National Identity and Political Power

How Representation Breeds Patriotism

A girl with a Greek flag in Athens, March 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Among liberal elites in the West, nationalism’s bad reputation is getting worse. They associate it with white supremacy, the newly restrictive immigration policies of many Western countries, the resurgence of economic protectionism, or the illiberal populism of U.S. President Donald Trump

But nationalism also has a positive side. National identities can encourage solidarity with fellow citizens and lead individuals to sacrifice personal gain for the common good. Patriotic individuals, for instance, are less likely to cheat on their taxes, and politicians with a strong commitment to a national cause are more focused on providing public goods—such as infrastructure, health care, and schooling—and less inclined to narrowly cater to their base. Especially for developing countries struggling with political integration, building a sense of national solidarity above and beyond ethnic or regional identities is crucial.

An important question for both academics and policymakers, therefore, is why citizens develop much stronger attachments to their nation in some countries than in others. Why, for example, are Americans, Ghanaians, and Thai more patriotic than Germans and Taiwanese?

Scholars have offered a number of explanations, including a country’s ethnic diversity (with more homogeneous populations more nationalistic than very diverse ones), integration into the global economy (with more nationalism in globalized countries), or record in war. Yet my own research suggests a different explanation: people identify with their country when they see their own ethnic group represented in the national government. Political representation, in other words, breeds national identification—in diverse countries as much as in more homogeneous ones. 


Why is representation so important for national identification? Consider politics as a web of alliances: individuals are members of certain organizations, such as a professional association for nurses, that develop alliances with other organizations—the association for nurses might join with one for doctors to create a national umbrella organization for health care workers. These alliances can in turn be associated with political parties and ultimately with the government. Within these

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