Every aspiring student of political science will quote Benedict Anderson to tell you that nations are imagined communities. While there is debate over man being individualistic or communitarian there is a relative consensus over states and nations being artificial constructs. At this point any political scientist would promptly differentiate between a ‘nation’ and a ‘state’. The former is usually characterised as a ‘stable community of people’ with ‘at least one shared characteristic’ while a state is a social community with ‘recognised territory’, ‘common political organisation of said territory’, and with ‘independence from other communities’.

Both definitions are vague but a useful example to move forward with is this: Pakistan is a state, but is comprised of the Pashtun, Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi and Kashmiri nations. While we have differentiated between a ‘state’ and a ‘nation’, the 19th and 20th centuries saw a conflation of each in Europe with the idea of a ‘nation-state’, meaning there was a German state for a German nation, a French state for a French nation, and so on.

While the difference between a nation-state and a state-nation might seem academic, both share a central characteristic: a list of what ‘is acceptable’ by its members and what is not. While the past 200 years have seen states comprised of one or more nations, the acceptability/unacceptability criterion that underpins ‘nationalism’ has led to the type of violence that has made political scientists theorise of less unjust systems.

The post-WW2 world saw the creation of regional organisations like the European Union (EU) and international organisations like the United Nations (UN). The difference between nation-states and these larger regional conceptions would be the latter’s acceptance of variations of regional identities, where the idea of consistent economic development would overcome the desire to move back to nationalism. 2015 onwards saw the rise of ‘nationalists’ to mainstream discourse. Seen as throwbacks to a more undignified past, they were characterised by then presidential nominee Donald Trump and Brexit trumpeters like Boris Johnson. Viktor Orban of Hungary, Narendra Modi of India, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are associated with the term.

Throughout this, ‘nationalism’ has been considered a negative term, since it has been seen to contain in-built excesses and will invariably lead towards conflict, or at the very least serve to constrain trajectories of human growth. There is an argument that the issues faced by the world today cannot be rectified by nostalgic moves back to the past, or that these leaders actively channel the worst impulses that nationalist politics have to offer. It is true that it would be difficult to make a case for nationalism and justify the lockdown of Kashmir or the nuclear brinkmanship that led to aerial conflict between Pakistan and India. However, it might also be relevant to look into what nationalism has contributed to the world, what the intentions of those arguing against nationalism are, and why those who are clinging to nationalism are desperately holding on.

Just as all roads lead to Rome, why does the idea of the nation and the nation-state endure? Is the hot-take of ‘idiocy’ and/or ‘racism’ always true? The immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States saw the growth of the argument that ‘hate’ had triumphed over ‘love’. Barring unspeakable bungling of the response to the Corona epidemic by the current American administration leading to its ouster, a similar framing might find its way to discourse in 2020.

There is rising critique over the failings of the proposed liberal economic order and how it focused on elite-centric growth and development. Political science, like most social sciences, have suffered from the concept of normative views treated as facts. The issue is that unlike the natural sciences where phenomenon can be tested, for areas such as politics this is nearly impossible to do.

Where does all this leave nationalism? Are we to believe that nations are the present and future? It is difficult to say since the future cannot be predicted. However, it can be stated that the globalisation project as characterised in the 90s has not panned out the way elites wished it had. Any sense of hope would argue that politicians such as Modi and Trump are not politicians for the future, but similarly that ‘nations’ are not anachronistic concepts that need to be radically changed if the ‘change’ proposed does not rectify problems of the previous system.