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What Makes a Patriot?

What Makes a Patriot?

Liberal democracy needs space between the right’s strident nationalism and the left’s post-national globalism.

John P. Caves III

There is at present some uncertainty and discord in how the terms “patriotism” and “nationalism” are used and understood. The formal definitions of each word vary depending on which dictionary one looks at, and at any rate a dictionary definition will only go so far in explaining such concepts, which are at once both high abstractions and familiar emotions. Yet they are highly consequential to our civic lives and thus to the politics of our Republic. It is worth attempting to fashion a clearer description of each concept and draw a distinction between the two.

In fact, the larger concept of fondness for one’s country is perhaps best divided not into two, but three inclinations: patriotism, national pride, and nationalism. They correspond, respectively, with three more fundamental human emotions: love, pride, and arrogance. Just as the disposition of those feelings in one person can fulfill or destroy a life, their relative prevalence among a people can make or break a nation.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Patriotism is love, and true patriotism, like true love, is unconditional. We, as people, love what is close to us: our families, our friends, and, for the faithful among us, our God. Our country—not to be confused with its government—is also close to us, and so we are capable of loving its culture, its institutions, its traditions, and our fellow countrymen. We are connected with our country in ways that extend beyond our lifetimes; in many cases our forefathers have lived and died there, and so will our children.

Therefore, patriotism does not depend on the actions of the government of the day. It draws from a much deeper well. Nor does it necessarily depend even on the actions of the country’s government or its people over the course of history. Love, after all, is inseparable from forgiveness and hope. Someone who truly loves her country will continue to do so even when her countrymen sin, just as a mother will still love her wayward child and wish a better future for him. The motto of patriotism may thus be considered to be, “Right or wrong, it is still my country.”

Perhaps the most illustrative example of patriotism today is that of Alexei Navalny. Navalny is well aware of his country’s dark past and the brutal actions of its government today, and he is well aware that the atrocities of Russia’s past and present have been made possible by the complicity or passivity of a substantial part of its people. Yet he still loves his country and wishes a better future for it, so much so that he returned to it despite the certainty of imprisonment and the near certainty of another attempt on his life. True love, as Saint Paul said, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” So it is with true patriotism.

National pride, as its name suggests, is pride: not sinful pride, in the biblical sense, but the healthy, well-founded pride in one’s arrangements, accomplishments, and purpose that is vital for a country to have the confidence to thrive. A nation burdened with too much self-doubt will fall into paralysis and decay, just as an individual who lacks assurance will sink into a self-destructive depression. A sense of national pride is thus indispensable but, unlike patriotism, it is affected by events.

As all nations do both right and wrong, it is impossible to feel national pride always and in all things. But it does no good to simply disassociate oneself from one’s country when it does wrong. To do so not only weakens the bond between individuals and their country that must be maintained if the nation is again to do just and necessary things, but it is also an abdication of moral responsibility. If your country has done wrong, then you share some of the guilt for that wrong and you bear part of the obligation to make it right. Many Americans decried our country’s disgraceful abandonment of Afghanistan; more importantly, many Americans responded by aiding those Afghan allies who arrived to rebuild their lives on our shores. By doing so, they took responsibility for our nation’s wrong and took the first step toward redressing it.

This sense of responsibility that allows national pride when a country does good demands national shame when that country does wrong. Pride and shame are inseparable; they are the two sides of responsibility, and they spur us to do what is right. A German who feels shame for her country’s grim past may feel pride for its free and prosperous present, and both pride and shame will motivate her to maintain Germany’s liberty. A Russian who washes his hands of his country’s sins today will have no basis for pride whenever Russia’s better future shall arrive, for he will have had no part in bringing it about and may have little commitment to seeing it continue.

The motto of national pride is thus, “My country can be right or wrong, and I have a hand in it.”

A well-founded pride cannot rest on evil acts; only arrogance can. Nationalism is arrogance. It is not so much unconditional as blind. It is for those who cannot hold together in their mind the two opposing thoughts of pride and shame. Dimly aware that pride is indispensable but unable to comprehend its necessary relation to shame, nationalism simply presumes that every act of a country’s government or its people must in some way be just. An American who thinks that the evil done at Abu Ghraib should be excused, or a Briton or a Frenchman who thinks that the abuses of empire must have been justified, or a Russian who celebrates his countrymen’s crimes in Ukraine is showing not true national pride but hollow nationalism. Its motto may be said to be, “My country is always right.”

Such arrogance not only tolerates evil, but serves to bring it about. Because it is blind, nationalism often abdicates judgment to a government or some national leader, or else degenerates into a mob. If not turned back before it becomes too widespread to contain, it sets off down a dark road that is littered with death and ends only in ruin. So it was in the last century when too many Germans and Italians fell into step behind Hitler and Mussolini, and so it is today now that too many Russians walk blindly behind Putin.

It is to avoid this sort of calamity, and lesser ones along the way, that it is important to recognize these different types of patriotic feeling. Arrogant nationalism must be distinguished from humble patriotism and well-founded national pride so that it, and it alone, may be firmly pushed back. But how can it be recognized in practice, and how can it be stopped? By returning to love.

Patriotism is the foundation upon which national pride rests. One only has pride in something one loves. Indeed, pride could perhaps be defined as taking satisfaction in seeing something (or, individually, someone) you love do well, by honorable means, and knowing that you had a part in it. A parent takes pride in a child who does well in school, and a coach takes pride in a winning team, so long as neither succeeded by foul play. If the child cheated on an exam, or if the team acted unsportsmanlike, the parent and the coach would feel shame.

Arrogance may rise initially upon a foundation of love, but the sludge it disgorges steadily erodes that base. A parent who encourages her child to cheat, or a coach who cheers his team as it behaves boorishly, is corrupting the moral character of the thing she or he professes to love. By thus harming the thing they love, they destroy their own ability to truly love. Nationalists may therefore begin as patriots, but any who wade too far into nationalism’s bog will sooner or later no longer be certain of the ground beneath their feet.

To distinguish between national pride and nationalism, then, look at the underlying love of country. Below one, it will be strong; below the other, shaky. And the best description of love comes from Saint Paul:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.

It is only with this understanding of patriotism that some who stray into nationalism can be persuaded to come back to firmer shores. It cannot be done by chiding them for feeling proud of their nation’s successes, nor by telling them that they should not become too attached to their country. Such cold abstraction will not win hearts.

Nor does a clinical abandonment of patriotism and pride do any good for the world over the course of time. Some nationalists, or those intoxicated with other poisonous ideologies, will not be dissuaded. If they grow too powerful, they will need to be fought. When that time comes, as it has throughout history, it is patriotism and pride that will rouse people and nations to stand up and give battle. There is a reason why the rallying cry of the greatest struggle for freedom today is, “Glory to Ukraine.”

Do not scorn patriotic feeling. Understand its true nature, mold it into its best form, and allow it to be a force for good within and among nations. As said Saint Paul, “Love never fails.”

John P. Caves III does nonproliferation research at a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. He is a former Army officer and author of The New Model Federalist (2021), a series of essays defending classical liberalism in U.S. politics. The opinions expressed here are his alone and cannot be attributed to any other entity.

Image: Protestors at the Minnesota capitol building in St. Paul, September 12, 2020. (Flickr: Fibonacci Blue)