Politics & Policy

Patriot Games

(Photo: Mary Katherine Wynn/Dreamstime)
The distinction between nationalism and patriotism proves hard to explain or defend.

John O’Sullivan had a piece on the NRO homepage Thursday commenting on the debate about patriotism and nationalism, and I can’t improve upon what he wrote. But I wanted to add a few points about Jonah’s G-File last weekend.

First, I should say, it was rollicking good fun, and Jonah never fails to astonish and impress with how he can combine wildly entertaining writing with deeply serious arguments. But some pushback:

— Jonah is slicing it very, very thin here. In his first reply to our piece, Jonah wrote, “Everyone is born a nationalist, to one extent or another,” and that’s because nationalism isn’t a doctrine “but an emotional or psychological state.” It is a “natural human passion” that needs “proper channeling.” Becoming a patriot, per Jonah, takes careful ideological training of the sort set out by a Walter Berns.

Then, in the G-File, Jonah writes, “People all over the world love their countries.” This makes patriotism sound, if not universal, quite widespread. And what is love, if not itself an emotional or psychological state that needs careful channeling? Indeed, Jonah talks about how we need to distinguish between different kind of loves.

His discussion of this point is genuinely interesting, but it seems to me that Jonah has given away whatever categorical distinction he wanted to maintain. By his account, both nationalism and patriotism are natural to some extent or other, both are passions, and both need to be channeled in constructive directions.

So what’s the fundamental difference between the two? At the end of the day, Jonah’s definition seems to come down to patriotism is everything good and right and nationalism is (mostly) everything intolerant and dangerous. If we take this literally, patriotism is the only human passion that can never be distorted or go wrong. Patriots never become chauvinists. Patriots never, in an excess of zeal, trample on another country’s interests or honor. They never, during a time of war, clamp down on dissent. Patriots are paladins of truth and justice, and if they ever misstep they, by definition, become something else — nationalists, presumably.

This definition might make some theoretical sense, but it is completely disconnected from how people act, think, and feel in the real world. The French army that swept across parts of Europe after the revolution was nationalist, yes, but these troops were also fired by a sense of French exceptionalism, a devotion to certain universal ideals, and a belief that they should spread their ideals as far as possible. So they certainly seem to fulfill large parts of Jonah’s definition of patriotism — suggesting that even too much patriotism can be a bad thing.

— In the G-File, Jonah refines what he initially wrote about how other countries, in contrast to us, fight tribal wars. He gives William the Orange his due (for the record, I referred in my Corner post to William the Silent, but there’s no reason Jonah or anyone else should have clicked through to the link of the statue and seen this). But Jonah says William’s patriotism was “fundamentally” different from American patriotism. I might balk at that “fundamentally,” and I think that word reflects an overly reductive view of European history. The Dutch revolt and the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution were part of a great uprising against royal absolutism, and America stands on their shoulders.

Jonah implicitly admits as much when he refers to our “national DNA” and quotes Tocqueville writing that the American was the Englishman left alone. This is absolutely correct, but it underlines that America is a product of a specific culture and isn’t just an intellectual project. If the Eastern seaboard had been settled by Spaniards, you could have left them alone for a very long time and marinated them in Locke, and they still never would have come up with the American Founding.

If the Eastern seaboard had been settled by Spaniards, you could have left them alone for a very long time and marinated them in Locke, and they still never would have come up with the American Founding.

Jonah tries to save his slighting view of the English struggles to control the crown by reminding us that they were, in part, wars between Protestants and Catholics. True, of course. He could have added that there was also a significant regional element. But some of the same forces played out in our Revolution and in the Civil War. In fact, Kevin Phillips argues pretty persuasively in his brilliant book The Cousins’ Wars that the English Civil War, American Revolution, and the Civil War all reflected the religious and political geography of the old country. Roughly the same people lined up on the same sides over the same basic question — namely, whether to uphold “a guiding political culture of a Low Church, Calvinistic Protestantism, commercially adept, militantly expansionistic, and highly convinced, in Old World, New World, or both, that it represented a chosen people and a manifest destiny.”

Because America is not just an idea, it is impossible to understand her outside this historical and cultural context.

— Jonah didn’t respond to my point about the patriotic liberal who believes in our ideals but, because he’s an anti-nationalist, doesn’t care about our borders or sovereignty. I’d like to return to this, as it bears on what he says about President Obama. According to Jonah, Obama couldn’t truly love the country because he wanted to “fundamentally transform” it. But this cuts against the abstract, idealized notion of patriotism Jonah is trying to uphold. If patriotism is based on an idea and nationalism is based on a country as it exists — its people, its culture, its traditions, etc. — why can’t a patriot seek to fundamentally transform the country? He’s simply trying to bring the flawed, refractory material of the nation into keeping with a shimmering ideal. Maybe it’s a misbegotten patriotism, but I don’t see how Jonah on his own terms can say it’s not a form of patriotism.

— A word on exceptionalism. If we are going to believe that this is an exceptional country, superior to all others (sign me up), we ought to realize that American nationalism is better than nationalism in other places in the world — more rational and moderate and less aggressive. This, too, is part of our cultural inheritance. I obviously take Jonah’s point that extreme nationalism is dangerous, and obviously there are many examples of European conflicts that were and are tribal in the sense that he uses it. But an American patriot ought to have a little more faith in this country’s nationalism.

Finally, let me say that I consider this country a home. I love its people, its traditions, myths and rituals, its landscape, music, and literature. I love some of these things because they are good, yes, but if I’m being honest, I also love them simply because they are ours. I know Jonah does, too, and so do most Americans. Jonah can try to make all of this largely an intellectual exercise, but it isn’t and never will be. Ignore or anathematize nationalism and you will be disconnected from the natural, benign sentiments of your fellow Americans — and blindsided and aghast when they prove a potent political force.


The Latest