Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access

“Nationalism” is rapidly overtaking even “populism” as a foremost political bogeyman. Yet progressives will often still embrace “pa­tri­ot­ism.” The elevation of the last term is meant to deflect Trump-­style accusations that the left hates the United States and wishes it ill. Liberals often maintain that true love of country means calling the nation to its best self and thus subjecting it to criticism.

Hence for progressives, “nationalism” is bad pa­tri­ot­ism, associated with militancy and racism. The word now suggests a blind, ignorant, belligerent allegiance, whereas “patriotism” is peaceable, noble, and clear-­eyed. Yet in a dictionary sense, the two words substantially overlap. Merriam-Webster defines pa­tri­ot­ism as “love for or devotion to one’s country” and nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation” and notes that the nouns were once interchangeable. But the reference qualifies that “nationalism” especially entails “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” A blog entry on the dictionary’s website observes, “This exclusionary aspect is not shared by pa­tri­ot­ism.

While accepting the differences of nuance, I challenge this popular but arguably artificial distinction. Liberals’ implicit assumption that their fealty to country is rational, healthy, righteous, and altruistic, while conservatives’ fealty is unreasoning, tiny-minded, poisonous, and piggy, is, well, a bit too convenient, isn’t it? A bit of a stacked deck.

Assuming that you pledge allegiance to the country where you first popped up in the world, any pa­tri­ot­ism on your part is arbitrary. What are the statistical chances that out of 195 countries on earth you just happened to have shown up in the one nation that is objectively most lovable? Whatever you call it, devotion to country is generally dictated by accident of birth and is therefore a matter of chance. For most native-­born inhabitants, love of country is a passive affair, a making the best of present circumstances that would be arduous to change. Thus for the majority, pa­tri­ot­ism is an expedience.

Apologies to Merriam-­Webster, but, like nationalism, pa­tri­ot­ism is also exclusionary. If you don’t love your own country more than other countries—­if you love all countries equally well—­that affection shouldn’t be called pa­tri­ot­ism but humanism, if not schizophrenia.

Immigrants and naturalized citizens can claim to be pa­triots by choice. Yet what commonly governs this choice isn’t love but self-­interest. For that matter, why are so many of you native-­born American readers loyal to the United States and not to, say, Denmark? Because you live here, and what happens here affects you. Pa­tri­ot­ism is a form of collective self-­interest.

Put aside the ­MAGA caps and simplistic, historically tainted slogans of the Trump Administration for a moment. Don’t we expect all American presidents to be nationalists, absent the pugnacious jingoism? Surely we want our leaders to put the interests of our country first, if ideally to pursue enlightened self-­interest. Were the interests of all the people in the world considered of equal importance, government would be paralyzed. There would be no standard for weighing one course of action against another.

Thus Barack Obama kept us out of a massive military involvement in Syria not for Syrians’ sake but for ours: falling into another bottomless military sinkhole in the Middle East would have been antithetical to America’s interest. What’s wrong with Trump is that so much of the time he’s not acting in our country’s interest. He hijacks the language of pa­tri­ot­ism for self-­promotion. He’s not a pa­triot. The country is a mere vehicle. He loves only himself. Actually, I wonder if he loves anything, including himself.

I’m no nationalist, and if there really is a substantial semantic difference between the labels, I’ve long been a lousy pa­triot too. In my youth, like many boomer contemporaries, I disparaged my country up a storm while under-­aware that my very ability to do so without getting arrested was one of the big things the United States had going for it. Ditto my freedom to regard expressions of pa­tri­ot­ism as elective. Well into my thirties, I still experienced my nationality as something shameful to apologize for. In my maturity, I’ve put that embarrassment to rest. I didn’t choose to be born in the United States; everyone has to be from somewhere, and there are certainly worse places to hail from. Loyalty to country needn’t imply loyalty to a given government, and I don’t hold us Americans alive today responsible for our country’s numerous historical sins.

Yet to the extent that I am a pa­triot, I’m a bigamist. Because I have spent the majority of my adult life as an expat, my sense of allegiance to the States has been unavoidably attenuated. (More the result of accident than design, my London residency exhibits much the same arbitrariness of birthplace.) But one can feel loyal to more than one nation, even if my two loyalties coexist in a state of subtle tension. Peculiarly, I’ve often been asked if I have a clearer view of the United States from abroad, when I have a clue about my own country these days only because I return annually for long, blissful summers.

I do get a warm, fuzzy feeling upon landing at ­JFK, and that toasty emotion has grown toastier now that I can whiz through immigration via Global Entry. (I prefer pa­tri­ot­ism that doesn’t cost anything or, better still, provides perks.) Bureaucratically, it’s relaxing to be “home” in the Robert Frostian sense of where they have to take you in, though it’s hard to distinguish this gratitude for being back on American soil from the comforts of sheer familiarity. I’m relieved to blend anonymously in, as I can’t quite in the U.K. Ironically, only in the United States am I not widely perceived as “an American.”

My allegiance to my native and adoptive countries is about equally divided. I care about what happens in both places. I want both countries to thrive. The shortcomings and travails of both countries pain me. Yet I haven’t applied for British citizenship. I’m currently obliged to declare my worldwide income to two fiendishly complex tax systems, and the prospect of nailing down this odious dual duty in perpetuity, with no option to simplify the paperwork, is disagreeable. But I’ve wondered whether a deeper reluctance might be at play. I’ve been referred to as “an American” for so many decades that maybe I’ve stopped fighting the designation. If anything, I may be more keenly aware of my nationality than most of my compatriots. Trump’s election has not only strained my fealty; it’s also stirred the tenderness one feels toward the imperiled. (On learning that the shyster won in 2016, this “lousy pa­triot” surprised herself. I cried.) British citizenship might feel if not quite like a betrayal, then at least like a muddying of something that is presently clear-­cut.

I’ve never been directly affected by American military adventures, and my pa­tri­ot­ism has never been tested. That may be a leading reason why the loyalty feels so feeble, for pa­tri­ot­ism becomes truly noble only when it calls you to personal sacrifice. The sole significant sacrifice my nationality has ever demanded of me is money—­and it’s not as if I’ve volunteered these donations.

More interesting than the dubious, often self-­serving distinction between nationalism and pa­tri­ot­ism is what exactly, when we’re loyal to a country, we’re loyal to. What is a country? I’m not being glib. The answer to that question is not altogether obvious, and the differences between our answers could also hold the key to the modern conventions governing the usages of “nationalism” and “pa­tri­ot­ism.”

What is a country? An accumulated history. A culture (whatever that means). A legal framework (up to a point, subject to change). A government (very subject to change). Perhaps a set of values, though what those values are may be up for debate. Obviously, a place. Most importantly, a people.

National Review editor Rich Lowry delivered a talk in July titled “Why America Is Not an Idea” in which he criticized this prevailing cliché as an “over-­intellectualized understanding of America.” Nonetheless, the United States is unusual among nations in believing itself a concept, although we might vary in how we encapsulate what’s less a single idea than a set of multiple principles. I’m especially attached to the deeply American proposition that we should all be free to do what we like so long as we’re not hurting anyone else. The fact that American laws violate this tenet at every turn doesn’t lessen its appeal. Another vital principle is that anyone can become an American; that our nationality is not (or is no longer) dependent on race, ethnicity, or religion. Who all constitute “the American people” is therefore in eternal flux. As we repeat to ourselves endlessly, we’re “a nation of immigrants.”

Some of the earliest founders of the country, American blacks were “immigrants” against their will who may have a better excuse than anyone else for colonizing this continent. The African-­American proportion of the population has remained roughly steady at around 11 to 13 percent. Chinese immigration in the nineteenth century was culturally important, but by 1910 America’s Chinese population was a statistically modest 0.1 percent, perhaps in part because of the 1882 Exclusion Act. Horrifyingly, the Native American population is still under 2 percent. Otherwise, the United States has experienced large waves of immigration from Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, Ireland, Poland, etc.—­also known as Europe. Take a step back, and despite the commensurate waves of accompanying stigmatization and prejudice, the American people before about 1970 were far more homogeneous than our melting-­pot rhetoric would suggest—­not so much tutti-­frutti as white chocolate with a slender dark swirl. Since 1970, the population share of foreign-born immigrants has nearly tripled. Non-Hispanic whites have gone from 83.5 percent of the population to about 60 percent today. Post-­1970 arrivals have been overwhelmingly from Latin America and Asia.

The point is that we’ve gone from faux pluralism to the real thing. One of the many reasons for a building backlash against this fifty-­year trend is that the country’s white majority is constantly bombarded with “nation of immigrants” propaganda that seems to imply that the United States has always been like this—­that nothing has changed. In truth, who “the American people” are has profoundly transformed, and we now have to live up to our high-­flown notion of ourselves as never before. Putting many millions of people from all over the world with different traditions and beliefs in the same place and expecting them to get along is an experiment that’s never been tried anywhere, including in the United States. The vote’s still out.

Until very recently in modern Europe, a country has been roughly synonymous with a people. These peoples have had an ethnic component as well as a broad cultural coherence. Germans ate schnitzel, ran to fat, and staged polka festivals. Italians whipped up a mean zabaglione, used their hands when they talked, and relied rather heavily on the Renaissance for a sense of achievement. In an era of mass immigration, Europeans are being asked in short order not merely to be welcoming to strangers but to upend their entire concept of country. In the new order, your countrymen do not necessarily speak your language, profess your religion or for that matter your secularism, share your sense of humor, or have any reason to identify with either the long and often tortured history of your nation or its collective cultural accomplishments. The only thing that makes them “German” or “Italian” is geographical presence on German or Italian soil.

Europeans are thus being asked within a generation to convert from a European to an American concept of nationhood, but without a history of politically servicing this more absorptive, fluid definition. Most European countries haven’t fostered an “idea” of the sort that theoretically unifies Americans. British politicians often talk up “British values,” but aside from a vague sense of fair play and a devotion to queueing, most Brits would be hard-­pressed to identify what these values are. Only France has a similar idea of itself as committed to liberty, equality, and fraternity, which is why the French state refuses to track the nation’s racial and ethnic makeup. Otherwise, in European nations whose citizens aren’t apt to get sentimental about their legal systems, the concept of a country seems to be shrinking to a patch on a map.

Hence the rise not only of nationalism but also of usage of the word “nationalism” as a synonym for bigotry. (“Ethno-­nationalism” in most in­stan­ces is a more accurate word.) The conflict over immigration in Europe is fundamentally an argument over the concept of country. Lest you dismiss all these prejudiced, closed-­minded ethno-nationalists as backward-looking­ and disgusting, it’s worth asking whether an Italy that no longer has more than a handful of Italians in that zabaglione sense—­a country that, for argument’s sake, is abundantly populated by Chinese people eating moo shu pork—­really remains “Italy,” even if the place—the patch on the map—­is still there.

We native-­born Americans now have to put our genuine inclusiveness where our mouths are. We have been talking the talk for decades. We’ve long thought of our people as dynamically various, even if until very recently we weren’t nearly as various as we imagined. We’re conflicted over what to do when Club USA is oversubscribed, but at least the national narrative can accommodate newcomers in quantity. Europeans historically haven’t adopted the same story, making mass immigration far more consequential. Intriguingly, I’ve had multiple conversations with progressive Americans who have no quarrel with high levels of immigration to the United States but express quiet queasiness about substantial, largely Muslim immigration to Europe. They’re attached to the idea that Germans eat schnitzel and read Heinrich Böll. These otherwise intelligent progressives are embarrassed by that discomfort. By implication, European nations, which many white Americans still regard as their ancestral homelands, have an obligation to stay the same, like natural-history museum dioramas, so that we can visit.

Having deliberately committed to another country, as opposed to lazily acquiescing to fate like the native-born­, many recent immigrants are especially passionate about their new home and less likely to take its benefits for granted. Yet the very etymology of “patriotism”—from the Greek word patrios, meaning “of one’s father”—­is deeply entwined with lineage. In a world on the move that is increasingly severing the concept of country from a recognizable people, Americans can cling to their national idea for coherence, if not always for cohesion. Most Europeans have no such anchor.

Catholic Latino immigrants in the United States should be able to assimilate into a traditionally Christian country with relative grace, while Asian Americans have been getting with the program with such alacrity that they’re beating the white majority at its own economic game. Africans and Middle Easterners migrating to Europe cross a greater cultural chasm.

As Europe’s dominant cultures grow increasingly dilute, denunciation of all who want to preserve the original character of their countries as “nationalist,” meaning “bigoted,” has a truth to it, but not the whole truth. (In Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, the greater problem than nationalism is autocracy.) Country­-as-patch-on-the-­map doesn’t inspire much fervor. Given the demographics of this century, the continuance of an incoming tide from the Continent’s south is probably inevitable. That shouldn’t preclude forgiving some Europeans for their sense of loss.

More from

| View All Issues |

June 2019

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now