Commentary: The Fate of the Nation State

Every ten years, the U.S. distributes a census that was first established in 1790 (US Census Bureau), approximately one year after the inauguration of the U.S.’s first president, George Washington. It was established to provide political power to states and territories based on population rather than wealth or land ownership. Nearly 230 years after its adoption, the census continues to count the heads of inhabitants – counting everyone once, and in their respective place. Mark the appropriate box, and you are included in the database – a member of the nation that will shoulder the concerns and needs of you and those like you. Don’t know which box to check? You risk not being counted: Counted in the way that the American forefathers decided to divvy power before Blacks, Native Americans, or women had rights – before the harbors opened up to an influx of immigrants and refugees, and before the nation was defined by Northern and Southern borders that stretched all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The census is a system of counting heads but not stories, and preliminary results of the 2020 census reveal just how hard it is to do that. With data showing that more and more Americans identify themselves as multi-ethnic, we are witnessing the socio-political effects of globalization and a diversifying American landscape. Far-right/white racial extremist groups are retaliating, however, with propaganda fueled by fears of a declining white population, a sentiment bound in misconception. Though it is true that a decrease in the number of people who checked-off only the “white” box for race on the 2020 census is visible, the number of people who checked off “white” and one or more other racial categories increased in the last decade. Welcome news to this author, race is increasingly considered a diffuse category, and will perhaps one day become an invalid metric for characterization.

In the meantime, however, the United States is reckoning with its past, as progressive thought challenges the notion of white nationalism, and white racial extremist groups fight back in fear that their false white status will be taken away. Therefore, the history and growth of our nation state must be acknowledged as we grapple with a new American identity fueled by a changing demography and globalization.

As colonialism took rise and sent the Spanish, English, and Dutch overseas, Native American cultures were dismantled. In colonialism’s wake, nations grew, wrapped in the cloak of a new and promising land for Europeans. Starting in 1790, the census began counting the heads of these new immigrants in America, people with lineages from another continent, yet who were claiming the American soil as their own. Nationalism grew in the new country that was individualistic in character and Christian in belief: “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”. Meanwhile Native American cultures experienced a near erasure as manifest destiny took root and sent the new Americans west. They were discarded, and have remained in the shadows for centuries, with little voice counting towards a collective census. To many, the nation state is fallacious. Up until the 21st century, a perfect fit between politics, the economy, and information made the nation state successful as a conduit for citizen pride and benefits. Nationalism thrived in this environment, where the “unwanted” could remain mostly unseen in the shadows and without much political power. Globalization and technology have since brought the shadowed voices forward, and extended their reach far and wide, consequently shaking the blindly adopted dictates of the fraudulent nation state.

To originate from a land, yet be excluded from the collective demarcation of that land, is the unjust condition of many Americans, and many scenes around the world: India’s caste system, conflicts in the Middle East, and the European refugee influx. So how can we address ethnic inclusivity? Most nation states didn’t have to address this question before the 21st century, as the proliferation of information remained virtually contained and controlled within national borders. This is not the case anymore.

Nationalism’s largest threat is the expanse of human reach, the need to connect and move – a need that has been satisfied with the industrialization of technology. Paper trails outpace flight transportation, and with the invention of the internet, borders are becoming harder to buttress. Thoughts, ideas, inventions, and beliefs, posted in the ether or scribbled on paper, are landing in different nations every second, changing their landscapes at a rapid pace. The speed at which nations are changing, the migration of thought followed by bodies, is colliding with a fearful resistance. Thoughts have helped people move and migrate, and nations are now more than ever powerless at controlling them. Technologies like Facebook and Google have amplified the reach of thought, and nationalists are fearful of these un-vetted ideas landing in places that could sway allegiance away from the nation; pockets of nationalism are rising as the growing sentiment of injustice is migrating and proliferating in the very shadows the nation state created.  

A new nationalism reigns mighty in an America where 48.6% of its voters cast a decision on the campaign promise to “put America first,” and America is by-no-means alone. In other parts of the world, Germany has seen a rise in support of the Alternative für Deutschland party, an ultra-nationalistic patriotism, and many western countries employed a “nation first” COVID-vaccine deployment strategy; however, globalization is a fast-moving train, speeding down the oiled tracks of trade, migration, and tech, preparing the world for a new kind of global citizenship. The nation state can no longer hold off 21st century efforts to accelerate ideas and information; however, the old ways are still enforced, causing fractures in national politics.

How people identify personally, and how establishments identify people are largely in conflict given the diverse human makeup; however, things are changing. Labels are becoming obsolete as technology allows us to disguise and hide ourselves, and documents are proving insufficient at conveying the abundance of information that is individual human experience. World views are becoming increasingly progressive (e.g., gender is becoming more fluid and forms of racism are being upturned in places we thought it didn’t exist). People are uprooting, and going to extreme measures to choose new identities, reflecting an innate migratory nature, and the nation state is not changing fast enough to accommodate human kinetics, both in body and thought. Citizenship, too, is in need of reform. At its worst, it is an asset that can be boasted, bought, handed down, and exploited to gain privilege. A commentary in the Guardian reads, “even [Trump’s] poorest voters, after all, possess one significant asset – US citizenship – whose value he can ‘talk up,’ as he previously talked up casinos and hotels.” Nationalism sees citizenship as a tool of privilege, wielded to maintain a false hierarchy, inimical to true national prosperity.

I remember learning in my Sociology of Religion course that the success of any one religion is due to its dogmatic leaning, its ability to provide hard-lined rules that are easy to follow. A guide book, so to speak, provides people with the answers to ambiguous questions, a path by which to live your life, and directives about categorizing people, so that when a religion fails in this respect, fractures develop in the ideology, and factions and sects begin to split off with new dictates. Like the Earth itself, quakes in systems either reinforce or split its foundation. In a world with approximately 6 billion people, there is no one-system-fits-all model. If nationalism is a religion, in that it provides its believers with a sense of rules to follow, then we are witnessing the fractures my professor spoke of; we are witnessing cracks in the belief of America. What many of us feel, as an ominous evolution in national politics, including the rising calls of nationalism, is actually the growing charge of cultivated and unrestricted ideas that are succeeding in quaking the world’s nation states. Whether the nation state ultimately expires, or a resurgence reinforces its sway on its own operations and civilian identification, will depend on how the majority are heeded. From the imagination, our nations have been constructed, and our systems conceived, and just like these manifestations have been transfigured, forgotten, or even destroyed, so too is the nation state mutable.