of democracy, such as social inclusion, equality by gender, race, and other traits, accountability, public awareness, and economic outcomes. These are more complex and do not adhere to a simple evaluation of being present or not, but countries that strive to achieve these are generally closer to achieving true democracy in the modern form.

Democracy can take on various forms, but the most common in the modern world is a representative democracy. It consists of smaller local jurisdictions selecting representatives to pursue their interests in the people, both at the local and national levels. Democratization can take on various forms as various theories indicate. There is the modernization theory which suggests that democracy occurs with economic development and social changes. There is the cultural perspective that argues that democratization happens as a cultural phenomenon, with some cultures being predisposed to democracy while others are inherently counterintuitive to it. There are democratization processes that happen due to systemic and institutional changes, whether a country is exposed to global environments promoting this form of governance or forming political institutions which support democracy (Dickovick and Eastwood, 2019). Finally, there is the agency-based approach, where individual actors or small groups serve as key drivers of change politically, but this can be democratic or other political movements as well, including authoritarian ones.

Basics of Nationalism

Nationalism is similarly a highly controversial and complex aspect, but rather than representing a form of government, it serves as a political attitude and direction. At its core, nationalism can be defined as identification with one’s nation or ethnicity, greatly supporting its interests, often at the expense of or placing it above other social or national groups. It can also be identified as a political movement that seeks to align the political unit of the state with the cultural unit, of the nation. It is a mass activity aimed at the people themselves, which compromises the cultural nation, to combine them under one overarching concept of the state through the promotion of standardized languages, national ideals, educational curricula, military, and policies, or more brutal methods of assimilation, expulsion, or genocide (Fox and Miller-Idriss, 2008).

Nationalism is based on social identity theory, which indicates that all identities, including personal ones, are constructed based on social sources and labeling others as dictated by society. Individual identities are linked to group identities, which matter the most in politics since they have the influence to govern. The most common form of political identity is national identity, associating with nations. Nationalism has both negative and positive connotations, but it is inherently an idea that nations (either sovereign states or ethnic groups of people) are the basic units of social and political life (Dickovick and Eastwood, 2019). National identity identifies individuals as a member of a specific nation, indicating that it is sovereign and self-determined.

There are many theories regarding nationalism, such as the primordial approach which argues that nationalism is biologically rooted and sociobiology, existent for as long as human groupings have. The perennial approach suggests nationalism emerged in medieval Europe, with nationalism relating to groups with their territory and language. Finally, the most common scholarly approach is modernism emerging in 17th-century Europe. Modernists suggest that nationalism must encompass the whole population, not just elites; society’s members must be equal in some way, and a nation must be sovereign (Penrose and Mole, 2008). It is important to understand that nations are inherently imagined communities, even if it is a sovereign state, but it is a community that seeks to fulfill a deep basic need for human connection.

Types of Nationalism

Nationalism can express itself along official state ideology as well as non-state movements and can be expressed based on a range of divisions including civic, cultural, ethnic, language, religious, or ideological divides. Most nationalist movements typically have some combination of these to discern their group. Two main typologies that are important for the research topic of this paper focus on their respective exclusivity. The first type of nationalism can be labeled as either Western, civic, territorial, or inclusive. This type of nationalism is more often seen in Western nations and is compatible with tolerance, and liberal-democratic institutions, and suggests that one becomes a member of a nation once one is a citizen of the state. Inclusive nationalism avoids fixed identities at its foundation but seeks to unite large diverse populations based on shared ideals or aspirations as part of the national image (Tudor, 2018). While not always the case, Western nationalism is more accustomed to incorporating immigration and is less prone to inter-state conflict. An example of this would be the United States, which is highly multicultural and diverse, and as long as these different cultures assimilate into the core ideology and declare support for the national identity, they are generally accepted as seen as ‘American.’

The other typology is known as Eastern, ethnic, and exclusive nationalism. It is more commonly seen in the East, including Eastern Europe, and can be characterized by nations not treating all citizens as members, but relying on other closed conceptions of membership such as ethnicity, place of birth, and biological inheritance or traits. Exclusive nationalism is exclusionary, it takes one group and places it ideologically superior on a pedestal, and other groups, even if living on the same territory or sovereign state are generally viewed as inferior. Such nationalism strongly counters immigration or other socio-political means of diversifying the core group or trait (Tudor, 2018). A prime example of this was Germany since the latter half of the 19th century, which prioritized the Aryan ethnicity as a higher caste of society. It eventually led to the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s ideology in the 1930s with internal persecution of other ethnic and social groups as well as external conflict partially instigating this ideology throughout Europe.

A major difference between the two typologies is that Western individualism is typically individualistic, a belief that nations are associations of individual persons. Meanwhile, ethnic nationalism is typically collectivistic, viewing the nation as having a collection agency that is conceived by members voluntarily and transcends the will of the individual.

The Assumption of Contradiction

The most common assumption, both in public opinion and among scholars is that nationalism and democracy are inherently contradictory. Historically, democracy which is the representation of interests has been closely linked to nationalism, a representation of identities. Democracy is the ‘rule by the people’ but in reality, especially after the French revolution, it became ‘by our people.’ The connection between democracy and nationalism is illogical. Democracy legitimizes political leaders that represent the desires of the people and evaluates them based on their responses to their will. Meanwhile, nationalism emphasizes leaders that represent what the people are, and nationalists would prefer a leader who is part of their respective group rather than not, regardless of their performance or qualifications all things being equal (Ringmar, 1998).

The two are mutually independent, a nationalist regime can ignore the desires of the people, while a democratic regime can be far from the representation of its people. Democracy does not entail nationalism, and the latter can exist without democracy, which is why the two concepts are often seen as antithetical. However, modern realities rarely allow for such a radical separation of these in the public sphere. Modern populations want to be heard and their collective preferences to matter, key to democracy, but also want the public sphere to represent those who are like themselves and stand for their ideals, the foundation of nationalism (Ringmar, 1998). It can be argued that despite the ability of these concepts to existing in a society, it remains a constant balancing act, and as historically shown, a shift in one direction reduces the influence of the other.


As mentioned earlier, nationalism can take on an inclusive form, which seeks to harness shared ideas and principles to create and support vibrant democracies. Unlike exclusive nationalism based on elements such as race, ethnicity, and religion – aspects that most people cannot or will not change, inclusive nationalism is attractive as it can unite virtually anyone under the same ideals. Since many values and ethics are shared across cultures, even if they are Abrahamic-based or Eastern-based, different in origin. The functioning of democratic institutions lies primarily on shared social norms and perspectives, with a unifying culture, which can exist at the level of a nation-state. By all accounts, a strong national identity is necessary for a strong democracy, as it becomes critical to maintaining a successful political order (Tudor and Slater, 2018). National identity promotes security but can facilitate good governance, economic development, fostering trust, and support for safety nets – all components of a strong liberal democracy.

Up until WWII, nationalism was an authoritarian based on the balance of power and serving as a destructive force. However, with globalization, there was seen an emergence of liberal or social-democratic nationalism. With the majority of industrialized nations being democracies, nationalism has taken on the form of promoting certain ideals described above as well as becoming a check on global elites and institutions. Arguably, the UN, WTO, IMF, and other key organizations have executives that are not elected by the people of participating nations, nor are they directly accountable to them, but these global actors hold significant power and influence. However, the revival of nationalism in the last decade is based on the failure of global initiatives to address the individual concerns of citizens and nations (Judis, 2018). There has been a gradual decline of liberal and social-democratic parties and many individuals and parties are unable to distinguish legitimate and healthy nationalism from the small-mind, bigoted nationalism that is harmful to the nation. It could be argued that there is a steep decline returning to the toxic authoritarian nationalism of the previous centuries, simply in a more globalized context.

Finally, there is the discussion of the modern United States, which technically remains a democratic state, albeit with more and more authoritarian tendencies. However, its nationalism is becoming its ‘bane of existence’ because of the increasing exceptionalism approach that is taken. American fundamentalists, particularly on the right side of the political spectrum, believe in the inherent doctrine of being ‘chosen’ as America is a nation of many tribes chosen by people, God, history, or all of them. The American brand is one of cultural nationalism and its preservation, without which many argue the country would lose its place. Nationalism is synonymous with patriotism in this context, and it is a great virtue for Americans to defend their nation and Republic (Hyde, 2019). Therefore, with the rise of globalism, when government, media, academia, and business looked abroad and adopted progressive agendas, it was viewed as detrimental as most of the projects abroad were anti-American by not supporting the long-term development of the country.

Nationalism in the United States and many other democratic nations including the UK, France, Germany, and India gradually shifted from inclusive to exclusive. That is largely because of the social issues piling up that governments are unable to effectively sell are being blamed on globalization and by extension foreigners and immigration. The countries which used to be united behind ideals and beliefs are shifting toward territorial and even ethnic exclusion, with greater calls on its leaders to pursue a more isolationist, nation-first policymaking. Partially, this stems from certain political actors fueling the trend and taking advantage of it (i.e. Trump), and partially it also stems from ignorance as the large majority of supporters for this ideology stem from the poorer and rural economic classes (Fukuyama, 2018). The new nationalism is also driven by a hunger for identity, and recognition of a style of self-knowing that operates by the opposition, creating ripe conditions for ethnocentric conflicts.

Nevertheless, this rising nationalist movement is having an impact on reducing democracy through policies. The US has seen stricter immigration laws and severe restrictions on voting accessibility and rights. Europe saw the occurrence of Brexit which was tremendously driven by British nationalism. There is an inherent movement in those countries to reinforce borders, establish domestic economic self-sufficiency, and return to Anglo-American traditions (Hyde, 2019). Meanwhile, India is seeing the rapid rise of Hindu nationalism under the long-ruling party, with Muslim Indians which encompass 14% of the population seeing their rights extremely reduced. All of these formerly highly democratic societies are driven by nationalism to reduce certain democratic freedoms for certain populations to pursue nationalistic objectives. At the national level, democracy is influenced by favors of diversity and extern of its establishment (Gabrielsson, 2016). As both are reduced voluntarily due to policies of limited immigration and the dropping of the index of democracy, democracy is under threat.

Democracy under threat goes beyond simple restrictive policies, it represents certain inert processes that highlight its degeneration. Exclusive nationalism presents a way of thought and public consciousness that is based on the opposition. It creates an “us vs. them” mentality and while healthy competition is encouraged, nationalism drives absolutes and extremist thinking that is likely to generate internal prosecutions or external conflict as nationalists feel justified in hurting others to establish their superiority. Nationalism also promotes inner fragmentation, as exclusionary behavior forces the inner population to decide who is truly a part of the nation, while anyone not belonging would face similar prejudice and discriminatory policies as other foreigners not belonging to the core group (Holmes, 2019).

Finally, nationalism disrupts democracy by distorting governance and the rule of law. Thoughtful governance would typically interfere with any disruptions to the system or democratic processes, but they are quickly labeled as unpatriotic and otherwise discredited, because competent democratic governance interferes with the self-glorification, of either the country or nationalistic leader. As often occurs in nationalistic movements, a leadership figure emerges who is viewed as the savior and problem-solver, capable of addressing all the key issues bothering the people through a nationalist agenda once given enough power. This was seen with Hitler in the 1930s, and Trump and his base in 2016. A nationalist leader is empowered with so much influence that they are more likely to violate the law and Constitution to pursue their personal and nationalist ambitions. They are then likely to attempt to consolidate power and justify their presence in leadership regardless of constitutional norms, representing the final collapse of democracy and transition to authoritarianism.


Democracy and nationalism are political concepts with complex relationships. While by their nature representing antithetical ideas, they are seemingly interrelated in many modern societies. There are cases where nationalism has contributed to democracy, but historically the rise of nationalism has led to the degradation of democracy and vice-versa. The research explored in this paper suggests that nationalism and democracy are inherently mutually hostile and conflicting.

Reference List

Dickovick, J.T., and Eastwood, J. (2019) Comparative politics: integrating theories, methods, and cases. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fox, J. E. and Miller-Idriss, C. (2008) ‘Everyday nationhood’, Ethnicities, 8(4), pp. 536-76

Fukuyama, F. (2018) ‘Why national identity matters’, Journal of Democracy, 29(4), pp. 5-15.

Holmes, K.R. (2019) The problems of nationalism. Web.

Hyde, L. (2019) How nationalism can destroy a nation. The New York Times. [Online] Web.

Judis, J.B. (2018) The nationalist revival: trade, immigration, and the revolt against globalization. New York: Columbia Global Reports.

Penrose, J. and Mole, R.C.M. (2008) ‘Nation-states and national identity’, in Cox, K. et al. (eds) Handbook of political geography. London: Sage, pp. 271–284.

Ringmar, E. (1998) ‘Nationalism: the idiocy of intimacy’, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 49, no. 4, pp. 534-549.

Tudor, M. (2018) How nationalism can actually help democracies. The Washington Post. [Online] Web.

Tudor, M., and Slater, D. (2018) How nationalism can promote democracy: evidence from South and Southeast Asia. Web.

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DemoEssays. "Political Concepts of Democracy and Nationalism." February 26, 2023. https://demoessays.com/political-concepts-of-democracy-and-nationalism/.