Patriotism Research Paper

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‘Patriotism’ is about political allegiance (and, of course, loyalty), commitment, and dedication. In briefest compass, it means love of one’s country or nation and is one of the oldest political virtues. It is rather more emotional than rational in its appeal and demands recognition of what is presumptively a preexisting duty to that political order or state. One of the best exemplars of patriotism is Stephen Decatur’s well-known toast in 1816:

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‘Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong.’

To which John Quincy Adams replied:

‘My toast would be, may our country always be successful, but whether successful or otherwise, always right.’

Patriotism depends upon an often unarticulated principle that is the political counterpart to the ‘blood is thicker than water’ adage, which reminds people that they should prefer their families before all others. Patriotism is a natural consequence of political membership or citizenship, and it is not clear where—other than membership itself—the duties of patriotism originate or what justifies them other than that membership, for patriotism is not voluntarily assumed as general political obligations are presumed to be. To deny or renounce patriotism or to act contrary to what its proponents deem appropriate is to be disloyal.

There is a Burkean quality to patriotism, both because it projects an almost organic, trans-historical unity among the member of a state, nation, or people such that each individual is inseparable from the past and because it looks to that past and to the achievements of one’s political ancestors rather than to one’s own accomplishments as sources of pride and holds up those achievements as standards by which the successes of the present are to be measured. In this respect, patriotism can be nurturing as well as oppressive, for it defines and constitutes the political member and, in the process, restricts that member’s range of permissible options.

Patriotism is rarely invoked but is in times of stress or trouble. The call for patriots or acts of patriotism is issued when a sacrifice for the presumed good of the people or their state is needed, usually because that good is perceived to be in jeopardy or under attack. In the period since World War II, those attacks have most often been alleged to come from inside a system, from people who in an earlier day would have been labeled ‘traitors’ but are now more conventionally called ‘disloyal’ and even ‘outsiders.’ During World War II, in Europe, according to the OED, a patriot was a ‘loyal inhabitant of a country overrun by the enemy, especially a member of a resistance movement.’ But for nearly 150 years prior to that, also according to the OED, because the mantle of the patriot had been assumed by persons who were deemed not entitled to it, the term itself was somewhat discredited. Dr Johnson, amplifying his dictum that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ noted that the word was used ‘ironically for a factious disturber of the government.’

Etymologically, ‘patriotism’ springs from the Greek, via Latin, for father and father land, (πατριωτη , from πατριo of one’s fathers, πατρι , one’s fatherland; late Latin patriota, fellow-countryman [OED]), suggesting political membership based on kinship as well as an implicit reliance on family-like bonds to hold a state together. And in the Latinate tongues of Europe, various cognates of patria mean ‘fatherland’ or native country. Native too, as well as nation to which it is conceptually and etymologically related, suggests kinship, but these resonances have long since been buried by linguistic evolution. Their value today is primarily as reminders of the emergence of the political order from tribal, familial associations. ‘Fatherland’ is more obviously familial, and its roots are Germanic rather than Latinate. (Interestingly, German has adopted the Latinate forms der Patriot and der Patriotismus even though it has its own words, der Vaterlandsfreund, literally, friend of the fatherland, and die Vaterlandliebe, lo e of the fatherland.) But patriotism has never had this familial resonance in English, which explains why the term has an air of contentiousness and alarm about it when invoked in English and why its English-speaking history has been checkered. In that largely individualist and voluntarist world, political duty, at least since the seventeenth century, has been viewed as a consequence of intentional commitment and a subject for reason and judgment. In those terms, patriotism has often seemed like an alien concept.

Patriotism is more at home in the conceptual world of republicanism. The republican tradition has always looked upon the state as a closely-knit and relatively homogenous association. Patriotism calls upon the members of this association, when appropriate, to put aside whatever divides them and to rally in support of what they share, a practice that is integral to the communitarian predilections of republican society but stands in need of justification from the perspective of individualism. The call for patriotism—for people to be patriotic, for those who are already patriotic to come forth in the spirit of the patria—is an appeal to the emotions, no less than love in its ordinary sense is an invocation of affect rather than reason. And like the affections that bind friends and family members, patriotism works by reminding those at whom it is directed of their ties and of their non-voluntary relationships to other people. Thomas Paine’s ‘sunshine patriot’ is a play on the better known ‘fair weather friend,’ both demeaning of the self-styled supporter who is unwilling to be inconvenienced.

Patriotism is rooted in emotions rather than reason and has to do with feelings of commitment and loyalty to one’s nation or state and pride in its history and accomplishments. While it is not necessarily irrational or even unthinking, patriotism does pose as the supreme call on one’s commitments, the one that trumps or overrides others with which it may compete.

With the revival of classical republican thinking in English-language political discourse, toward the latter part of the twentieth century, patriotism made an almost grudging return. Republicanism values ‘community’ and ‘civic virtue’ with which it seeks to supplant individualism, self-willed obligation, and institutional legitimacy. Further sources of the renewed appeal to patriotism are the collapse of Eastern European communism and the ensuing struggles for national identity and ‘liberation.’ These linked patriotism to ethnic and religious nationalism (which are akin to those flourishing in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and on the Indian Subcontinent). Even earlier, the worker and student protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s—especially in France, Germany, the UK, and the USA—and the American civil rights movement were all surrounded by claims of ‘disloyalty,’ and illegitimacy, which resulted in quests for the proper bearers of the mantel of patriotism. Finally, in the USA, the period of the Cold War was marked by zealous attacks on disloyal ‘communist sympathizers,’ often in the name of patriotism.

In the West, contemporary proponents of patriotism attempt to harmonize it with the Enlightenment value of ‘cosmopolitanism’ and struggle to separate it from the virulent nationalism with which it is too easily associated and which it often resembles. These efforts seem destined to fail, for patriotism is particularistic, not universal. It tells people that what they have in common is what deeply and importantly unites them and makes them a nation or a ‘people.’ This unity overrides their differences. There is, in consequence, a tendency to homogenize those differences into a political blandness that could render society uninteresting and potentially stagnant. Far worse than that, however, patriotism in this homogenizing form prepares the way for the insistence that a greater, underlying good assigns places in the social order. Because of the fundamental sameness of all members, there are no remediations for deprivations. Those who are not sufficiently ‘the same’ are outsiders who can and should be excluded.

The modern state at the beginning of the twenty-first century is increasingly complex and heterogenous in ways that traditional patriotism cannot comprehend. Moreover, individual states cannot reject that heterogeneity and continue to exist in a world of international political and economic exchange. States today inevitably function in a world that is at odds with their claims of internal uniformity. That internal coherence—where it is more of an ideal than a fact—often leads to oppression. There are few states that do not have internal ‘minority’ peoples who dissent or are excluded from the presumed consensus that undergirds patriotism. While this is not to say that internal political loyalty and cultural and social diversity are incompatible, the responses of the advocates of patriotism to the circumstances that call forth their pleas are antagonistic to cultural variety. One of the hallmarks of modern politics is tolerance and forbearance by states and their members. But tolerance, by its nature, undermines both the spirit and the practice of patriotism. It is far easier—and in many respects more desirable—to give loyalty to those who are regarded as like one’s self, which is among the principal reasons that the habits of obedience that patriotism fosters and on which it depends are usually rooted in the family. To bestow that same deference on an ‘alien’ authority or on one that appears to uphold a different set of values from one’s own is often difficult and can require acts of will and judgment that are antithetical to the non-rational, emotional bases of patriotism.

At the same time, however, so long as there are territorial nations, there will be reasons for inculcating loyalty to them; nations necessarily require their members to make sacrifices from time to time, and it is certainly preferable that these sacrifices—these fulfillments of civic duties and responsibilities—be made willingly if not voluntarily and in the belief that they are justified. Individual members must have grounds for accepting the propriety of actions undertaken by and/or in the names of their states; they must feel some dedication and loyalty to their states. The inculcation of those feelings through the process generally known as ‘civic education’ must be done in ways that preserve the forbearance that toleration requires and do not give rise to the exclusionary and destructively ugly nationalism that often has patriotism as its partner.


  1. Canovan M 2000 Patriotism is not enough. British Journal of Political Science 30: 413–32
  2. Dietz M G 1989 Patriotism. In: Ball T, Farr J, Hansen R L (eds.) Political Innovation and Conceptual Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 177–93
  3. Nussbaum M C 1996 Patriotism and cosmopolitanism. In: Cohen J (ed.) For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism. Beacon Books, Boston, MA, pp. 1–16
  4. Rorty R 1999 The unpatriotic academic. In: Rorty R (ed.) Philosophy and Social Hope. Reprinted from the New York Times, 13 February 1994. Penguin Books, New York, pp. 252–54
  5. Schaar J H 1973 The case for patriotism. American Review 17 (May): 59–99
  6. Wahlke J C (ed.) 1952 Loyalty in a Democratic State. D C Heath, Boston, MA
  7. Viroli M 1995 For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism a. Nationalism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK


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