Secular Divergence: Explaining Nationalism in Europe

Secular Divergence: Explaining Nationalism in Europe. Brookings Institution. Carlo Bastasin. May 2019

The doctrine of nationalism will continue eroding Europe’s integration until its hidden cause is recognized and addressed. In order to do so, Europe’s policymakers must acknowledge a new, powerful, and pervasive factor of social and political change: divergence within countries, sectors, jobs, or local communities.

The popularity of the nationalist rhetoric should not be underestimated. Nationalist parties—like the Italian “Lega,” the French “Rassemblement National,” or the German “Alternative für Deutschland”—present themselves as a response to the damages inflicted by globalization in terms of impoverishment and inequality. Their rhetoric claiming that borders must be closed is simple and attractive. In fact, empirical evidence does not confirm a direct relation between open borders and impoverishment in Europe; there is also no univocal relation between economic inequality or stagnation and the rise of consensus for nationalist or anti-European parties. Finally, inequality seems to have increased more within countries than between them. Therefore, none of the reasons underpinning the claims for closing borders is watertight.

This paper offers a different explanation of the increasing unease in European societies leading to the popularity of nationalism: the development of two persistent social dynamics, the first trend driving individuals to fear their irreversible decline, and the second dynamic leading more prosperous parts of society to protect their increasing economic advantages and well-being. These dynamics lead to what I call “secular divergence,” a trend that does not coincide with the obvious inequalities, and not even only with regional inequalities. It is rather a protracted sense of marginality felt by those who fear the unstoppable decline of their profession, community, or family, and a sense of detachment among those who instead protect their growing well-being in an unstable world. [Note: contains copyrighted material].

[PDF format, 16 pages].