Foreign Policy Digital

How to Compromise With Populism

It’s still possible to prevent the West from collapsing into permanent culture war—but only if it takes a totally new approach to nationalism.

In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, alongside then-British Prime Minister David Cameron and other Western leaders, proclaimed that multiculturalism had “failed, utterly failed.” In its place, an inclusive nationalism based on liberal values and state institutions would integrate minorities and attract voters from the populist right. That dream is over. The problem arises because state nationalism is uniform and rigid: neither liberal nor nationalist enough to resonate with competing constituencies.

What’s needed is a new, flexible form of nationalism, one that permits immigrant groups and white conservatives to connect to the nation in their own way. Rather than multiculturalism or civic nationalism, what the West requires is an approach to cultural politics I call multivocalism.

We are far from such an approach today. Increasingly desperate to burnish their nationalist bona fides to prevent voters defecting to the populist right, mainstream politicians from Quebec to Switzerland have been banning symbols of conservative Islam such as minarets and burqas. In 2004, France clamped down on the wearing of hijabs in state schools. From 2011, France and Belgium banned the burqa in public spaces, followed by the Netherlands in 2015, Switzerland in 2016, and both Austria and Quebec in 2017. There are also local bans in Italy and Catalonia. A philosophy of state secularism ostensibly justifies these restrictions. In Bavaria, by comparison, the Christian Social Union (CSU), fearing defection to the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) over its complicity in Merkel’s decision to welcome a million refugees into the country, made it obligatory to hang a cross in the entrance of public buildings.

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