Nativism’s Threat: The Politics of Us vs. Them

In “The Return of the Native: Can Liberalism Safeguard Us Against Nativism?”, Jan Willem Duyvendak and Josip Kesic stand out with their profound critique of a major political phenomenon of our time.

Karel J. Leyva
Karel J. Leyva

In “The Return of the Native: Can Liberalism Safeguard Us Against Nativism?”, Jan Willem Duyvendak and Josip Kesic stand out with their profound critique of a major political phenomenon of our time: the spread of nativist logic across various ideological contexts in several countries, primarily the Netherlands, but also the United States and France.

The Core Elements of Nativism

 The authors successfully identify three key elements characterizing the logic of nativism: the designation of certain groups and practices as “native” and others as “alien,” the perception of foreignness as a threat, and the advocacy of exclusion as the preferred means to confront this threat. The criteria for distinguishing “natives” from “aliens” are manifold, touching on aspects such as religion, race, ethnic origins, and even political orientation.

The book scrutinizes the assumptions underlying the discourse on “the failure of multiculturalism,” highlighting the preference for monoculturalism as the cause of the widespread impression of inefficiency in integration policies. It relies on concrete examples to explain how the growing trend of culturalizing migrant integration has led to the adoption of monocultural policies, polarizing Dutch society and stigmatizing certain social groups.

The authors emphasize that multiculturalism has never been genuinely embraced as a normative ideal in this national context. Instead, the legacy of “pillarization” days has been used as a familiar heuristic repertoire to interpret integration policies.

National History as a Tool for Nativism

 Duyvendak and Kesic examine the crucial role of national history representations in controversies over national belonging and immigrant integration. They show that the memory of national history is at the heart of contemporary nativism in three ways. 

First, nativism denounces the supposed lack of historical consciousness and recognition of national history, especially among national elites.

 Second, nativism values the perception of national history as an essential element of national identity, with varied historical narratives.

 Third, nativism uses national history as a political instrument to solve social problems. In Dutch debates, nativists posit that the presumed self-alienation and integration failure of migrants can be corrected by a politically induced historical consciousness of the nation’s past among national citizens.

Notably, nativist sentiment now extends to the national culture of secularity, within which values such as freedom of thought, expression, and sexuality become instrumentalized. Nativists mobilize gender relations, homosexuality, and Christianity to underline Muslims’ incompatibility with Western culture, viewing them as intruders on a secular moral landscape and disruptors of the dream of a unified, secular, and morally progressive nation.

 Cultural Christianity is used to differentiate those who belong to the common culture from those who do not, thus creating a threat to the supposedly shared heritage. Right-wing nativist parties have adopted cultural Christianity as a marker of national identity, opposing Islam, and presuming that Muslims do not sincerely adhere to Dutch values, even if they are fully integrated into society.

The Intersection of Nativism and Racism

 The book dwells on how racialization and racism contribute to contemporary nativism, showing not only that racism is increasingly formulated in cultural terms but also that implicit and explicit forms of racism often stem from an underlying nativist logic. In France, Afro-descendance and Muslim religion have independent negative effects on the perception of belonging to the nation. 

Non-White individuals are culturally excluded from the national community as non-natives. Values, beliefs, and perceptions associated with whiteness are closely linked to a dominant national identity that maintains and supports a racial hierarchy with whites at the top. 

Nativism and racism, though distinct notions, are often closely allied, with whiteness at the center of the national self-image. In the United States, nativism is accompanied by a new rise in racism, which has played a significant role in waves of American nativism.

Nativism in the Liberal Left?

 Unlike a common trend in literature on nativism and populism, Duyvendak and Kesic do not merely examine right-wing nativist discourses but also study nativist trends emerging within liberal left. The authors show how the latter constructs right-wing radical nationalism as bearing a threatening difference, thus reproducing nativist logic. 

While right-wing populist nativism often views national elites as a threat to the nation due to their multiculturalism and support for immigration, nativist currents within the liberal left manifest in the construction of a nationalism based on solidarity but contributing to legitimizing nativist logic in the public space. 

The book makes an original contribution by exploring the complex relationship between nativism and liberalism. Duyvendak and Kesic highlight that although these two currents are theoretically opposed, they are often interconnected in practice. This troubling development is marked by increasing polarization between nativists and multiculturalism advocates, as well as a loss of trust in traditional political institutions.

By critically studying the links between nativism and liberalism, as well as the exclusionary practices of certain groups from the national community, the book offers a nuanced perspective on this phenomenon.

Rather than merely diagnosing social issues, Duyvendak and Kesic also propose avenues to better understand the origins of nativism, its logic, and the means available to the liberal left to counter it. They insist on the need to develop alternative narratives that take into account cultural diversity and identity issues, as socio-economic redistribution measures are not enough to address the challenges raised by nativism. 

Consideration must also be given to the majority’s affiliations and forging a common identity beyond cultural divides. Political liberalism must promote an inclusive vision, relevant to minorities and majorities. Constructing new narratives must be a dynamic process, able to renew itself according to the evolution of social and cultural contexts. 

It is also essential to restore trust at the local level and show the links between local, national, and global processes. Politicians have a decisive role to play in proposing these new narratives that oppose the alarmist discourses of nativists, especially right-wing extremists. 

The book invites us to rethink political liberalism in the face of the challenge of nativism and to strengthen social cohesion in a plural and complex world.

Critique and Future Directions

 Despite the many qualities of Duyvendak and Kesic’s work, it is essential to highlight some gaps that deserve examination. The authors reject universalist analyses based on causal processes, asserting that these neglect the importance of perception in explaining nativism. 

According to them, objective factors such as migration or economic crises are not enough to explain the rise of nativism. It is rather the perception of these factors that predicts the rise of this ideology. The authors are certainly right when they give preponderance to perceptions rather than objective facts. 

This perspective is indeed widely adopted in academic literature. However, they tend to wrongly attribute this universalist position to social psychologists and hastily refute social psychology’s contribution to understanding the nativist phenomenon.

Many works in social and political psychology have highlighted the role of nativist social identity in perceiving the threat that immigration represents to certain groups. According to intergroup threat theory, these perceptions are not necessarily based on objective threats but can be influenced by various factors, such as stereotypes, prejudices, and biased information, leading to distortions from reality. 

This theory further suggests that nativism is often motivated by the fear of losing social and economic privileges for a given group, facing competition with immigrants or other groups perceived as threats. It is not about “objective” or “universal” factors, but rather psychological mechanisms likely to activate in response to the perception of a threat. 

This perception depends, in turn, on specific conditions that make it possible. Some of these studies have also shown the role of nativist supply and the instrumentalization of uncertainty in reproducing nativist anxieties.

Perhaps the problem lies precisely in the fact that Duyvendak and Kesic focused almost exclusively on the supply of nativism and neglected the demand side. By overlooking the role played by nativist population sectors in the nativist dynamic, they fail to explain why the supply of nativism resonates with these sectors. However, it is essential to consider the active role that these sectors play in promoting and propagating nativist ideology. 

Individuals’ attitudes and beliefs are influenced by multiple factors, including their education, experience, personality, social and cultural environment, and, of course, the discourses and messages they receive. 

Therefore, factors related to the demand for nativism, such as frustrations, fears, uncertainties, feelings of exclusion, and perceived injustice, help understand why some people adhere to nativist ideas and support the movements that carry them. Ultimately, if perception is important, its heuristic value remains underexploited if one focuses exclusively on the supply of nativism.

In summary, a more complete analysis of nativism would require considering the complex interaction between political discourses and practices that convey nativist ideologies and the multiple factors shaping individuals’ attitudes and behaviors towards nativism. This would allow for the design of more effective public policies to counter nativism and its harmful consequences for contemporary pluralistic societies.

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Ph.D. in Philosophy (Université Paris Sciences et Lettres). Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal, specializing in political theory and pluralism. Editor-in-Chief of Politics and Rights Review.