Nationalism v. Patriotism. A Response to Professor Somin

December 1st, 2009
*Note: This is a guest blog post from Joshua House.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Professor Ilya Somin has posted a response to Jonah Goldberg’s Thanksgiving post at National Review Online. Goldberg’s post reads,

[I love Thanksgiving because it is] America’s only nationalist holiday. The Fourth of July, President’s Day, and even Veterans’ and Memorial Day are celebrations of the nation-state created by the American founding. In short, our other holidays are about patriotism, not nationalism. Thanksgiving meanwhile celebrates a pre-constitutional relationship with the Almighty. I wouldn’t quite say it’s a pre-modern or blood-and-soil holiday, but it is about Providence and the great gift being here, in this place, is. A little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism. This country is great and good for many reasons. But one reason for its greatness, too often forgotten, is that it is ours.

Professor Somin responds to Mr. Goldberg by criticizing Nationalism in typical libertarian fashion. In short, he says that Nationalism is not only unnecessary but also often leads to repression, economic protectionism, and irrational politics.

Rather than offer my own thoughts on nationalism (though I should say that I tend to agree with Professor Somin more than I do with Mr. Goldberg), I want to examine a common problem with this debate. Mr. Goldberg hints at the issue in his statement; the problem is that there is a blurry line between patriotism and nationalism. I often say that most arguments in the world would be immediately solved if people were using the same words to describe the same things. I feel that this is yet another disagreement exacerbated by a definitional mismatch.

First, notice that Mr. Goldberg distinguishes nationalism and patriotism by saying that “celebrations of the nation-state” are patriotic, not nationalistic. It seems likely that Mr. Goldberg thinks that celebrations of the nation, i.e. the people or ethnicity, are nationalistic, while celebrations of the state, at least when tied to the nation, are patriotic. Conversely, Professor Somin defines nationalism as “loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity”. We can immediately perceive that Professor Somin’s definition, while including the concepts of language, culture, and ethnicity referred to by Mr. Goldberg, is drastically different because it includes the nation-state.

I think that Professor Somin’s more political concerns (economic/policy-related) are not relevant to Mr. Goldberg’s discussion. Mr. Goldberg is not talking about loyalty to a political entity but rather to a nation or people. However, Professor Somin’s concerns regarding ethnic and cultural bigotry are certainly still pertinent.

Next, I would like to present my own views on the distinction between nationalism and patriotism.

From a purely etymological standpoint, nationalism seems to more accurately refer to loyalty to the nation-state, a political entity with a relatively homogenous culture or ethnicity. The root ‘nation’ is derived from the Latin ‘Natio’ which means ‘to be born’. Therefore, a nation is a people with common ancestry. Ties to a nation are based on birth. ‘National’ means ‘of, or relating to, a nation’. Nationalism is a movement or school of thought that a political entity or state should be defined by relations to a nation. Thus, nationalism refers to loyalty to a nation-state, or perhaps loyalty to any state, based on ties of ethnicity or culture.

On the other hand, patriotism can exist, at least in its classical definition, without a state. Patriot is derived from the Latin ‘patriota’, meaning ‘fellow countryman’. ‘Patriota’ was originally derived from the Greek ‘patrios’, which means ‘of one’s fathers’. It follows that one can take Patriotism in two ways: Either it is a movement completely based on ties of ethnicity or culture and is a synonym for ‘nation-ism’ or it is a movement based on some kind of figurative meaning of being ‘of one’s fathers’. The first meaning is common usage in our vernacular, while the latter is popular among those who wish to avoid association with a government’s actions.

I tend to agree with the latter, not only because it provides the closest description of my own sentiments, but also because it seems to be the definition the Greek philosophers and poets used. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles (the famous Athenian politician) speaks of the pride of the patriots of Athens. Such patriotism is based on the ideals of justice, law, open foreign policy, and equality of opportunity. Patriotism in this sense is related to loyalty to a philosophy and conception of the good, not a state. Thusly, our society developed the idea that a patriot can exist even if he is civilly disobedient (civil disobedience, coincidentally, also has roots in Greece via Socrates).

In sum, the nationalist supports America because it is America and he is American, while the patriot supports America because he agrees with its founding fathers’ goals and ideals. The patriot supports the American state only if it continues in the same traditions proclaimed by its fathers and has no need to do so, indeed might be required not to, if it were to stray from the ideals of its founding. What those ideals are is an entirely separate debate.