The recent gubernatorial election in Virginia and the British government’s campaign against “woke” cultural institutions provide the latest evidence that white nationalism is becoming the unabashedly central ideology of the traditional parties of the right on both sides of the Atlantic.
Confoundingly at a time of widespread economic distress, Republicans in the United States and the Conservatives in the United Kingdom are united by their invocations of national glory, resolves to recover it, antipathy to immigrants, and targeting of institutions deemed insufficiently patriotic or overly indulgent of sexual, ethnic and racial minorities.
Remarkably, Hindu nationalists have waged each of these culture wars in India since the 1980s. Their stunning success underscores the treacherous turn lately taken by the democratic revolution that has been sweeping the world over the last two hundred years.
In recent decades, and largely due to economic globalization and the communications boom, social hierarchies and consensuses built during a politically quiescent time have cracked even faster. Long powerless and voiceless peoples have become more vocal in their demands for individual rights and dignity. Many more of their representatives — women, people of color, Dalits, LGBTQs — have become increasingly prominent in public life.
Those who enjoyed uninterrupted authority for decades, if not centuries (whites in Anglo-America and upper-caste Hindus in India), find their identities unnervingly destabilized.
Politicians and intellectual entrepreneurs offering to reconstruct these identities, and rebuild lost hegemony, are unsurprisingly in the ascendant after a period when social liberalism and multiculturalism seemed as irreversible as economic liberalization.
This backlash from resentful forces of the status quo became manifest in India in the late 1980s, when the country’s democracy, manipulated for decades by upper-class paternalists, finally started to include more low-caste Hindus.
It is worth remembering that a belated extension in 1990 of affirmative action to lower-caste Hindus by a progressive prime minister was what propelled the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of the political margins and into the mainstream.
The party, devoted to a traditional social order, shrewdly channeled upper-caste anxieties about loss of status through a rousing cultural war. It insisted that India’s Hindu majority had been consistently discriminated against, and minorities pampered, by liberals in the centrist Congress party that had ruled India for decades. It accused its rival of instituting an educational system that disdains the religion and culture of the majority. It attacked universities for their allegedly high concentration of leftists.
Since low-caste Hindus could not be directly targeted without severe electoral consequences, the Indian Muslim came to signify the over-indulged and treacherous enemy — the figure who is insidiously undermining the social and economic order.
However, upper-caste support, and the demonization of Muslims, weren’t enough for the BJP to win power in New Delhi. It took skyrocketing inequality and corruption amid an economic slowdown together with the mercurial figure of Narendra Modi, a non-upper-caste politician with a Horatio Alger-style autobiography, to cut across caste barriers and assemble a winning coalition — one that protects the interests of the party’s old upper-caste base while promising equality and prosperity to newcomers.
Likewise, old elites within the Republican and the Conservative parties needed outliers like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to break up voting patterns based on class, race and education, and to take a ruthless culture war against the liberal establishment, minorities and immigrants deep into schools, universities and homes.
The white nationalists, like the Hindu nationalists, may seem to have found an effective way of defusing the democratic revolution: converting, during a time of economic setbacks, ardent demands for equality and dignity into a catalyst for free-floating rage and rancor against multiculturalist elites and aliens. But these representatives of the challenged old order are in danger of overplaying their hand.
The problem with stoking social antagonism in irrevocably diverse societies is that, as Frank Luntz, former adviser to the Republican Party and author of a report warning against culture war in the U.K., puts it, “the conflict and divisions never end.”
India offers a grim warning in this regard. During its seven years in power, Modi’s party has managed to assert control over every major institution in the country — from the judiciary to the universities. The U.K.’s Conservatives plot endlessly to subvert the BBC; and the U.S. Republicans hope to receive unswerving loyalty from sections of the Murdoch-owned media. The BJP has ideologically co-opted almost the entire electronic media, legacy and social, in India.
However, having arrived in power after relentlessly identifying various enemies of the people, Modi has shown himself capable of little more. Unable to govern competently, he has ramped up the culture war, assisted by his mammoth propaganda machinery. Consequently, the social fabric of the country has been shredded, and economic recovery from the pandemic, if and when it occurs, is no guarantee of repair.
The Republicans and the Conservatives, currently on a winning streak against a fragmented opposition, should be wary of such catastrophic success. There is no quick or obvious way, during a devastating economic crisis, to accommodate demands for identity, security and dignity from long subjugated and silent minorities. But the white nationalist strategy of self-perpetuation through a rancorous culture war threatens to open the gateway to hell — an extensive and uncontrollable disorder.