The year 2016 will be remembered for two stunning developments: the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.

Both of these events have been described (correctly) as a populist revolt against globalization. As scholars at the Brookings Institute noted, “It is worth emphasizing that a resistance to globalization was arguably the foremost policy theme in Trump’s election campaign.”

Where scholars and pundits may be getting things wrong is that idea that these developments were driven by new forces. Let me explain.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a general consensus among intellectuals that the world was on a favorable trajectory characterized by increased global harmony and robust economic growth. Progress was facilitated not just by new technology and innovation, but expanded global trade, education, and immigration.

Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay “The End of History?”—which suggested that mankind had reached an “end point” in its ideological evolution—in many ways came to typify this consensus view. Science, democratization, and reason had finally won, or at least were on a clear path to winning.

There is a problem with this view, however. It overlooks what nations were actually doing for much of the second half of the 20th century. One scholar nearly two decades ago seemed to grasp this.

“The strongest tendency of the later 20C was Separatism,” wrote Jacques Barzun, in his classic history From Dawn to Decadence. “It affected all earlier forms of unity.”

Where everyone else saw progress, Barzun saw powerful forces at work undermining not just globalism but the very building block of modernity: the nation-state.

At the outset, separatism might have seemed a mood that would pass. But if one surveyed the Occident and the world as well, one could see that the greatest political creation of the West, the nation-state, was stricken.

This was a historical narrative that ran counter to Fukuyama’s, and one largely ignored despite what Barzun would say was ample empirical evidence, on a global scale, of the movement’s vitality:   

In Great Britain the former kingdoms of Scotland and Wales won autonomous parliaments; in France the Bretons, Basques, and Alsacians cried out for regional power; Corsica wanted independence and a language of its own. Italy harbored a League that would cut off the North from the South, and Venice produced a small party wanting their city a separate state. Northern Ireland, Algeria, and Lebanon carried on unstoppable civil wars.

The Spanish Basques fought for years to break away from Spain, and Catalonia kept on showing disaffection as in the past. Belgium was rent by a language difference that is also geographical and that pitted the two halves against each other on most issues. Germany, recently reunited, was not rewelded. The former Soviet Union lay helpless in many parts, and in the one still called Russia, insurrection led to war in Chechnya and Dargestan. Turkey and Iraq had to fight the Kurd separatists. The Afghans were up in arms. Mexico faces the rebellious Zapatistas, while Quebec periodically demanded freedom from Canada. The Balkan would-be nations continued their ethnic and religious massacres for the sake of separateness.

Barzun offers a few examples of Separatism in the U.S. But it is a different (but related) force that appears to be at work here: denationalization.

Essentially, denationalization is a phenomenon Barzun saw occurring in nation-states that had lost the cultural confidence to encourage migrants to conform to western habits. As a result, the West was experiencing the same “confusion of peoples” that had plagued the Late Roman Empire. Add this to the wave of idealism that percolated across the world, and what do you have?

Separatism was rampant all over the globe. No sooner was India free of British rule than Pakistan broke away, and no sooner was the new nation separate than Bangladesh freed itself from it. The old Ceylon, a huge Island renamed Sri Lanka, carried on a civil war for more than 20 years, and in the Himalayas, India again fought Pakistan over Kashmir. The East Timorese nearly destroyed Indonesia. Where everyone looked—at Ireland, the Middle East, South America, Southeast Asia, all of Africa, the Caribbean, and the whole ocean speckled with islands, one would find a nation or would-be nation at war to win or prevent independence.

Again, it was not and is not nationalism driving this movement, according to Barzun. In fact it is just the opposite, he said. The things that had held nations together in the 19th century and beyond—common language, a shared history, compulsory military service and education, etc.—were slowly being wiped away.

One cannot help but sense a scornful irony in Barzun as he notes of scholars near the turn of the century writing monographs in public asking, “What Makes a Nation?” He offers the answer:

A large part of the answer to that question is: common historical memories. When the nation’s history is poorly taught in schools, ignored by the young, and proudly rejected by qualified elders, awareness of tradition consists only of wanting to destroy it.  

Following Trump’s win, chatter quickly turned to possible secession movements in Oregon and California; scholars have attempted to make reasoned arguments as to why this is the prudent course.

Is it possible that while nearly everyone believed a new global order was taking shape, a starkly different global trend was occurring, one hidden in plain sight?

[Image Credit: Darron Birgenheier-Flickr | CC BY SA 2.0]