Patriotism versus Nationalism

This topic has been on my ever-growing list of blog ideas for a while and given the date and the election season it seems like a good time to write this post.

I think a core difference between patriotism and nationalism is whether or not you view the world as a zero-sum game.  I've grown concerned over the nationalistic push that seems to be growing in the United State partly because of the view that the United States can only succeed at the expense of other nations (and at a personal level, individuals can only succeed at the expense of other individuals).

The zero-sum viewpoint isn't useless and it comes from a very primal instinct.  When resources are scarce then a zero-sum model is fairly accurate. But, comparatively and for most intents and purposes, we, in the United States specifically (and, generally speaking, the world at large), don't live in a world with scarce resources.  The zero-sum model is not accurate and we need to get past this simplistic method of thinking.

But let's go back to the beginning.

Patriotism and nationalism both, simply speaking, are a love of or pride in one's country.  Some sources list the two as synonyms.  But I'd like to make a distinction between the two.  Perhaps by saying "nationalism" I've made a poor word choice and maybe "jingoism" more accurately captures my distinction.  But, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to define nationalism as "a love of or pride in one's country, blind to faults, intolerant of criticism, and believing the success of other countries diminishes your own."

I will define patriotism as "a love of or pride in one's country, recognizing faults and accepting of criticism, hoping for improvement, and believing countries can simultaneously thrive."

(We can freely replace "country" with whatever group you want (ethnicity, religion, political leaning, etc.) and I think the distinction between the two remains valuable.)

The trouble with nationalism is that anyone espousing it insists that they're preaching patriotism.

I believe patriotism is a good thing.  Though I've been heavily critical of many things our government has done I even consider myself patriotic.  I hope for and want a better future for our country.

However, nationalism is dangerous.  It leads to foolish policies and violent rhetoric.

It leads to wasting time and energy renaming food because you felt slighted by another group (e.g. changing "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries").

It leads to placing cross-hairs over your political opponents in your campaign paraphernalia and saying things like "Don't Retreat, instead-RELOAD!"

It leads to isolated cases of angry people killing innocent people (and here).

And, if not controlled, it eventually leads to war and genocide.  After all, when the world is zero-sum and you "know" your country is the best, the only rational thing to do is to eliminate detractors and competitors.


From my earlier post about a book by a conservative pundit we get the following paragraph:

Liberals are uncomfortable with the topic of patriotism because their core philosophical impulses are to make America a different country than it is.  This is not an evil impulse, and it can certainly manifest itself in patriotic ways.  More importantly, it can manifest itself in humane and decent ways.  But at the most basic level love is about acceptance.  If you are constantly trying to change the person you claim to love into someone he or she is not, there comes a point when it's reasonable to ask whether you really, truly, deeply love the person for who he or she is.  Barack Obama campaigned promising to "fundamentally transform" America.  We would not think a husband who promises to "fundamentally transform" his wife has a healthy love for her. -- Jonah Goldberg

If, in Goldberg's metaphor, the wife had cancer would it be wrong for the husband to want to "fundamentally transform" her by removing the cancer?  What if she were clinically depressed?  What if she were an alcoholic?  What if she were abusive?  According to Goldberg, wanting to improve faults means you don't love a person and therefore wanting to improve a country is not patriotic.

This is nationalism, not patriotism.  Patriotism should always encourage improvement not acceptance of faults.  But let's try to be lenient here.  Let's suppose we want to change from A to B.  It may or may not be an improvement, we're not sure; we have to try it to find out.  Demanding your spouse should make this arbitrary change is a bit off from most definitions of love.  But a nation isn't an individual.  It is a conglomeration of ideas.  Some will be good ideas and some will be bad ideas.  Does suggesting we change from A to B in hope of improvement actually mean we're not patriotic?


I think we need to constantly be evaluating our nation and deciding for ourselves whether it is in need of improvement.  When we feel something can be improved we should try to enact that change.  This is patriotism.


Reading through my post I realized that the negative examples I've highlighted tend to be affiliated with the Republican party.  I feel confident both major political parties participate in this behavior, but it appears many of the most egregious (or at least most easily found) cases are affiliated with the conservative side.  Perhaps they should reconsider some of their rhetoric if they want to present a less extreme position.

2 thoughts on “Patriotism versus Nationalism”

  1. I have read extensively before about the difference between nationalism and patriotism and the idea that patriotism = positive and nationalism = negative and it is driving me crazy that I can't remember where I read it.

  2. Kind of like attending BYU where there were so many who felt you should just leave and go to school somewhere else if you disagreed with anything that went on there. But I read somewhere how it's only those who see the faults that ever make anything better.

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