Sweeper: The role of Populism in Nation Building

Marc Saurette’s lecture on the misinterpretation of history and it’s use within populist movements formed the foundation of our group’s discussion on the wider role of populism in the creation of the nation state. As Professor Saurette demonstrated, purposeful misinterpretations of medieval history has formed the basis of populist rhetoric which has been used by both modern and historic hate groups in order to stigmatize ethnic and religious minorities. What is often ignored however is that this same populist rhetoric of an ethnically homogeneous population and an “us verses them” mentality has also been an essential element in the creation of the European nation state. Take for example the creation of modern Germany which exists in an area historically populated by a multitude of both German and Non-German ethnic groups which was never a single homogeneous national entity. In the pursuit of a nation state the nationalist founders of modern Germany advocated the ahistorical view of a unified and homogeneous German people which were threatened by their Non-German neighbors, namely the Slavic peoples. This rhetoric is remarkably similar to the rhetoric used by the Nazi movement in Germany to justify their genocidal expansion eastward in pursuit of “living space” for the German people. While the negative impact of this misuse of history cannot be ignored, our group also discussed the role of populist rhetoric and the myth of an ethnically homogeneous population in maintaining stability within a state. As members of our group noted, much of the violence and instability that has plagued both Africa and Asia following the decolonization of the mid 20th century has been rooted in ethnic and religious conflict. This is in no small part due to the creation of artificial states by European colonial empires for the purpose of dividing territory among themselves, which fail to correlate to existing ethnic and geographic boundaries. This is further compounded by the fact that colonial powers often encouraged ethnic division and conflict within their colonies in order to destabilize opposition to their rule. This was tragically demonstrated in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide in which ethnic tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu populations resulted in the massacre of nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The strife that led to the genocide had its roots in the colonial system established by the Belgian rulers of Rwanda which placed the Tutsi minority in a position of authority over the Hutu majority in order to prevent the creation of a common Rwandan identity which could lead to opposition to their colonial rule. This policy of exacerbating pre-existing ethnic division contrasts sharply to the domestic policy pursued by colonial European powers such as France which aggressively sought to break apart local ethnic identities in favor of a homogeneous French national identity in the pursuit of domestic stability. This has led our group to conclude that the stabilizing effect of populist rhetoric as well as it’s ability to induce collective action, is in large part responsible for the reoccurring and drastic rise in both the popularity and scope of populist movements during times of crisis throughout modern history.

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