Nationalism in Settled Times

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Nationalism in Settled Times
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The mid 2010s have witnessed a resurgence of nationalist discourse in the United States, mirroring
longer-term trends in the European public sphere. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have
articulated visions of their nations under siege—by immigrants, refugees, domestic minority populations, and these groups’ ostensible accomplices among the political and cultural elites. Evoking
nostalgia for the nation’s bygone glory days, these diagnoses have been coupled with sundry policy proposals aimed at making the country great again, to paraphrase Donald Trump’s campaign
slogan: from the tightening of national borders, increased surveillance of national populations,
and scaling back of supranational integration to an ill-fitting mix of foreign policy isolationism
and hawkish calls for unilateral projection of military power abroad. Narratives of the nation’s
putative failings have resonated with beliefs deeply held by large segments of the voting public,
laying bare cultural cleavages that are likely to shape election outcomes, policy decisions, and
social movement mobilization.
Although by no means novel (Berezin 2009, Gerstle 2001, Smith 1997), these developments
make clear that nationalism—understood as a pervasive cognitive and affective orientation rather
than a coherent ideology—continues to animate everyday politics in contemporary democracies.
Yet, until recently, sociologists of nationalism have had surprisingly little to say about lay understandings of the nation. Instead, most nationalism research had long been preoccupied with
exceptional moments of social transformation, such as the rise of the modern nation-state and
more recent efforts by nationalist movements to realign existing state boundaries. The contributions of this work have been notable, but its emphasis on elite-driven historical change has largely
neglected nationalism in established nation-states (Calhoun 1997, p. 2).
Building on past programmatic statements by leading theorists in the field (Billig 1995;
Brubaker 1996, 2004a; Calhoun 1997), I propose to redirect scholarly attention toward nationalism in contemporary democracies, among everyday people rather than elites, and in settled times
rather than in periods of fundamental social upheaval. To do so, I draw on five research traditions
that have considered the nation as a politically relevant cultural construct: (a) studies that examine
how and when the nation is employed in routine interaction; (b) work on the role of public rituals in heightening and reinvigorating national attachments; (c) analyses of national identity that
seek to identify the dominant representations of the nation in political culture; (d ) scholarship
on collective memory that explores symbolic struggles over the nation’s contested meaning; and
(e) survey research that makes distributional claims about respondents’ attitudes toward the nation. Whereas each approach has considerable limitations, their synthesis presents opportunities
for innovative research on this important topic

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