Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
That was the start of civic nationalism as we know it. The ideology spread to Europe and formed the basis of the French Revolution, and later spread through Latin American independence movements from Mexico to Argentina. Even England eventually jumped on the bandwagon. Today, England is part of the United Kingdom, which united the ethnic groups of England, Scotland, and Wales under a shared devotion to Parliament and equal political rights.
Struggles of Civic Nationalism
Today, the majority of the world's nations have embraced some form of liberalism as well as a sense of civic nationalism. However, the distinction between civic nationalism and others is not always as clear as pure political theory might suggest. The reality is a bit messier.
In many places that were founded on ethnic types of nationalism but later adopted civic nationalism, there's still a strong association between the ideal citizen and membership in a specific ethnic group. Civic nationalism is supposed to be non-xenophobic, but even the United States voted to ban Chinese immigrants from entering the country in the 1882 as part of a massive effort to scapegoat an alien ethnic group for the economic problems facing the country at the time. However, it was all under the umbrella of the Chinese immigrants being considered un-American. There are even concerns in the 21st century that something similar is happening to Islamic populations in several Western countries, including the United States, though is hasn't reached the fever-pitch of the late 19th century as of yet. As some political scientists argue, civic nationalism is the dominant trend in governments, but more exclusive types of nationalism still pervade many nations.
Let's take a few moments to review what we've learned about civic nationalism and its examples. We first learned that nationalism is a sense of belonging and community shared between people of the same nation, and that the nation is the body of people and shared identity that makes up a nation-state, or country.
Civic nationalism, though, is the concept that nationhood and national identity are defined by citizenship and allegiance to a specific government or set of political ideologies. This type of nationalism opposes the more exclusive ethno-linguistic varieties that base membership on external factors. It's derived from liberalism, which is the political ideology that elevates liberty and equality above all else.
Civic nationalism was a product of the liberal ideologies of the Enlightenment, which was the 17th and 18th century 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. The principles of the Enlightenment were first put into practice in the United States, and later spread through the French Revolution and Latin American independence movements. With civic nationalism, everyone has equal access to nationhood, as long as they believe in liberty and equality. Those are ideas you've almost certainly heard of.
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