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White Nationalism Is Driven by a Perceived Loss of Status

New research suggests that nationalism can be a psychological coping response.
A Confederate flag during a rally to show support for the American and Confederate flags.

"Endorsing beliefs about national superiority is one way a nation's dominant ethnic group can cope with the negative psychological consequences of perceiving that their group is deprived."

Donald Trump voters, and people who identify with similar political movements in other nations, are perhaps best described as angry nationalists. But consider, for a moment, just how odd and seemingly contradictory that description is.

White populists complain they are losing ground to minorities in terms of status and power. At the same time, they assert with increasing belligerence that their country is the greatest in the world. On its face, this pair of claims is puzzling: Why would your allegiance grow to a society you feel is treating your people poorly?

According to a new study, it makes perfect sense from a psychological perspective. Researchers Nikhil Sengupta of the University of Oxford and Danny Osborne and Chris Sibley of the University of Auckland argue that the negative feelings arising from perceived group decline can be counteracted by the conviction that your country is strong and powerful.

In other words, if one group you identify with (whites) no longer provides the same comforting sense that you are a part of a powerful "we," you can latch onto the strength of a different group you identify with—Americans, or Poles, or, in the case of this study, New Zealanders. And when you do, it's more important than ever to proclaim the mightiness of that substitute entity.

The new findings "provide an explanation for the rise of nationalism," the researchers write in the journal Political Psychology. "Endorsing beliefs about national superiority is one way a nation's dominant ethnic group can cope with the negative psychological consequences of perceiving that their group is deprived."

The researchers analyzed data from the 2013 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, focusing on the answers of 15,607 participants who described their ethnicity as European. They indicated their level of well-being by rating how satisfied they were in four key areas: health, personal relationships, standard of living, and "your future security."

Respondents indicated the degree to which they agreed with two statements reflecting group deprivation ("I'm frustrated by what my ethnic group earns relative to other groups in New Zealand," and "People from my ethnic group generally earn less than other groups in New Zealand"), and two reflecting nationalism ("Generally, the more influence New Zealand has on other nations, the better," and "Foreign nations have done some very fine things, but they're still not as good as New Zealand").

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that people who felt their group was deprived relative to others expressed lower levels of well-being. But, strikingly, that same perception was linked with higher levels of nationalism, which in turn was associated with greater well-being.

This finding helps explain why "Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric often painted a grim picture of American society, while at the same time rousing sentiments of national superiority," the researchers write. Aggressive identification with your country appears to "fulfill one particular need—the need for belongingness in the face of perceived societal rejection."

Interestingly, they also found that "white New Zealanders' perceptions about their own personal status relative to others were not related to their beliefs about national superiority, whereas their perceptions of their group's status were." This observation adds to the evidence that the nationalist backlash isn't a response to personal economic distress, but rather to concerns that one's ethnic group is losing its superior status.

Evolution has seen to it that the need to belong—preferably to a dominant group—is hard-wired in our brains. This new research suggests that, if one such group can no longer fulfill that need, we'll emphasize our affiliation with another. We all love chanting "We're number one!"—so much so that we're flexible on who precisely constitutes the "we."