What Is Civic Nationalism? - Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There are different ways for nationalism to form. In this lesson, we'll check out civic nationalism, examine its history, and see where it's found in the world today.

What Is Civic Nationalism?

You've probably heard the term 'nation.' You've probably even heard of 'nationalism.' But civic nationalism? How does nationalism become civic? Let's start by defining some terms here. Nationalism is a sense of belonging and community, shared between people of the same nation. The nation is the body of people and shared identity that makes up a nation-state, or country. Following so far?

So, we know that nationalism is the shared sense of community that defines the people of a nation. The question is, what makes you a member of that nation, and how does your identity reflect that? There are actually multiple ways to define this. One of the big ones today is civic nationalism, which in the simplest terms, defines the sense of belonging through citizenship and political equality. You're a member of the nation because you're a citizen of the nation-state. Turns out, this may be an idea you've heard of, even if you didn't know it.

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  • 0:04 What Is Civic Nationalism?
  • 1:04 Elements of Civic Nationalism
  • 2:29 History and Examples
  • 5:14 Struggles of Civic Nationalism
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Elements of Civic Nationalism

Let's get into this a little deeper. Civic nationalism is directly tied to liberalism, which for the purposes of this lesson's topic is unrelated to the American concept of the leftwing side of the political aisle. Liberalism in this case, is the political ideology that elevates liberty and equality above all else, leading to political belief in the freedoms of speech, religion, press, etc. Since civic nationalism is part of the liberal ideology, it's sometimes called liberal nationalism as well.

So given all of this, civic nationalism seeks to address the main question in a liberal state: who belongs to the nation? The answer is that nationhood is granted through citizenship, so all citizens are members of the nation. Think about what this means. Any person can be part of the nation regardless of their wealth, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, or place of birth. With civic nationalism, every person has equal access to nationhood without being blocked by pre-existing factors outside of their control.

The implication of this is that the nation, the community, isn't defined by exclusive categories like ethnicity or religion. It's defined instead by a shared devotion to a set of liberal political ideologies and the government built on those principles.

History and Examples

To better understand this, we need to understand where it came from. In European history, the concept of nationalism was traditionally tied to ethnicity. People of a shared ethno-linguistic group formed nations, which turned into countries. People of the English ethnicity formed England, people of the German ethnicity formed Germany, people of the Portuguese ethnicity formed Portugal, etc.

Then, in the 17th century, a few English and French philosophers started questioning all the assumptions in their lives. What if nationhood wasn't defined by ethnicity? What if the Church didn't dictate politics? What if the king shouldn't hold all political power? What if the people deserved representation in their government? This was the Enlightenment, which was the philosophical movement that first proposed ideas like the separation of Church and State, representative government in modern nations, and the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property.

Liberalism was born in the Enlightenment, but entrenched aristocracies had no desire to give up power to the people for the sake of liberty and equality. However, that wasn't as true in the British colonies of America, where self-governance was already being practiced. In 1776, the American colonists put their liberal, Enlightenment ideologies into practice and drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The most well-known part of the Declaration reads as follows:

''We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.''

A few years after winning their revolution, the Americans cemented the idea of civic nationalism by writing the United States Constitution. This document created a government not on hereditary lineage or because someone pulled a magic sword from a stone. It wasn't a government made to represent one ethnic group. It was a government made of the people, by the people, and for the people. This new government recognized citizens of the nation as those who ascribed to these political ideals and not those who belonged to a singular ethnicity, religion, or class.

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