There has been a growing amount of political rhetoric aimed at strengthening the sovereignty of independent nations (nationalism), with a particular emphasis on resolving the exploitation of a nation’s private citizens by its political elite (populism). That said the way it is, this doctrine sounds ideal for democracies in the West struggling with the realization of a continually globalizing economy. As with other political movements, its actual execution looks a lot differently in practice than it does on paper. The meanings of nationalism and populism are defined by the constraints of modern cultures, spaces, and time. What these concepts appear to mean today reflects deeply seated and unresolved racism, various social phobias, and a belief of superiority of some humans over other humans and non-humans.
There are three familiar examples of this movement we will examine throughout this essay. Just within the past year, we have observed the British referendum to leave the European Union, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and now the advancement of Marine Le Pen to the French presidential run-off. Throughout some of these campaigns a spirit of revolution was invoked, explicitly or implicitly, but it is up to us to determine whether these campaigns are really revolutionary. In a previous post, we discussed how revolutionary antiestablishment rhetoric actually is the establishment now. In this essay, we will briefly explore the what revolutionary culture looks like in modern democratic nations using the case studies of Brexit, Donald Trump, and the French presidential elections.
Are these case studies truly revolutionary? In the past, the examples of Britain, the United States, and France show revolution as a way to change, evolve, or form a democracy from another type of political institution. In these cases, the transition was away from authoritarian forms of government (monarchy) to a people-centered form of government (democracy). These revolutions were fueled by the purest sense of populism, as defined above, creating sovereign nations governed by the people themselves through popularly elected officials.
Some political campaigns refer to themselves as revolutionary, but are distinctive according to various contextual elements such as history, culture, and the current political climate. Regardless, being revolutionary in modern times, most especially in a democracy, looks quite differently than it did at the founding of the United States (or France or even modern Britain). In fact, I argue that there is nothing revolutionary about Brexit, Mr. Trump, or Ms. Le Pen.
Britain has long been fickle about its membership in the European Union, so the referendum results verifying a slight majority wanting to leave the EU is not all that surprising. The election of Donald Trump speaks to the economic and political frustrations of an angry electoral base, but a billionaire hardly understands the plight of the common American man and woman (and neither does a millionaire). The ever-growing dissatisfaction with France’s two major political parties paved the way for a political newcomer or an extremist candidate to be the next President of France, but the governing styles of either candidate will have to be similar to his/her opponent because they still will be president in a democracy. Political candidates and movements, while capturing some spirit of revolution, are limited in just how revolutionary they can be as a result of the constraints of democratic institutions.
It is unlikely that Ms. Le Pen will garner enough support to become France’s next President because she does not accurately represent the values of French people. The same is said for the results of the British referendum to exit the EU, which correctly represents British culture. And, whether you accept it or not, Donald Trump does represent some aspects of American values pretty well. In fact, this may be what revolutionary means in modern democratic institutions: reflecting the ever-changing and dynamic culture of its people.
With that in mind, maybe we should take a closer look at the people and nations we are becoming instead of getting caught up in fighting natural and dynamic changes in our cultures. We cannot stop immigration from happening for it is an essential component of our economies now. We cannot stop disappearing coal and oil reserves because they are finite resources. We cannot even stop the rapidly expanding use of technology that consolidates our economies in both good and not-so-good ways. We can, however, keep our elected officials more accountable, promote educational opportunities that better prepare our fellow citizens for entry into the workforce, and defend our constitutionally protected rights to freedom.
In these ways, we maintain a sense of our revolutionary spirit by meaningfully caring our nation and our peoples.