Before the Brexit vote, a colleague from Belgium expressed to me her belief that national identity “is just a social construct.” At the time, the social phenomenon of transnationalism, based on interconnectivity, easy international travel, along with the economic benefits of mobility for jobs in other countries, was thought to be a surging force in the world.
As an American, I was a bit startled by her statement, and thought to myself, “It’s easy for her to think that, coming from Belgium. But few Americans think their identity as an American is just a social construct.” Perhaps it was a sign that I had been living outside the US for years that I found the concept plausible.
Indeed, in our world of international academia, international schools for our children, English as the language of education and commerce, friends and colleagues of all different nationalities, it certainly looked like transnationalism was a growing phenomenon.
The shock of Brexit, Trump’s US presidential victory, and nativist actions throughout Europe have certain shaken such notions. Before Brexit, in “Britain’s elites can’t ignore the masses,” Megan McArdle wrote on Bloomberg.com:
“Somehow, over the last half-century, Western elites managed to convince themselves that nationalism was not real. Perhaps it had been real in the past, like cholera and telegraph machines, but now that we were smarter and more modern, it would be forgotten in the due course of time as better ideas supplanted it.
“That now seems hopelessly naive.
“People do care more about people who are like them — who speak their language, eat their food, share their customs and values. And when elites try to ignore those sentiments — or banish them by declaring that they are simply racist — this doesn’t make the sentiments go away. It makes the non-elites suspect the elites of disloyalty. For though elites may find something vaguely horrifying about saying that you care more about people who are like you than you do about people who are culturally or geographically further away, the rest of the population is outraged by the never-stated corollary: that the elites running things feel no greater moral obligation to their fellow countrymen than they do to some random stranger in another country. And perhaps we can argue that this is the morally correct way to feel — but if it is truly the case, you can see why ordinary folks would be suspicious about allowing the elites to continue to exercise great power over their lives.
“It’s therefore not entirely surprising that people are reacting strongly against the EU, the epitome of an elite institution: a technocratic bureaucracy designed to remove many questions from the democratic control of voters in the constituent countries.”
In a follow-up column, “Citizen of the World: Nice Thought But…,” McArdle observed:
“Unhappily for the elites, there is no “Transnationalprofessionalistan” to which they can move. (And who would trim the hedges, make the widgets, and staff the nursing homes if there were?) They have to live in physical places, filled with other people whose loyalties are to a particular place and way of life, not an abstract ideal, or the joys of rootless cosmopolitanism.”