Civic Nationalism vs. Ethnic Nationalism

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  • 0:03 Nationalism & the Nation State
  • 1:21 Ethnic Nationalism
  • 3:43 Civic Nationalism
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How are nations created? In this lesson, we're going to examine the ideas of civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism and see how each is used to help build and maintain the nation-state.

Nationalism & the Nation State

What's your national identity? There's a lot more that goes into this question than you may think. In the broadest terms, we're talking identification with a specific nation-state. Okay, so what's that?

A nation-state is a combination of two things: the nation, and the state (no big surprises there). A nation is a community of people who share a common but broad identity, and the state is the political unit which binds them together within a set of defined borders. In essence, a nation-state is a country, and nationalism is your identification with that country.

The nation-state was most famously described by historian Benedict Anderson as an ''imagined community,'' because the members will never meet all the other people of the nation-state but still share a sense of unity and belonging with them. Think about it; you will never meet every person in your country, yet you're connected by national identity. Nationalism exists because we create it; the community exists because we imagine it.

Obviously, nationalism and national-identity are important to many people; so where does it come from? How do nation-states form, and how are the held together? There are two main ways we can see the imagined community within communities that are very real.

Ethnic Nationalism

First is what we call ethnic nationalism. In this theory, the nation is created by a shared ethnic and/or cultural identity. Basically, people with common language, religion, customs, and cultural traditions are united through their commonalities and form a nation. That nation is the basis for the state, the political structure, and borders. This means that in ethnic nationalism, the government must identify with a single ethnic group and be seen as representative of them.

We can also understand ethnic nationalism by what it's not. Since ethnic nationalism creates national identity through pre-existing characteristics like ethnicity, it's not based on any sense of equal political or social rights. Divisions by class and wealth can exist without being seen as immoral or unfair because the nation isn't defined by political unity, just ethnic unity.

This also means that people who do not fit within this ethnic category are labeled as outsiders and are often marginalized or discriminated against. In a society built on ethnic nationalism, immigrants must fully assimilate into that culture and give up any sense of previous linguistic, cultural, or national identity. Even then, there's a chance they'll still be seen as outsiders.

Ethnic nationalism was the basis for the first nation-states of Europe. When people first started organizing into countries with defined borders, it was generally along ethnic lines. The English formed England, the French formed France, and the Germans formed Germany. The state was built on the ethnic nation. This is one reason that Jews were so heavily persecuted throughout European history; as outsiders who were unwilling to abandon their Jewish heritage and customs, they didn't fit within the ethnic nationalist state. Although as these societies' values changed, so did the Jews' level of societal assimilation.

Ethnic nationalism reached its fever pitch in the 19th century, as ultra-nationalist attitudes led to competition between ethnic groups, hatred, and even genocide. Empires like Germany used a sense of ethnic nationalism to justify expansion; they were just trying to unite all the ethnically Germanic people. The result was World War II and all the atrocities of that conflict - including the Holocaust - in which civilian populations were often targeted as rival ethnic nations.

Civic Nationalism

So, if the English live in England and the French live in France, then who lives in the United States of America? There's no such thing as a United-Statesian ethnicity. That's because the USA is an example of a country founded not by ethnic nationalism, but civic nationalism.

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