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ASN and ASEEES issue a statement of concern over the detention of Stas Gorelik in Belarus.

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Interview with Katie Stewart

February 26, 2021

Nation-building studies usually focus on democratic or autocratic nation building, and tend to examine each type either from above or from below. In this State of the Field interview, Professor Katie Stewart discusses the limits of this framework and other insights from her article “Democratic and Autocratic Nation Building,” and shares with ASN why certain nation-building strategies and myths continue to persist.

katie Stewart

ASN: In the article you argue that studies of nation-building processes in democratic and autocratic societies employ the same theoretical framework. What is the main advantage of disaggregating analyses of these societies?

KS: If we study nation building as a singular, monolithic process, we run the risk of accepting the nation as a singular, whole entity as described by nation-builders. By disaggregating analyses, we can pick up on variation in how nation building is implemented on the ground, and find areas of contestation or cooperation between different levels of government and between state and society. We can then enhance theories of nation building by explaining variation in implementation, success, and contestation, and by getting into the causal mechanisms of how specific nation-building tactics do or don’t work.

ASN: What are the differences between democratic and autocratic nation-building strategies, and why do some democracies (your article mentions the U.S. and Poland), pursue autocratic strategies?

KS: The specific tactics used in nation building (education, monuments, museums, holidays, etc.) are very similar for both democratic and autocratic nation building. Both strategies are also designed to strengthen state and regime legitimacy, to strengthen the idea that the state borders appropriately encompass a united political community, and that the current regime and its representatives rightly have the authority to govern that community and territory. What differs is that democratic strategies are focused on improving inclusion into the political community and into positions of power, while autocratic strategies are focused on concentrating power into the hands of a few. The difference is also marked in how nation building integrates with other political institutions and state-society relations that either create or close opportunities for voice.

As Bueno de Mesquita and Smith point out in The Dictator’s Handbook (2012), the nature of power in democracies and autocracies isn’t all that different as leaders in both seek to gain and hold on to power. Variation in constraints and incentives is what leads to more democratic or more autocratic forms of governance, and also more democratic or autocratic nation building. Ethnic politics is not the reserve of developing countries. It can be very effective in the United States as well. Campaigning on a narrative that the nation is under threat is an effective way to get votes if it’s tapping into sentiments of fear and hatred that are already present in society. In the US, racism and fear of demographic change make campaigning and delivering on promises to protect the white-centered view of American history a viable strategy for winning elections. In Poland, fear of and distaste for liberal EU policies and influence incentivizes appealing to a Catholic Polish nation through policy and rhetoric as a means of consolidating power.

ASN: Early theories of nationalism focused on Europe. How has the scholarship changed as its theoretical locus shifted beyond the West and expanded to include both autocratic and democratic models of nation building?

KS: The expansion of scholarship beyond Europe has been essential to understanding variation in nation-building pathways, challenges, and effects. I think we’re finally beyond the East/West dichotomy that portrays nation building in Western Europe as a positive, civic construction of nations and nation building elsewhere as negative and focused on ethnic exclusion. By expanding the universe of cases we’re studying and by increasing recognition of scholars from outside of Europe and the US (though still a work in progress), we are getting a better sense of which aspects of nation building are more universal and which are more context bound. For example, there’s now greater analysis of the impact of international relations on nation building as post-colonial boundaries frequently cut across ethnic or religious communities.

ASN: You write that nation building occurs on multiple levels: in the government, in the media, and through everyday action. How do these levels interact?

KS: The interaction of these levels very much depends on the degree of government control of the media and constraints placed on the public sphere. In democratic nation building, where there’s a greater emphasis on power sharing and access to the nation-building process, the media serves as an intermediary in government-society relations. It relays government actions and narratives to the public and reports on everyday action to the government. Nation building in this case can become a cooperative process. The government frequently draws upon pre-existing practices and narratives in constructing the nation to ensure its resonance, as nation building will be most successful when people see themselves in the government-promoted symbols, narratives, and communities. This interaction can also turn competitive or corrective when everyday action does not align with the government’s nation building activities. When this mismatch occurs, governments can either shift their actions to incorporate the identities reflected through everyday practices or leave them as an alternative outside of the dominant, government-supported national identity. In autocratic nation building, the media will be more of a one-way channel from the government to the people, reflecting the government-approved national narrative and appropriate practices. Competing nation building through alternative everyday practices in this case becomes a direct challenge to the government’s hold on power. It is therefore either restricted through policy or coercion, or pushed to the margins, uncovered by media and unseen by the majority of the population.

ASN: You write about the power of “father of the nation” myths in nation building, both for leaders and subjects. Why does most rhetoric on nation building retain “patriarchal” qualities? Could there be a switch towards a more gender-neutral or even “matriarchal” vision of a national community?

KS: There certainly can be matriarchal visions of national communities, but patriarchal visions are more common. For example, in the US, we are taught about the “Founding Fathers” rather than the “Founding Mothers.” This emphasis on “fathers of the nation” is due in large part to the placement of nation building in the realm of politics, which, unfortunately, is still male dominated in many ways. While the fathers are the builders and protectors of the nation in the political sphere, women and mothers are placed as protectors of the nation in the cultural and domestic realms, passing on national languages and traditions to the next generation. Of course, women are also influential nation builders and engage in politics outside of the home, but national narratives frequently overlook these actions. This is another question where cases outside of the European context with histories of stronger matriarchal structures can bring more insight.

ASN: You suggest that to test the causality of nation-building actions and national attachment, future studies could focus on individual nation-making activities, like the building of monuments. What is one national monument you would like to see studied?

KS: As a comparativist it’s difficult to pick just one monument! In Summer 2019, I conducted fieldwork in Estonia and observed the recently constructed Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Tallinn. There are multiple examples of relatively new monuments and museums dedicated to victims of communism in different countries, so I’m very interested in comparing their form, intended purpose, public reception, and place in national narratives.

Katie Stewart's full article "Democratic and Autocratic Nation Building" is available on the Nationalities Papers CUP website.