Saturday, October 21, 2017

What Is Patriotism? Are You Sure?


On November 1, 2016, the Crusader , the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan, threw its support behind Donald Trump with a front page article headlined “Make America Great Again.” The article read: “America was founded as a White Christian Republic. And as a White Christian Republic it became great.”

People like to view patriotism by what they believe is its true meaning – a set of concepts supporting national loyalty. Yet, when asked to define those concepts, folks usually sputter, then mutter some words about gestures of respect for symbols such as the flag and the National Anthem. Most of their answers about patriotism are superficial and definitively evasive. People understand the word more as an emotion than as a strict set of beliefs.

To me, American patriotism is not about idolatry. The flag and the anthem are powerful national symbols, not objects that require worship. These symbols, though deserving of respect, should never inspire a nation to blind allegiance. Patriotism is not about “my country, right or wrong.” Instead, it is about working together to form a more perfect union.

In what is still the sole book-length philosophical study of the subject, Stephen Nathanson, professor of philosophy at Northeastern University, defines patriotism as involving:

Special affection for one’s own country

A sense of personal identification with the country

Special concern for the well-being of the country

Willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good

Patriotism and nationalism are often viewed as synonymous; however, philosophers have made critical distinctions.

Both patriotism and nationalism involve love of, identification with, and special concern for a certain entity. In the case of patriotism, that entity is one’s patria, one’s country; in the case of nationalism, that entity is one’s natio, one’s nation (in the ethnic/cultural sense of the term). Thus patriotism and nationalism are understood as the same type of set of beliefs and attitudes, and distinguished in terms of their objects, rather than the strength of those beliefs and attitudes, or as sentiment vs. theory.

In the 19th century, Lord Acton contrasted “nationality” and patriotism as affection and instinct vs. a moral relation. Nationality is “our connection with the race” that is “merely natural or physical,” while patriotism is the awareness of our moral duties to the political community.

In the 20th century, Elie Kedourie did the opposite, presenting nationalism as a full-fledged philosophical and political doctrine about nations as basic units of humanity within which the individual can find freedom and fulfilment, and patriotism as mere sentiment of affection for one’s country.

And, George Orwell contrasted the two in terms of aggressive vs. defensive attitudes. Nationalism is about power: its adherent wants to acquire as much power and prestige as possible for his nation, in which he submerges his individuality. While nationalism is accordingly aggressive, patriotism is defensive: it is a devotion to a particular place and a way of life one thinks best, but has no wish to impose on others

This way of distinguishing the two attitudes comes close to an approach popular among politicians and widespread in everyday discourse that indicates a double standard of the form “us vs. them.” Country and nation are first run together, and then patriotism and nationalism are distinguished in terms of the strength of the love and special concern one feels for it, the degree of one’s identification with it.

When these are exhibited in a reasonable degree and without ill thoughts about others and hostile actions towards them, that is patriotism; when they become unbridled and cause one to think ill of others and act badly towards them, that is nationalism. Conveniently enough, it usually turns out that we are patriots, while they are nationalists.


President Donald Trump is a politician who encourages nationalism by demanding rote adherence to his limited views that he labels “patriotism.” It is a mission full of archetypal ideas and bent on division.

Kathleen Powers, assistant professor in the department of international affairs at the University of Georgia, in an email to Newsweek, said, “When people identify with a nationality, they have an idea about what defines the prototypical or archetypal group member. In short, they carry a picture of what it means to be an American.

“That prototypical American,” Powers adds, “might be defined in relatively inclusive terms, like a person who respects political institutions, or in more exclusive terms, like someone who is part of a Judeo-Christian religion, speaks English, or is a member of a certain racial group. Certainly, some people define the prototypical American as white, Christian, and/or born in the U.S.”

"And if that’s your conception of what it is to be an American, Powers writes, then anyone who deviates from the norm is either not a true American, or is a poor version of one."

The upheaval over patriotism is clearly part of Trump's vision – a belief that the U.S. should be a “great” white, Christian nation “again.” His disapproval of black matters such as player protests in the NFL, his playing on people's prejudices toward Muslims and immigrants, and his repeated incendiary comments that threaten diversity shows his extreme nationalism.

Jacqueline Gehring, associate professor of political science at Allegheny College shows Trump's influence on his followers …

“Part of what led to Trump’s rise, Gehring says, was a growing frustration among some people simply at having a black president. There has been a backlash. Obama is seen as having emboldened black people, having led to the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter and I think it makes many white people feel uncomfortable.”

Few non-supremists would admit their support for the beliefs of racist groups like the KKK, but many would agree that America should be a “White Christian Republic.” Any plea to demand patriotism serves to limit the liberty of individuals who still face inequality in their lives. Demanding adherence to so-called patriotic acts spurs nationalism and, in turn, limits free expression and protected peaceful protest.

In truth, our nation has yet to achieve its promise of “life, liberty, and happiness” for all. A good patriot would serve with all of his fellow citizens to fight injustice – this is “the affection, identity, concern, and sacrifice” of which Nathanson spoke … and the kind of patriotism that builds the character of our country.


Mirren Gidda. “How Donald Trump’s Nationalism Won Over White Americans. Newsweek. November 15, 2016.

Igor Primoratz. “Patriotism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. June 01, 2009. 

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