Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation

The nation as a constructed concept frames a commonality amongst citizens who live within the borders of a defined land mass. The conceptual common terrain of nation has provided a large part of the ground upon which the idea of a public was built. Though a plausibly common terrain, it is also an arena of contestation. Different particular actors within nations vie for hegemony — to shape both power relations and the symbolic universe through which relations and reality are interpreted. Other particular actors have to emerge, to construct themselves (i.e. to organize), and to demand their place and their rights as equals within—as part of—the nation and the public.

Here by actors I mean groups, aggregations, identities, etc. that congeal and organize sufficiently to develop the capacity for aligned collective action. The emergence of such actors requires some articulated common aspect of identity (e.g. women, blacks, workers of the world, Protestants, etc.). That commonality, internal to the identity of the actor/aggregation, also defines ways that members of the group are different from others. Such aggregations, if they are to become political actors, must simultaneously perform two challenging identity-related tasks: bonding and bridging. (I was introduced to the bonding and bridging terminology through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

Bonding: The group has to articulate and celebrate its particular internal commonality — the thing its members hold in common, which is also the basis of their difference from others. This bonding is the political actor’s premise and source of collective motivation, dignity, strength, and organization.

Bridging: The group has also to appeal to a potent commonality beyond the boundaries of its particular identity. Within a heterogeneous public, the political actor/challenger must assert itself as a legitimate contributing member of that public. It must appeal to the solidarity that is projected onto the imagined community of the nation — solidarity that is felt by those who identify with the nation. It must enlist specific allies (i.e. other actors within the nation) to support its claims. It cannot do this effectively without appealing to a potent commonality larger than itself. Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.4: imagined communities & populist alignment)

Modern society significantly complicates the group-oriented identity framework I’ve been discussing (in parts one, two, and three). Most of us juggle multiple roles in multiple spheres, each of which holds a degree of our individual identity. The temptation is to then look at identity as a predominantly individual matter. But each sphere of an individual’s fragmented life has its own group logic and group processes of constructing values and identity. It is no small development, however, that people in societies like ours now have more individual agency to choose how much of their identities to invest into which groups.

The term group can mean many different things. A group may be proximate, fully definable, and localized, such as one’s village, workplace, or place of worship. It seems logical that, if we do indeed have group-oriented instincts, these would have evolved in some such proximate, localized groups. But today, “group” can mean much more; for example, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nation, economic class, political ideology, hobby, or sports team. With the label generic given group (introduced in part 3), I am accounting for this broad spectrum of kinds of groups, and I am implying that we tend to project group-oriented instincts onto the full gamut of social aggregations and constructions, to a greater or lesser degree that is proportional to our level of identity with the given group. Continue reading