Q. Brexit took a lot of people by surprise as a specific political event, but also as an expression of some larger trends. One of those is rising nationalism despite globalization and the development of cross-border institutions like the European Union. Where are these coming from?
A. One thought that does strike me is: Why should we be surprised?
Globalization and a borderless world have been terrific for the educated, the young, the mobile, the multilingual, the multicultural. But globalization has been really tough for people whose jobs are tied to a community, whose mobility is limited by limited education, and — more positively — whose first allegiance is to their community, their locality, their place of birth.
Cosmopolitans are perpetually surprised that, A, they’re only 1 percent of the population, and, B, most people don’t think like them. …
They feel the global, mobile, cosmopolitan world is simply out of reach. Not only out of reach, but malign, in the sense that the global cosmopolitan elite are the people who are shipping the jobs out. …
This is a story not just about nationalism. It’s also a story about inequality. The division between cosmopolitans and nationalists is going to define the 21st century. Brexit is not just a little hiccup on the path toward a bright cosmopolitan future. Nor is nationalism. Cosmopolitans continually condescend to nationalism, but my patriotic pride is your nationalism, right?
Q. But if nationalism comes from positive feelings of pride and connection to one’s community, why does that often seem to manifest in fears of immigration as a threat to that community, as it did with Brexit?
A. The issue always is: Who belongs?
In many ways, global migration is exacerbating the salience of the division between a citizen and a stranger. Citizens are saying everywhere, “The one thing that political community means to me, the one thing a nation means to me, is control of my borders and the right to define who comes in and who doesn’t.”
Brexit was an amazing spectacle in which people who are recent immigrants, Indians, Pakistanis in origin, were saying, “No more Poles.” These were citizens saying: “We’ve lost control of our frontiers. Free movement of people is simply incompatible with democracy. It’s incompatible with the self-determination of peoples.”
That’s what nationalism is: “Take back control, control of our borders. Take back control of our economy.”
The problem, in a globalized world, is that all control is relative.
And here’s some more.
I do think that there’s a real disconnect between an international cosmopolitan discourse about rights — the rights of migrants, the rights of refugees — versus the way in which ordinary people in most democracies see this question.
For ordinary people, a citizen’s relation to a stranger is a gift relationship, not a rights relationship.
They think it’s up to the citizen to decide who gets in. It’s up to the citizen who decides what the boundaries of a political community are.
That’s what democracy means to them. That’s what democracy promises them: control of borders and the handing out of discretionary gifts to those they decide belong in the community.
There are a lot of Brexiters who think a decent country is generous to strangers, is compassionate to strangers. But that’s the language of the gift. That’s not a language of rights. This is an emerging theme that a lot of liberal cosmopolitan politicians — and I have been one! — didn’t understand.
This is a key element of this nationalist turn. We’ve all been slow to see that happening, but that’s a big trend going down, the distinction between rights and gifts. It helps to understand that.