Who’s a Patriot Now?

401bc7aa260cdfbddbeaeacdeefa4“Je veux être le président des patriotes face à la menace des nationalistes”: “I want to be the president of all patriots against the nationalist threat.”

That’s what Emmanuel Macron, the front-runner in the recent French election, said during his first-round-victory speech. Those two words, patriot and nationalist, are deep points of argument among political scientists, but for most of us, the distinctions get a bit murky and sometimes self-contradictory. When I was growing up, in 1960s America, few people referred to nationalists, and the word patriot itself had a negative connotation for those on the left who were opposing the Vietnam War and pushing for women’s rights. I remember seeing a sign hoisted aloft at one rally: DOWN WITH PATRIOTS! DOWN WITH THE PATRIARCHY!

Now, by contrast, those resisting the current administration proudly wear the title of patriot and decry those they consider nationalists. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in September, the exemplar of this patriotism was Khizr Khan’s emotional address at the Democratic National Convention, where he rightfully celebrated his heroic son and pulled out a copy of the Constitution. But Haidt essentially conflates patriotism and nationalism, calling both a form of parochialism, “caring more about those close to you than those far away.” The contrast, for him, is with globalism, though he suggests that Khan’s speech, which “celebrates ‘us’ without denigrating ‘them,’” can “unite most nationalists and most globalists.”

Among conservatives, there seems to be an active debate about how and whether to distinguish nationalist and patriot from each other. In National Review, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru set forth a concept of nationalism, sometimes called “open nationalism,” that they consider “a healthy and constructive force.” They reject “discussions of nationalism” that “frequently pose the alternatives of an obsession with blood and soil (nationalism!) and an exclusive focus on political ideals (patriotism!).” Writing in the same publication, Jonah Goldberg responds by distinguishing sharply between the two ideas. While “without some pre-rational passion for one’s own country, it would be impossible to make patriots,” he points out that “our shrines are to patriots who upheld very specific American ideals.” Patriotism, in other words, remains an allegiance to concepts or principles represented by civic principles and legacy, distinct from the tribalism that any form of nationalism, open or closed, connotes.

Or, as one respondent on a political chat board put it, “Nationalism: I should do what is best for my country even at the cost of other countries. Nationalists sacrifice others. Nationalists also tend to believe in a zero-sum world. In order for their situation to improve, that of someone else must worsen. Patriotism: I should do what is best for my country even at the cost of myself. Patriots sacrifice what is theirs.”

It is certainly true that, as Jonah Goldberg alleges, the avowed cosmopolitanism of many progressives has traditionally led them to part company with both nationalism and patriotism, seeing in a phrase like “what is best for my country” an artificial standard. We replace it with phrases like “what is best for humanity”; “what is best for the world”; “what is best for the planet.” In fact, perhaps the most remarkable development in the broad resistance to Trumpism has been a renewed allegiance among such “patriot skeptics” to specifically American ideals.

In short, the traditional distinction between nationalism and patriotism has depended on the difference between the “nation,” often an ethnic or cultural community, and the “state,” a political entity with a high degree of sovereignty. Perhaps much of our confusion today results from the melding of these two theoretically distinct ideas, partly as a result of increasingly diverse populations and partly from the painful, often violent process by which artificially constructed postcolonial states have begun to acquire distinct identities. Ten years ago, if you had asked me about the difference between the two words, as a wordsmith but not a political philosopher, I would have used a sports metaphor. The person who says “I love baseball” might be a loyal Yankees fan or might love getting out there and swinging a bat. The approaches to the sport are different; even the ideas about the sport might be different; but they’re not opposed to each other.

When we return to Macron’s statement, though, we see the results of a shift in ideas of country that make for two opposing camps. French nationalists want “France for the French,” a culturally, religiously, and perhaps ethnically homogeneous homeland. French patriots want the ideals of the French state — liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the open secularism that has resulted from centuries of anticlerical policies — to guide them into the future. In Macron’s view, the bigotry and crippling nostalgia of French nationalism directly threaten the maintenance of ideals for which patriots can give their lives. It’s as if the baseball fans, in their raucous insistence on witnessing the game they decided to root for, were posing a threat to the game’s essential future, perhaps its existence.

Oh, wait. Wrong game. That would be football.



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