Paul Pillar

Patriotism versus Nationalism in America

Independence Day marks, of course, one of the annual peaks of patriotic expression in the United States. Mixed in with American patriotism is sentiment that is more appropriately labeled nationalism, even though Americans almost never apply that label to themselves. The label is avoided partly because of the more negative connotation of the word nationalism compared to the far more positive associations of patriotism. But the American usage isn't just a matter of semantics. In some other countries the term “nationalist” is willingly accepted. The word is part of the name of major political parties, which have sometimes been the ruling party, in countries such as Taiwan and Bangladesh. The unnamed nationalism that is found in the United States is wrapped up with American exceptionalism. The sentiments involved are not just another flavor of nationalism that one would see in places such as Taiwan and Bangladesh but a specifically American variety that could not arise in those other places. Not recognizing nationalism explicitly is part of what is exceptional in American exceptionalism. As I have addressed earlier, nationalist-driven exceptionalism has several unfortunate effects.

Because nationalism is not the same as patriotism, it behooves us to recognize the difference. George Orwell, in an essay written 66 years ago, offers this perspective:

Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. 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. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Orwell held a broad—and decidedly negative—conception of nationalism, which might involve loyalties to something other than a nation-state. He had his fellow English intelligentsia of the 1940s in mind, but some of what he describes in his essay is easily recognizable in American nationalism of today. This includes not only the pursuit of ever more power but also a self-righteousness and a conviction that one's own way of doing things is superior to everyone else's and is universally applicable. As we engage in the worthy and pleasurable expression of patriotism—“devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life”—not only on the 4th of July but all through the year, let's stick with pure patriotism and, keeping Orwell's distinctions in mind, not let it get confused with our nationalism.