Is there a difference between nationalism and patriotism? This is a question many of our fellow Americans have been asking over the past several years, and too many political and media leaders blur the line between the two. While nationalism and patriotism are often times portrayed as two sides of the same coin, they are completely different approaches to how an individual relates to his or her country. Nationalism is an allegiance or love of one’s country based primarily on race, ethnicity, and ancestry. Patriotism is love of one’s country based on its ideals, values, and beliefs. In short, nationalism is tribal while patriotism is principled and philosophical.
Conservatism has always fostered patriotism, not nationalism. Patriotism leads to freedom while nationalism leads to uniformity. As George Orwell wrote in an essay over 66 years ago “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism…By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.” Patriots want peace, but will fiercely defend their country, while nationalists are less tolerant of any deviation from their point-of-view.
American history has been marked by a deep-seated love of country based on our ideals and values, thus by deeply engrained patriotism. This is a key reason why we have continued to make progress as a country, both economically and culturally. Patriots love their country, right or wrong, but are willing to admit when there are reforms that are needed. Love of country, coupled with a deep desire to correct its wrongs, has made America a continual work-in-progress that has made us the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world. Patriotism is the key to this continual strengthening of our nation, while holding to our founding ideals as enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.
While both nationalism and patriotism are both associated with love of country, patriotism is the more principled and refined of the two. Patriots believe that what unites the nation is not race or ancestry, but commonly held principles and values that are equally true and beneficial for all members of society. Patriots and nationalist alike may oppose illegal immigration, for example, but patriots oppose illegal immigration on the grounds that assimilation is key to the maintenance of American ideals and values, while ardent nationalists are more likely to oppose illegal immigration for racial and ethnic reasons. Conservativism, again, is the promoter of patriotism versus nationalism, because its primary interest is the preservation of values and culture, not racial homogeny.
The election of Donald Trump has brought the continued debate over patriotism versus nationalism back to the forefront of our political debate, but for the wrong reasons. Too many assume that “America First” is a dog-whistle to racists and white supremacists, instead of a sincere desire to advance the interests of the nation. For the record, I do not believe President Trump seeks to advance a nationalistic agenda instead of a patriotic agenda. Promoting American strength and greatness can be patriotic instead of nationalistic, so long as the desired outcome is the improved lives of all Americans regardless of their race or ancestry.
Conservatism promotes patriotism instead of nationalism, because conservativism seeks to conserve the principles that make America, America as outlined in the Constitution of our country. While some cranks and racists try and hijack a patriotic agenda and make it a tool of nationalism, conservativism is not a promoter of rigid nationalism. Conservatives must always make clear that our love of country is not based on race or ancestry, but always on the preservation of the ideals of human liberty that lead to human flourishing. Patriotism is ever-expanding and optimistic, while nationalism normally leads to bitterness and despair. Let’s choose patriotism to make America great again.