Much of the debate surrounding the contemporary political realignment is dominated by a purely rational conception of politics. However, our political system, Julian Göpffarth writes, is based on the transcendental idea of the nation and the redemptive character of democracy. Failure to acknowledge this will further strengthen far-right parties and movements.

By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada (France-003348 – Liberty Leading the People) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

There are many ways in which contemporary polarisation is framed, in Europe and beyond. Nationalism against globalisation, the people against elites, East against West, technocracy against politics, to name only some. While there is some truth to all these categories, the spiritual dimension in the rise of populism and nationalism is often overlooked.

Writing about spirituality in politics is difficult. It is largely seen as having no place in the “enlightened” political communities of the West, as an obstacle of progress and a sign of backwardness – visible only in irrational populism, nostalgic far-right politics or religious extremism. Yet it is part and parcel of the principle of nation states and the very concept of democracy. Western politics is based on an idea Rousseau called civil religion. We have come to see this idea as almost second nature, in the form of nation states. The idea of the nation state holds that its politics are linked to the idea of a common nationality and nation as the basis for political action. The nation, no matter if it is defined in a liberal or conservative, civic or ethnic way, is a deeply transcendental notion of what connects people through a constructed but pervasive idea of common identity.

In the age of enlightenment, the idea of civil religion developed into one of the most successful political projects of modernity. God was replaced by Man, the absolute King by the power of the People and the Nation. All such nations represent the attempt to form a ground, a mythical foundation in the light of which the political and social order gains meaning. The nation is one way of providing a common ground, a transcendental principle that escapes clear definition and critique through rational arguments.

Thus, a transcendental moment is engrained in the DNA of Western politics. The denial of this moment is one of the factors allowing the emergence of a spiritual vacuum which far-right nationalist movements and parties can tap into. Central to their success is an elaborate use of widely spread symbols of the nation that create the feeling of community and solidarity. And symbolic politics matter. Reaching beyond the factual world, they summon a vision of a future society and, building a temporal bridge between the past and the future, offer a spiritual moment. Even if framed in nostalgic terms this carries a utopian core, a vision for a future that one might not agree with, but that goes beyond the pragmatic here-and-now of everyday politics. Many nationalist movements and parties are successful not in spite of but because of their highly symbolic politics.

Symbolic politics are not based on the factual what is, but on the normative and imaginative what should be. Their use is, of course, not limited to far-right nationalists. Barack Obama mesmerised many Europeans with his “change we can believe in” rhetoric. In a similar vein, Emmanuel Macron is drawing on the irrational by placing his presidency in the French “Roman national” tradition and alluding to former greatness by giving elaborate speeches in quasi-mythical places such as Versailles. Both inscribe themselves in narratives of hope and national redemption. Far-right nationalist politicians make a similar use of symbolic and mythical places that summon the past to imagine a future. But they do so in the service of a world view that is contrary to what Obama and Macron represent.

The point here is that the success of these politics should be taken seriously as an expression of a more general yearning for a deeper meaning in politics. Indeed, it is not only the idea of the nation that is deeply spiritual in its character but also the guiding principle of democracy: to inclusively shape the progress of a given society towards a better future. Margaret Canovan and Chantal Mouffe have called this the redemptive moment of agonistic democracy. It is not without reason that many nationalists are sympathetic to both Canovan’s and Mouffe’s argument as they draw on their idea that democracy is shaped by the agonistic struggle of ideologies that offer different paths for a redemptive future. The current nationalist turn is one expression of that, as backward as it may seem to many.

In populism, one could argue, the spiritual moments of the nation and democracy are concentrated and become a successful mobilising force. Ernesto Laclau, whose work is the basis for much of the currently booming populism literature, made a point that is often underemphasized. For him, populism is based on the belief that the people is an irrational social construct, an empty signifier that is necessary as the basis for a common political action. He argues with Heidegger that every social construct is governed by a duality: it provides the symbolic ground (Grund) for a social order, but, at the same time it also represents what Heidegger called its Abyss (Abgrund). It is always precarious and contingent and not rationally justifiable – an account that chimes a lot with Rousseau’s idea of civil religion. In a similar vein, Hannah Arendt wrote about the necessity of an absolute and undisputed referent necessary as the foundation of a common statehood.

Many nationalist thinkers are well aware of the constructed character of the nation. Instead of denying it, they argue that even if it is a myth it is one that is necessary to guarantee social cohesion. The belief in a common nationhood, so it is argued, should not be deconstructed. Rather, as French far-right intellectual Eric Zemmour argued in his bestseller “The French Suicide”, the deconstruction of the nation has to be deconstructed and a strong symbolic ground for the nation (re)constructed.

Laclau, Canovan and Mouffe describe a phenomenon that, due to its spiritual quality, is hard to grasp in a world that is still driven by a purely rational idea of politics. Jan Werner Müller, for example, writes that the core problem of populists and nationalists is that they pretend to speak on behalf of one people – a people that does not exist as a homogenous block. For Müller it is nothing but a myth. While scientifically and rationally he is of course right, this argument will not convince nationalists as they believe in the transcendental idea of a national people. Like Müller, many current politicians have difficulty responding to the spiritual challenge of nationalist ideologies as they have been socialised in a time that, as Daniel Bell argued as early as 1956, is largely post-ideological.

Far-right nationalism draws on both the redemptive character of democracy and the transcendental nature of the nation. In doing so, it appeals not only to average voters but also to a growing number of intellectuals. With its narrative of nationhood, it successfully offers an answer to what Georg Lukacs once called a “transcendental homelessness” – the lack of a spiritual home in a world that is perceived to be without borders.

The question remains: how to counter this national-spiritual return? What surely will not help as a response is a simple and pragmatic solution of “people’s problems”. Rather, a transcendental moment has to be part of the answer to far-right nationalism. Obama and Macron offer some pathways. Nevertheless, it will be one of the greatest challenges for contemporary and future politicians to formulate such an answer in a way that makes a convincing case for an inclusive, open and liberal society.

Note: We originally published this article on 8 May 2018, and have republished it as part of the Populism and Religion series.

About the author

Julian Göpffarth is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. He holds a degree in European Studies from Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics. Prior to his PhD he worked for the European Parliamentary Research Service. His research interests include nationalist ideologies, radicalization, European politics and philosophy.


Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.