I define patriotism as a sense of civic loyalty and pride, grounded in shared history, culture and interests. Nationalism has some of these qualities, but adds a sense of superiority towards other nations and a desire to keep out those who do not belong to one’s own. As George Orwell famously puts it in Notes on Nationalism, a nationalist “is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”
A recent Pew Research Center report notes that a Fall 2020 survey of citizens in Germany, France, the UK and the US showed a decline in national pride. Asked whether they were proud of their country “most of the time,” German citizens scored the highest (53% said yes), while the US scored the lowest (39% said yes, compared to 56% of US citizens surveyed in 2014). The survey also found evidence of the usual political patriotism gap: in the US and UK, less than 20% of respondents who identified as left-wing said they felt proud of their country, compared to nearly 50% of those who identify as right-wing. (There are other national pride gaps related to the generation to which respondents belong, and their attitudes towards tradition and Christianity.)
C. J. Werleman writes that, in the western world, a recent “decline in trust [in governments and institutions] has coincided with a decline in the kind of patriotism that inspires people to take action to support their country (he calls this “real patriotism”), and a corresponding increase in what he calls “theatrical patriotic fervour … a cultish allegiance to songs, flags, symbols, mythologies and empty-headed and often-militaristic slogans.” The currently popular notion that western institutions are systemically racist or oppressive may have also contributed to the decline in national pride, especially among progressives. As the Pew report notes, “those who feel their country will be better off sticking to its traditions are more likely to say they are proud of their country.” Unsurprisingly, people who feel a sense of national pride are less likely to want to change the status quo.
Some of those who feel national pride may be Werleman’s “real patriots,” who translate those feelings into actions for the good of their country. Nevertheless, a reduction in the number of patriots may be a force for good, if people who feel less national pride are more motivated to correct social injustices. Thus, the question is: would a reduction in patriotism be a good thing?
Patriotism as a Force for Good
Those who see patriotism as a positive force are careful to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Nevertheless, in practice, patriotic feelings may often tip over into nationalist feelings. Even when they don’t, it’s not clear that patriotism is socially beneficial, particularly during ordinary times, when there is no crisis to make national solidarity urgent.
Patriotism may be a natural emotion that helps people feel a sense of community. As psychologist Michael Bader puts it, “in a culture based on individualism, needs for community can seem foolish … [but] we continue to long for recognition and relationships of mutuality even as we often suffer from loneliness, [and] to seek security even as we feel unsafe and unprotected.” Bader—and many political conservatives—believe that patriotism helps satisfy universal psychological needs that have been become harder to meet in recent decades:
Patriotism establishes a ‘we’ that satisfies the longings for connectedness and affiliation that are so often frustrated in our private lives. And it offers an image of a strong and fair authority in relationship to which we can feel safe and secure. Patriotism, appeals to national pride, invocations of historical purpose, symbols of collective unity (the flag, the Constitution, etc.) all offer a symbolic resolution to unspoken and inchoate longings for relatedness and safety.
In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that conservatives have historically tended to be “more parochial — concerned about their groups, rather than all of humanity,” while liberals have tended to “hate the idea of exclusion”—making patriotism and the idea of impermeable national borders tough concepts for liberals to adopt. In addition to their parochiality, Haidt points out that, historically, conservatives have been more sensitive than liberals to the importance of groups. “We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude non-members,” Haidt writes. “If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.”
Roger Scruton, in England and the Need for Nations, argues that we should separate “nationalism and its inflammatory, quasi-religious call to re-create the world” from patriotism (which Scruton prefers to call “national loyalty”). He points out that membership groups are different from nations in the degree to which they value exclusion: while nations tend to “tolerate difference,” religion tends to “abhor it.” As he puts it, “Nations are defined not by kinship or religion but by a homeland.” In Scruton’s view, patriotism is a unifying force that enables people to override the feeling of difference from each other that belonging to different membership groups produces. He develops this point further in his 2016 lecture, “The Need for Nations”: “National loyalty marginalizes loyalties of family, tribe and faith, and places before the citizen’s eyes, as the focus of his patriotic feeling, not a person or a group but a country. This country is defined by a territory, and by the history, culture and law that have made that territory ours. Take away borders, and people begin to identify themselves not by territory and law, but by tribe, race or religion.”
Leftists, including myself, fear the impulse to exclude others, probably out of concern that it reinforces that destructive cousin of patriotism—nationalism. But this can lead us to be too dismissive of the benefits of patriotism. As Sharon Chau has written, patriotism “promotes public sacrifice that is crucial to the functioning of a state, decreases the likelihood of conflict, reduces corruption, and is extremely inclusive as an identity.” She also points out, as Arthur Brooks has done, that it promotes well-being by giving people a sense of belonging and affiliation. Chau believes that the benefits of patriotism outweigh the damage it can cause when it slips into nationalism, and argues that nations ought to “encourage [a] national feeling” to take advantage of these benefits.
The Bias of Patriotism
Don’t allow your thinking to be done for you by any party or faction, however high-minded. Distrust any speaker who talks confidently about “we,” or speaks in the name of “us.” Distrust yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. The search for security and majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus and tyranny and tribalism.
— Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian.
In his 1904 essay “The Bias of Patriotism,” Alfred Jordan argues that there is “nothing particularly meritorious in cherishing a love for one’s native land … such a feeling is to a great extent instinctive.” He regards what he calls “the patriotic impulse” as “perfectly normal and natural … a mere habit of mind which affects our sentiments, gives warmth to our opinions, and excites our interest.” Thus it is not necessarily rational: Jordan notes that western culture instils in its citizens a kind of blind patriotism that he calls “short-sighted patriotism”: the expectation that their country of origin—determined by an accident of birth—is naturally deserving of their loyalty, love and encouragement and they are often ignorant about other countries: “The archenemy of mankind is ignorance, and it is to this sinister influence that all forms of international ill will, suspicion, and even jealousy are in the main traceable. In other words, the general progress of mankind is being retarded by the bias of a crude and short-sighted patriotism.” Blind patriotism is susceptible to what Andrea Scrima has termed the “patriotism reflex”: an emotional—rather than a rational—response that leads us to cling to “the bulwark of national identity,” even though “this identity is precisely what clouds our cognitive faculties most.”
Another phenomenon that contributes to the irrationality of blind patriotism is group polarization. As behavioural economist Cass Sunstein points out in his book Conformity, when members of a group discuss an issue, the discussion can push them into taking ever more extreme positions: those who began by feeling mildly positive about their homeland can end up believing that theirs is the best nation on earth. Sunstein notes that when a group of people discuss an issue they agree on, they don’t encounter opposing arguments and therefore “the argument pool in any group with some initial disposition in one direction will inevitably be skewed toward that disposition.” Since blind patriots’ love of country is based on an automatic impulse, they will not tend to consider opposing viewpoints. Indeed, Scrima suggests, they are likely to brand any critic as an “alien with alien allegiances — in other words, something dangerous.” As Sunstein points out, this creates a feedback loop: the more other group members confirm their feelings, the more confident they become in their opinion. Furthermore, research suggests that people who already believe that they are superior to others “may believe that they are less susceptible to cognitive and social biases than inferior others.” Thus group polarization not only encourages the development of extreme views, but stabilises those views by making group members even less aware of their potential biases.
Thus, although human well-being is enhanced by the feeling of group belonging, group cohesion can lead people to adopt the nationalistic viewpoint that leftists rightly fear. And, just as leftists tend to be overly worried that patriotism will lead to nationalism, right-leaning views of patriotism tend to be overly positive because they overlook that risk.
Patriotic groupthink may be further reinforced by rituals such as saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. These acts of “theatrical patriotism,” as Werleman calls them, were originally meant to promote national unification. Since patriotism is a natural, automatic impulse, it makes sense to ask why these rituals should still be considered useful. As former president of the American Humanist Association, David Niose, puts it, “Additional conditioning is only likely to jack up that national loyalty to unsafe and irrational levels.” But recent research suggests that such rituals do not necessarily tip patriotism into nationalism: in one study, flag-waving at football matches was linked to a decrease in nationalistic sentiments—after viewing the American flag, nationalistic US citizens expressed less hostility toward Arabs and Muslims. But the form of patriotism expressed at football matches is relatively innocuous, and these findings may not apply to other contexts. Other studies of the effect of rituals on outgroup hostility have yielded mixed results, but some suggest that newly developed rituals, in particular, can “lead to intergroup bias” and “offer a strategy for the regulation of in-group behaviour — but at a cost to the out-group.”
National pride is a core patriotic value. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, calling it pride may be inaccurate. Especially when displayed by blind patriots, it has more in common psychologically with satisfaction about one’s nation. Emotion researchers suggest that pride’s key function is to motivate individuals to do things that will “increase others’ valuation of the individual.” Thus it seems odd to call feelings about one’s nation, or about anything larger than oneself, pride. As George Carlin once put it, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth.” Referring to his own Irish-American identity, he joked that “being Irish isn’t a skill, it is a fucking genetic accident.
Make Room for Critical Patriotism
To avoid being accused of nationalism, patriots sometimes make an analogy between compatriots and family members. Bader, for example, observes that, just as nations fulfil “our longings for connectedness and safety … families serve the function of providing psychic security and attachment.” However, this analogy is far from perfect. Loyalty to one’s family is generally acknowledged to be a virtue. But loyalty to one’s country is a more complex commitment. As Michael Merry notes in The Handbook of Patriotism, loyalty “left to itself in most domains other than the family … can quickly go off the rails … The dangers that attend loyalties in the public sphere far outweigh their benefits.”
Still, the many benefits of patriotism ought not to be disregarded. In particular, its ability to make people more tolerant of differences between them and their compatriots is undoubtedly, as Jordan puts it, “a great corrective of many subtle forms of egoism.” It’s especially important to keep these benefits in mind these days: during the pandemic, many people came to associate patriotism with selfishness: when society is coping with a contagious, life-threatening worldwide virus, many see it as irresponsible to be waving flags around. Thus, whether patriotic feelings and behaviour are socially beneficial clearly depends on the context in which they emerge.
As Merry notes, there are “legitimate pragmatic reasons for harnessing and steering patriotic sentiment toward more critical and moral ends [instead of] simply wishing in vain for its demise.” He acknowledges that patriotism satisfies certain psychological needs, but suggests that it is socially beneficial only if it is directed towards what he calls “critical patriotism” — that is, towards efforts to “improv[e] upon the present state of affairs.” Merry’s critical patriotism, unlike blind or theatrical patriotism, is inspired by “a deep passion for rooting out injustice”; it can therefore “facilitate the cultivation of civic virtue.” Merry advocates stripping patriotism of its theatrical elements and outgroup xenophobia and redirecting patriotic feelings to inspire actions that correct injustices. This approach has the potential to eliminate the blindness that often accompanies patriotism.
Benedict Anderson has called nations “imagined communities” — imagined because a nation’s members “will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them … yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” In this spirit, I suggest that, as long as patriotic feelings inspire some people to act for the common good and such people do not endanger anyone, we should be perfectly happy for them to keep having those feelings towards their imagined communities.