Civic Nationalism

What makes an individual a citizen of a nation? Is it by birthplace, ethnicity, or does a  passport determine whether you are a citizen? There's no clear-cut answer to this question, as it will differ depending on the nation in question. However, one key thing matters when looking at countries founded on civic nationalism: shared values! Now, if you're wondering how shared values make someone a part of a nation, this article on civic nationalism will answer your questions. 

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Table of contents

    Civic nationalism – Definition

    Civic nationalism is a form of Nationalism that is based on the adoption of shared values amongst citizens. It is often associated with a commitment to progressive ideals such as tolerance, democracy and individual rights. Within a civic nation, individuals aim to follow particular laws to benefit from society's privileges.

    Civic nationalism is an inclusive form of nationalism. This is because no predetermined characteristics are required to be a member of a civic nation. Therefore, every individual can have access to nationhood. Ethnicity, race or religion are not limiting factors when it comes to being a citizen of a civic nation; the only prerequisite is a commitment to upholding civic values. Therefore, within civic nationalism, a sense of nationhood can be achieved instantaneously.

    Many also consider civic nationalism a rational form of nationalism in favour of pluralism. This is because all nations within a civic state have the right to practice their own culture, as a civic nation is a political nation, as opposed to a cultural or historical nation.

    For more information on what it means to be rational in Politics, see Rationalism.

    As citizenship in civic states is voluntarily entered through shared values of rights and responsibilities, many people develop a sense of allegiance to their civic nation, which promotes patriotism.

    Civic nationalism is an inclusive form of nationalism based on the participation of citizens in upholding their civic responsibilities.

    Civic Nationalism and Liberalism Nationalism

    Most political scientists consider civic nationalism to be a form of Liberal Nationalism, and indeed this idea of the civic nation is fundamental in Liberal Nationalism.

    Liberal Nationalism is a broader political ideology which focuses on applying the principles of Individualism and Self-determination to Nationalism. This means that Liberal Nationalists believe that all nations should have the right to form their own nation-states and govern themselves and should respect the sovereignty of other nation-states.

    Nations (not to be confused with a Nation State) refer to a group of people who identify as part of a cohesive group based on shared factors like culture, religion, and geographical space.

    Liberal Nationalism is also based on Civic Nationalism, though and as such, believes in the civic nation and the ideas of a society based on shared civic values rather than ethnicity. But Civic Nationalists don't necessarily agree with the other parts of Liberal Nationalism.

    Liberal Nationalists believe in all of Civic Nationalism, but not all Civic Nationalists believe in all of Liberal Nationalism.

    Civic vs ethnic nationalism

    Civic nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism are often compared and contrasted against one another. This is mainly because ethnic nationalism is viewed as an exclusive form of nationalism, whilst civic nationalism is inclusive.

    Ethnic nationalism focuses not on chosen values but on pre-existing values such as an ethnic identity. It is upon this shared ethnicity and experience that a nation and its governance should be based. Ethnic nationalism tends to create an ‘us vs them’ distinction. You can see all of the differences in the table below.

    Civic nationalism

    Ethnic nationalism


    Based on civic values and shared political values.

    Based on shared ethnic, cultural, or racial characteristics and the idea of a shared history, language and traditions.

    Inclusivity/ Exclusivity Foundation

    Anyone can be a citizen of a civic nation.

    Requires a shared ethnicity or, at a minimum, a sense of shared history and language, which takes time to develop.


    Less of a focus on the uniqueness of each nation; instead, every nation is considered equal.

    Every nation is unique because of its different history and traditions, and it is important to protect this uniqueness by making the nation exclusive.


    A support for multiculturalism

    There is an emphasis on cultural homogeneity and a sense of cultural unity.

    German philosopher Johann Herder (1773-1803) is often viewed as the ‘father’ of ethnic nationalism as he believed that each nation has its own traditions, history and charm, which makes all nations unique. Therefore, nationalism is about upholding these traditional shared values rather than creating more universal or generic values that are not rooted in a shared history.

    Civic nationalism – Countries

    Many countries today are based on the values of civic nationalism. Below we discuss the examples of Canada, Brazil, and the USA.

    Canada is a nation based on civic nationalism. Canadians voluntarily agree to abide by Canadian laws when they are given citizenship. Canada is also based upon a constitution, which is the supreme set of laws in Canada that outlines the rights and freedoms of Canadian citizens. Canada is a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. In fact, regions of Canada speak different languages, such as the French-speaking Quebec. However, this does not mean they cannot be classed as a Canadian citizen.

    Brazil achieved independence from Portugal in 1822. As a result of colonisation and slavery, Brazil had many ethnic groups, cultures, and religions; therefore, homogeneity in those spheres was impossible. Therefore, to establish itself as a coherent nation-state, Brazil was founded upon civil nationalism.

    The USA is a nation based on civic nationalism. One can be a citizen of America regardless of ethnicity or religion; there are Latino Americans, Irish Americans, African Americans and various other Americans. The USA itself was founded upon immigration. To be an American, one must uphold the USA's civic values, which include following the law and the constitution. Participation in a civic nation is voluntary; those who want to be American in their application to be citizens agree to abide by the laws.

    Civic nationalism – Example

    Civic nationalism is not just something that can be seen in terms of state rules on citizenship; w can also see civic nationalist values reflected in political parties.

    An example of this in the UK is the Scottish National Party (SNP), a self-described civic nationalist party. At first glance, one would assume that the SNP are an ethnic nationalist party due to its desire for the independence of Scotland from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Still, the SNP does not seek independence based on ethnicity, as many ethnic groups reside in Scotland. The SNP does, however, seek the ability for Scotland to be governed based on the popular sovereignty of those who live within Scottish society and identify themselves as Scottish to resist governance by a Conservative Party that is viewed increasingly as being an English ethnic party as opposed to a civic nationalist party of the UK.

    If you notice, the SNP calls for the self-determination of Scotland, so not only are they Civic Nationalists, but we could also call them Liberal Nationalists.

    Civic Nationalism Scottish National Party slogan StudySmarterFi. 1 Scottish National Party slogan

    History of Civic Nationalism

    Before the emergence of civic nationalism, Nationalism, particularly in Europe, was associated with people's ethnic backgrounds. Those with a shared ethnicity or culture became a collective nation that established nation-states where the sense of belonging was tied to ethnicity.

    In these nation-states, there was no need to actively volunteer or buy into one's citizenship as ethnolinguistic characteristics already predetermined this. However, this idea of what forms the basis of nation-states began to change in the Enlightenment period as many thinkers started questioning the need for ethnicity to determine nationhood alongside questioning other societal aspects such as governance by a hereditary monarchy.

    Civic Nationalism Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau StudySmarterFig. 2 Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    The history of civic nationalism is also rooted in the American Revolution of 1776. After Americans won the revolution and the right to govern themselves independently, the idea of civic nationalism became entrenched in the fabric of the US through the creation of the US Constitution. The constitution produced a government that sought to govern not based on hereditary monarchy or the representation of a particular ethnolinguistic group but one that represented the people. The constitution allowed for citizenship to be established on the basis of an ascription to the political values outlined in the constitution, as opposed to other characteristics.

    A key thinker in the development of civic nationalism was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, often referred to as the 'father of civic nationalism'. Rousseau (1712 - 1778) was a French/Swiss philosopher. Rousseau argued that a state's legitimacy is determined through its citizens' participation, which refers to the citizens' rights and obligation.

    Rousseau had strong ideas associated with protecting individual rights from oppressive governments and argued that nations have the right to govern themselves. Rousseau forwarded the idea that nations have a 'general will'. This is the idea that nations have a collective agreement and a common interest in what is best for that nation. Therefore, the government should serve the general will of the people. Rousseau was a strong promoter of democracy over monarchy.

    Civic Nationalism - Key takeaways

    • Civic nationalism is a form of nationalism based on shared and equal citizenship and the participation of citizens in upholding their civic responsibilities.
    • Civic nationalism is an inclusive form of nationalism as there are no predetermined characteristics required to be a member of a civic nation.
    • Civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism sit on opposite sides of nationalism.
    • Liberal nationalism is based on ideas of the civic nation as well as of individualism and self-determination.
    • Canada, Brazil, and the USA are examples of countries based on civic nationalism.
    • Civic nationalism emerged out of the enlightenment period as well as the American Revolution.


    1. Fig. 1 Stronger for Scotland ( by Reading Tom ( Licensed by CC-BY-2.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Civic Nationalism

    What is civic nationalism?

    Civic nationalism is a form of nationalism based on shared values and the participation of citizens in civic society. 

    Is civic nationalism inclusive?

    Civic nationalism is inclusive, anyone can be a citizen of a civic nation as citizenship it is based on shared values as opposed to predetermined characteristics.

    Is civic nationalism racial? 

    No, it is based on shared values and a commitment to liberal ideas as opposed to any racial or ethnic distinction

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    According to Rousseau, what is the legitimacy of a state determined by?

    How is the Scottish National Party a civic nationalist organisation?

    Which of the following are civic nationalist opposed to?


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