Nationalism vs. patriotism: What's the difference and why it matters
By Sam Jacobs
The terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” are often used interchangeably. This is understandable, as they have somewhat overlapping meanings, both of which suffer from a certain amount of vagueness. However, there are a number of key differences between the two that are worth shedding light on. In the final analysis, we believe that the term “nationalism,” while not denoting anything totalitarian by its nature, is not an accurate term for the sentiment that exists in the United States. Nationalism, it would seem, is more suited to Europe or Asia, places with historic nations, united by common language and ethnicity that are necessarily tied with a certain area of land.
There’s a lot to unpack here and the differences are extremely subtle. And to give a bit of a spoiler, we’re not going to be taking the position, as is often the case, that patriotism is fine but nationalism is simply a metastatic and malignant form of patriotism.
First Things First: How Do Both Differ From Libertarianism and Conservatism
Before going any further, it’s worth taking a few minutes to distinguish both patriotism and nationalism from libertarianism and conservatism. We can do this without parsing out the difference between patriotism and nationalism – and for that matter, libertarianism and conservatism.
Libertarianism and conservatism operate from a similar set of principles. These principles are abstract and platonic in as much as they are about divining the truest form of an ideal ideology from a stated goal. Libertarianism has a clear philosophical principle: more liberty is always good. American conservatism is a diffuse and often contradictory philosophy, but for the purposes of extrapolating the difference between conservatism and other ideologies, we will say that the defining characteristic of American conservatism (as opposed to European conservatism, which has a much greater overlap with nationalism), is that of limited government.
We can conflate both of these ideals into the somewhat more vague notion that “freedom is always good.” The point here isn’t to oversimplify and make a strawman. It’s simply to come up with a uniting ethos to illustrate how nationalism and patriotism as ideologies differ from currents that have been more mainstream on the American right for a longer period of time.
Nationalism and patriotism, on the other hand, might find value in freedom and might even make a secondary goal out of it. However, the uniting principle of each is that it is the country itself, the success of the body politic, that is paramount, not more abstract notions of freedom.
Thus, the key difference is that conservatism and libertarianism are philosophically driven ideologies where results take a backseat to principles. On the other hand, nationalism and patriotism are pragmatic ideologies, where the proof is in the pudding. Another way of phrasing this is that libertarianism and conservatism are non-consequentialist, whereas nationalism and patriotism are consequentialist. Conservatism and libertarianism are guided by “doing the right thing,” whereas nationalism and patriotism are more “the ends justify the means” type of philosophies.
It is worth noting, briefly, that Sam Francis, an advisor to the 1996 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, urged him to not even compete for the mantle of “conservative,” instead telling him to identify as a nationalist, patriot or America Firster. His ideas are considered enormously influential on President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Definition by Contrast: What is Globalism?
Nationalism and patriotism also stand in contrast to globalism. While this term is thrown around a lot, it is worth discussing what it is and what it means and how it is different from its alternatives.
Globalism is, simply put, a view of politics that values trans-national bureaucracies over the nation state. Sometimes these are big, shadowy institutions like the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group, but more commonly they are far more innocuous-looking non-governmental organizations (NGOs or sometimes “QUANGOs” for “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations).
NGOs generally present themselves as some kind of politically neutral entity that is just about “good people doing good things.” Amnesty International, for example, was, for many years, an organization dedicated to defending people who were held in jail for their political or religious views. They now lobby for legalized abortion and liberalization of gay marriage laws across the world. Regardless of how one feels about either of these issues, it seems difficult to square either of these with the mission of Amnesty.
NGOs are largely how George Soros exercises power over the political process of countries, which has led to them being expelled from Hungary and Myanmar. They tend to have generic names like “United We Dream” or “International Rescues Committee.” Thus, they are difficult to attack on their face – are you opposed to dreams and rescues?
Globalism is marked by both its global orientation and hostility toward the nation state, but also its view that democracy is a means to an end. When the democratic process fails to provide the “correct” result, this is taken as prima facie something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected. This can be seen in the liberal-globalist response to the election of President Trump in 2016, but also the whole attitude of globalists toward nations like Poland and Hungary, whose democracies consistently oppose liberalism in toto at the ballot box.
What is Revanchism?
One of the defining characteristics of nationalism – and a great place to start talking about how nationalism is more appropriate for Europe than the United States – is revanchism. This is a word that you’ve probably never heard before, but the concept will immediately become clear.
Revanchism comes from the French word meaning “revenge.” The term, if not the philosophy itself, originated in the period between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War. It specifically referred to French ambitions to retake the “lost provinces” of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been extracted by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War, the war which led to the formation of the German Empire.
“Irredentism” is an almost entirely identical concept.
Broadly, both terms refer to the notion that in a given country – say, Serbia – there is a “Greater” version of it. Thus, Serbian nationalists do not believe that Serbia represents the whole of the Serbian nation. There is territory outside of Serbia in Croatia, Montenegro, and elsewhere that is part of the “natural borders” of Serbia and needs to, in the eyes of the nationalists, be reincorporated into the legal borders of Serbia for the nation to be made whole.
This isn’t to pick on the Serbians. Virtually every nation in Europe has a revanchist faction somewhere, even if it’s very small and marginal. To give a few examples, Spain would very much like to reclaim Gibraltar, but there are also movements for a Greater Greece (the “Megali Idea”), Greater Hungary, Greater Russia, and many others. So why do these movements exist in Europe, but there’s no movement for the United States to annex Canada or retake the Philippines?
To answer this question begins to get at the essence of how “nationalism” differs from patriotism. The United States is not a nation state in the way virtually every country in Europe is – Switzerland is the primary exception. There are Italians in Austria who speak Italian, express Italian culture and, in years past, would have likely been in favor of reuniting their Italian-speaking areas of Austria with Italy.
But in America (and Switzerland for that matter), this is a bit of a nonsense question. There is certainly what could be called a “Historic American Nation,” comprised largely of Scotch-Irish stock who have been in America since the 17th century. But even these people do not have an exclusive claim to the American nation, as others were here from the beginning, most notably African slaves and Native Americans. America is not a nation-state, but rather a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional nation with more in common with Switzerland than France in this regard.
So What’s the Deal With Switzerland?
Switzerland is anomalous among European nations. It was formed originally as a defensive alliance between several small territories, now known as cantons, that banded together without the intention of becoming a nation. And, indeed, they did not. Each canton enjoys broad autonomy to this day and federalism reigns throughout the country. One Swiss canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, somewhat famously did not extend the franchise to women until 1991.
When you cross the border from Poland to Germany, you’ll find a lot of people who speak Polish and identify as Polish – and vice versa. But when you cross the border from Switzerland to Italy, you’re not going to find anyone who identifies as Swiss unless you’re speaking to a tourist. Why is this?
Because, much like being an American, Swiss identity largely revolves around identity and values rather than blood and soil. While the latter is often, somewhat unfairly, associated with the Nazis who adopted it for its own purpose, it is worth using as a form of contrast from the nationalism (really patriotism) that exists in a place like the United States or Switzerland. While the lines are obviously gray, it’s not immediately obvious that one can easily “become” French or Russian or Swedish because these are ethnic descriptions as much as, and perhaps more than, a reference to what passport one carries.
Israel is an example of a country that is close to being explicitly ethnic in nature. Not anyone can become an Israeli citizen. Indeed, not even every Jew can become an Israeli citizen. Messianic Jews, for example, are not covered by the famous “Law of Return.” The Law of Return covers those with a Jewish mother or maternal grandmother, “Jewish ancestry” (a father or grandfather) and converts to Judaism of the Orthodox, Conservative or Reform denominations (the latter two types of conversions must happen outside of Israel) – but explicitly excludes Jews who have converted to another religion. Ethiopian Jews were not recognized until 1973.
In short, despite the fact that it is a nation founded in modern times and is comprised largely of immigrants, not “anyone” may become an Israeli citizen.
On the other hand, the United States and Switzerland are not “nation-states” in the sense of being the nation of one group of people (like France, Russia or Germany). And so, in Switzerland, national identity is not so much about being from a specific lineage, religion or even speaking the same language (there are four official languages of Switzerland) than it is about a set of shared civic values, pride in Swiss history, and Alpine imagery.
Similarly, the United States has a number of ethnic groups with a diverse history in the U.S. What they have had in common, at least until the left started denigrating American history and attacking the very notion of assimilation, is that they shared what can be broadly defined as “American values.” These values have some degree of flexibility and there is disagreement as to how they ought to be expressed or implemented, but until very recently, all Americans agreed that there was such a thing as American values, that these values were a good thing, and that the question was about what specifically they were and how specifically they should express themselves in the public sphere.
One of the most obvious examples of American values is free speech, but now many people don’t even agree that that’s a good thing. The notion that foreigners should assimilate to American culture is derided as racist. The attack on statues, not just of Confederate generals, but of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, demonstrate a lack of reverence for American culture and history. Indeed, the Founding Fathers are derided as “white supremacists.”
Nationalism vs. Patriotism in the U.S. and the U.K.
Unsurprisingly, the difference between nationalism and patriotism in both the U.K. and the U.S. is extremely similar. This is because both are multinational or multi-ethnic or both, depending on your perspective. Even prior to the Civil War and mass migration of the postbellum period, the United States was home to descendents of European founding stock, African slaves, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and others. By contrast, the United Kingdom is comprised of four (formerly independent from one another) nations – England, (Northern) Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
So what does this mean? Well, in practice it means that in both the U.S. and the U.K., that nationalism means you want to reduce the size of the country rather than expand it. For example, an English nationalist wants independence for England from the United Kingdom because, among other things, the Scots and Irish and Welsh are allowed to vote on policies in England, but not vice versa, a situation known as the West Lothian Question. There’s not really such a thing as a “British nationalist,” though there are British patriots.
Similarly, despite the attempt by some on the right to brand as “American nationalists,” this makes little sense. What does make a certain kind of sense is the formulations of white nationalism (the desire for an independent nation just for whites, usually in the Northwest), black nationalism (the desire for an independent state for blacks, usually in the Black Belt of the American South) or Chicano nationalism (the desire for an independent state for Mexican-Americans in the American Southwest). This isn’t an endorsement of any of these ideologies, which we oppose. But it is meant to illustrate our point that, as opposed to Continental European nationalism, which is expansive in its geopolitics, British and American nationalisms are reductive, seeking to separate one group of people from the rest of the country.
Each of these represents a sort of reverse irredentism. Black nationalists, for example, aren’t looking to “reclaim lost territory.” They’re trying to carve off a part of the United States for themselves.
American “nationalism” is really just a form of political patriotism. The symbols of America are civic symbols, not ethnic ones. We are thinking of things like the American flag, Columbia and the State of Liberty, eagles, fireworks, colonial garb, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and the like. There is also a great deal of pride in the military, scientific, cultural and commercial achievements of the United States – ask yourself if you consider the statue of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, a photograph of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, the works of Mark Twain, or a 1968 Camaro to be symbolic of America in some meaningful way.
American patriotism is also about celebrating and venerating what we might call the “American Way of Life.” This means, very roughly speaking, the ability to start a business, own a home, leave a job, own a gun, consume media of one’s own choosing – in a word, what most Americans would identify as “freedom.” This returns us to the notion that patriotism, as opposed to nationalism, necessarily includes a commitment to a certain set of ideals defined as being synonymous with the country itself, rather than simply to a bloodline or collective history.
The Missing Key to the Puzzle: Ethnogenesis
Still, one could make the case that Britain is now a nation and that the so-called “constituent nations” of the U.K. are simply relics of a bygone era. This might be true and, indeed, many Britons (mostly from Southern England) fill in “British” as their nationality on census forms. Similarly, “American” on a census form is generally the preferred nomenclature of the Scotch-Irish. Why then, can we not speak of an American nationalism?
Well, because America is lacking what is called ethnogenesis. This is basically a fancy word meaning “creation of the nation.” There is no single clear event that makes a “British nation” separate from the constituent nations that formed it. Indeed, there is disagreement as to whether or not there’s even been one. But in the United States, it is clear – there is no event or series of events that fused the peoples off the United States into a single, mostly unified ethnicity. Even today, Americans remain largely separated by race and ethnicity, with whites marrying whites, blacks marrying blacks, Chinese marrying Chinese (or at least other Asians) and so on.
There’s nothing “bad” about the largely voluntary ethnic separatism in the United States, nor anything inherently “good” about ethnogenesis. But it’s simply a statement of fact that while, with the exception of what were formerly called “ethnic whites” (mostly a euphemism for recent Catholic immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe) merging into the white ethnic group more generally, there has been no ethnogenesis in the United States. Without an ethne, there can be no nation.
Can Nationalism or Patriotism Exist Without a State?
All of this raises an important question: Can there be either nationalism or patriotism without a political entity?
When discussing nationalism, the question is a resounding yes. The list of national identities that existed before there was a state to unite them is too long to discuss here, but for a couple quick and easy examples, how about Serbia, Czechia or Ireland? Serbian, Czech and Irish nationalists helped to create the modern-day states of Serbia, Czechia and Ireland. They were Serbian, Czech and Irish before these states existed.
On the other hand, whether or not a patriot can be a patriot of a non-existent state is somewhat more dubious. When we speak of “the Patriots” during the American Revolution, it’s true that the war was underway and that they were still, at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned, an integral part of the British Empire. On the other hand, they also were patriots for an incipient state – what would eventually become the United States of America.
If the Patriots of the American Revolution had failed, it’s an open question whether or not there would be anything resembling “American Patriotism.” If such a thing did exist, it would much more resemble neo-Confederate “Lost Cause” ideology than it would any kind of nationalism as it exists in Continental Europe. On the other hand, if the Principality of Serbia had not separated from the Ottoman Empire, the Serbian nation would not cease to exist.
Why Nationalism Is Not Simply Patriotism Gone Wrong
It is worth addressing the claim, often floated about, that nationalism is little more than a “bad” version of patriotism. But this seems like a flawed position for a variety of reasons.
First, there is the issue addressed in the previous section: the nationalism of occupied nations. It would be difficult to make the claim that Serbian nationalism under the Ottoman Empire was simply a form of “negative patriotism.” Is Irish nationalism under British rule simply “patriotism gone too far?” This argument is nonsensically absurd when considering the plight of occupied nations, historical and contemporary, in Europe and elsewhere.
Now let us consider the nationalism of an existing or dominant nation state. Here, it becomes somewhat less nonsensical, but again, doesn’t seem to be a useful distinction between the words. If French patriotism differs fundamentally from French nationalism only because the former is “good” and the latter is “bad,” then these two words effectively mean the same thing and are used only to denote the subjective appraisal of the speaker.
The distinction then becomes a meaningless one and each word simply becomes either an “atta boy” or a condemnation.
Is Nationalism Simply the Worship of the State?
A further criticism leveled at the very notion of “nationalism” is that it involves a specific veneration of the state that is absent in patriotism. Nationalism then becomes seen as being in favor of the government – any government – that rules over a nation, whereas patriotism is more flexible in its ability to criticize the ruling elite. This notion has been put forward by, among others, George Orwell.
This position also cannot hold water when one considers that, particularly in Western Continental Europe, the nationalists are effectively dissidents. Consider the case of France: The main nationalist party, the National Rally (formerly known as the National Front) stands in opposition to the mainstream conservative parties and is, to a certain degree, marginalized in their politics. While they might seek to exercise the power of the state, this doesn’t make them any different from any other political party contending for power. Their entire raison d'etre is to be critical of most of the postwar political tradition of globalist liberalism with some elements of a social democratic welfare state. This is basically true of every major nationalist party in Europe – Austria’s Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats, the Alternative for Germany, etc. The EU is the apotheosis of the postwar order in Europe, effectively an attempt to route around democracy and put technocrats in charge of maintaining this order where the plebs can’t touch it.
Much of the notion that “nationalism is patriotism plus worship of the state” comes from the interwar period and the relationship between nationalism and fascism – an attempt to conflate nationalism with fascism. And while, at a certain point in history, this might have been a fair conflation, what with most of the nationalists being fascists and the fascists being the most ardent nationalists, it is an outdated analysis that does precious little to shed light on the nature of either nationalism or contemporary totalitarian currents.
In the final analysis, there are differences between patriotism and nationalism, but there is also a common thread that connects them. The differences primarily flow from whether or not nationalism or patriotism is appropriate for any given country. One doesn’t need to be either a nationalist or a patriot (and a good many morally healthy people are not), but neither is necessarily bad, good or other.
Why Does It Matter?
So that’s the difference between nationalism and patriotism, but why does it matter? It matters because of the situational context, as well as insulating yourself against being easily manipulated by the press, the corporate sector and their toadies within NGOs – all of whom are hostile toward both.
Nationalism, in certain countries, is reductive, regressive and effectively seeks to divide the country against itself by splitting off different demographics into their own – easily dominated, we might add (just look at the former Yugoslavia and post-Soviet states that aren’t Russia) – little fiefdoms or statelets. In others, it is simply the ancestral people of a country asserting themselves against domination by foreign powers or, more increasingly, unaccountable multinational institutions such as the EU.
Patriotism, on the other hand, is a similar, but not identical, phenomenon which arises in countries not united by a single ethnos, but instead by an ethos and a culture. The United States is such a country, as is the People’s Republic of China for that matter, with Switzerland acting as a prime example of how patriotism has worked to successfully forge a united identity that does not deny or extinguish differences between the country’s constituent parts.
Both are bogeymen of globalists who seek to reduce the entire world to interchangeable parts – rootless consumers of increasingly borrowed or rented goods (“XaaS”) and the cheapest labor that can be had. This is precisely because each celebrates what is special about a group of people, whether they be united by a common ancestry or a common set of values and cultural experience. In a world where the powers that be want to reduce us all to the same gray sludge, nationalism and patriotism are both powerful ideologies standing in opposition to a world where the only metric of value is the GDP and a return on investment, a world which creates enormous riches for those able to game the system, while acting as a race to the bottom for everyone else.
Sam Jacobs is a writer for Ammo.com where this originally appeared.