The Long View: Why liberals should abandon patriotism

If you’re reading this in 2018, you probably don’t need reminding of the dangers of national pride. Countries around the world seem to be succumbing to the temptations of a divisive, vainglorious, and illiberal patriotism. In the Philippines, president Rodrigo Duterte has made it a crime to sing the national anthem unenthusiastically. The government of India has warned its citizens that ‘antinational’ criticism of the country will not be tolerated under free speech laws. And in Europe, the far-right is once again garnering strong support in local and national elections.

At times it can all feel a bit overwhelming. For those of us who find this nationalist lurch deeply disturbing, what can we do to resist it?

The standard answer to this question, regularly offered by liberal pundits, is that we must fight nationalism with patriotism — that is, strip nationalism of its emotive power by recasting national pride in a liberal, progressive light. ‘If patriotism is to be weaponised in contemporary politics,’ writes the journalist Katharine Murphy, ‘the centre can’t opt out of the fight.’ The Labour politician Chuka Umunna agrees, asserting that ‘the left must get over its queasiness at displays of national pride’ and ‘harness the power of patriotism.’

A similar view pervades the academic study of national pride. The political philosopher Yael Tamir, resigning herself to the fact that ‘nationalism will simply not go away,’ believes that it is up to the liberals among us to tame it into something compatible with liberal values. If we don’t, she argues, then national pride — with all its impassioned, vote-winning power — will be monopolised by the illiberal and reactionary forces in society: the xenophobes, racists and far-right radicals who make up groups like the English Defence League, the Ku Klux Klan and Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

Replace divisive nationalism with inclusive patriotism: keep the passion, lose the hate. It might seem like a win-win solution to the problem of national pride, but is it really? I’m not so convinced.

Nationalism is patriotism
I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m unpatriotic. I’m convinced that patriotism, in all its forms, is illogical, dangerous and unnecessary. Illogical, because it encourages us to take pride in the fact that we happened to be born in one country rather than another. Dangerous, because it entrenches arbitrary national divides and fuels feelings of superiority and rivalry. Unnecessary, because the worthy causes national pride is used to promote can be expressed just as well — if not better — without the patriotic baggage.

It will therefore come as no surprise to find out that I’m deeply suspicious of liberal attempts to ‘harness the power of patriotism,’ particularly when this is done by distinguishing patriotism from nationalism. Yes, it’s very easy to condemn nationalism as artificial and aggressive, and to applaud patriotism as peaceful and natural. Politicians and writers do it all the time. For Charles de Gaulle, ‘patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.’ For George Orwell, ‘patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.’

What these epigrams obscure, however, is the inherent similarity and ambiguity between the two concepts. After all, both are expressions of national pride. Both talk of love, duty and belonging in terms that are frequently indistinguishable. Is it patriotic or nationalistic when Donald Trump insists on putting ‘America First’? Is it patriotic or nationalistic when Russian children are sent to ‘military patriotism’ camps, or when Indians are arrested for sitting during the national anthem? At what point does national pride switch from noble patriotism to ignoble nationalism?

Sooner or later we have to acknowledge an awkward truth: there’s no difference between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism is simply the name we give to national pride when we disagree with it. Thus we are patriots, but they are nationalists. And as reassuring as it might be to distinguish between patriotism’s good and bad expressions, à la Orwell and de Gaulle, it makes no more sense to claim that such a distinction exists in reality than it does to claim that I am two different people because I have acted both kindly and selfishly in my life.

As soon as we appreciate this, it becomes much harder to view patriotism in such a positive light. If we can no longer use nationalism as a scapegoat for the crimes of national pride, we’re forced to confront the fact that the horrors of nationalism — what the political theorist John Dunn calls ‘the starkest shame of the twentieth century’ — are also the horrors of patriotism. True, national pride can be expressed peacefully. At the same time, it’s undeniable that patriotism (or nationalism, or national pride, or whatever you want to call it) played a part in the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars, or that it was central to maintaining popular support for Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, or that it’s still used today to stifle free speech and expression.

This realisation is a major blow to those who hope to fight nationalism with patriotism. If there’s no fundamental difference between the poison and the cure, how can we hope to improve the situation?

A necessary evil?
A number of scholars, Tamir included, accept that any distinction between patriotism and nationalism is a false dichotomy and instead offer a more pragmatic solution. For all its moral murkiness, they suggest that national pride is simply too politically valuable for liberals to abandon. If liberalism doesn’t depict itself as patriotic, the argument goes, then it would simply lose political legitimacy and influence, unable to compete with the populist chauvinism rife today. The best hope for challenging the illiberalism of Trump and others, therefore, is to embrace national pride and present liberal ideas patriotically.

It’s easy to appreciate the motivation behind this argument. National pride is undoubtedly one of the central tenets of modern politics and a prerequisite for anyone aspiring to public office. As a result, any public figure suspected of being unpatriotic is quickly pounced upon. Remember when Jeremy Corbyn was pictured not singing along to God Save The Queen? He was condemned as ‘disrespectful’, ‘disloyal’, ‘dishonourable’ and ‘disgraceful,’ and obliged to reassure voters that he loved his country in a following speech. Likewise, when the shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry considered it ‘remarkable’ that someone would drape three England flags across the front of their house, she was accused of being ‘derogatory and dismissive of the people’, and was forced to resign.

So I can understand why liberals would want to avoid being labelled unpatriotic. Politicians have spent the past few centuries condemning the unpatriotic as aloof, elitist, selfish, soulless, disloyal and treacherous. And yet I can’t help feeling disappointed whenever I encounter this case for adopting patriotism.

For one thing, it isn’t really an argument for patriotism so much as an argument against illiberalism. Of course the aspiring dictatorships of politicians like Recep Erdogan in Turkey or Victor Orban in Hungary are deeply concerning. But that doesn’t absolve patriotism of its sins. Indeed, the fact that both these demagogues — and many more besides — routinely appeal to national pride to maintain popular support should make us even more uncomfortable with patriotism.

More importantly, however, it’s unclear how compatible patriotism and liberalism actually are. As the philosopher Jeff McMahan suggests, the ‘defining characteristic’ of patriotism is that members of a nation or state are encouraged to treat their compatriots with greater concern and respect than they would treat foreigners. This seems to render patriotism ‘incompatible with the guiding principle of liberalism: that all persons are of equal worth and as such are entitled to equal concern and respect.’ Not only this, but the patriotic urge for national unity seems at loggerheads with the liberal emphasis on individuality.

What this means is that any marriage between liberalism and patriotism is a compromise; in order to wave the flag, liberals will have to drop some of their beliefs. Fair enough, you might say: that’s what politics is all about. But how much of our liberalism are we willing to compromise? How illiberal would patriotism have to become before liberals renounced it? The emotional nature of national attachment can make it very hard for people to question, let alone disown, their love of country, no matter how much rational evidence or how many moral arguments are piled up against it. If the horror show that is 20th century patriotism isn’t enough to dissuade some from their national pride, it’s hard to think what would.  

Leaving patriotism
For those of us who are unwilling to sacrifice our liberal values for the sake of patriotic popularity, we find ourselves back at this investigation’s initial question: what can we do to resist the illiberal patriotism gripping so much of the world right now?

I’m going to go out on a limb here: if we don’t think patriotism is a particularly good idea, or are troubled by its role in illiberal politics, then we ought to have the courage to say so. We ought to leave patriotism out of our political beliefs.

In a world of realpolitik this answer might seem, I admit, hopelessly naive or romantic. But by leaving patriotism out of our thinking we can express our ideas clearly, with honesty and conviction, and without compromise. Liberalism might not exactly be the political flavour the month, but its central tenets — ideas like personal freedom and an equal chance in life — continue to resonate strongly with many millions of people around the world. Are we really so unconfident in the appeal of these ideals that we feel the need to wrap them in patriotic packaging?

Liberalism can be convincingly expressed without recourse to patriotism. And if it’s to survive the 21st century as a respectable political orientation, it needs to be. The values of liberalism are greater than the pettiness and parochialism of patriotism and will gain nothing from a misguided marriage of convenience with national pride.

Opponents of this view will quickly fire back that the liberal abandonment of patriotism could leave national pride hostage to the illiberal forces in society. I won’t deny this, although I don’t see how it scuppers the case against patriotism. We have no problem leaving other illiberal ideas with xenophobes, racists and far-right radicals. No one is arguing that we should try and combine, say, white supremacism or homophobia with liberal ideas just to stop them being monopolised by the far-right. So why should patriotism be any different?

Another concern centres around the role of national pride in civil society. Without patriotism, worry liberal thinkers such as Charles Taylor, people would drift towards political apathy. Similarly, the sociologist Rogers Brubaker suggests that national pride might be helpful in maintaining support for welfare systems. But do people really participate in politics because they’re patriotic? After all, there’s no correlation between more patriotic countries and higher voter turnout. And claims that we need a sense of national pride and solidarity for an effective welfare state are powerless to explain the USA, one of the most patriotic and yet anti-welfare countries in the Western world.

While we’re here, it’s also worth stating that a critical approach to patriotism is not an endorsement of cosmopolitanism or a ‘world state’. The modern national or multinational state is, at least for the foreseeable future, a necessary vehicle and safeguard for liberal values — something I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge. But this isn’t a tacit approval of patriotism: there’s a big difference between a pragmatic acceptance of existing states and a championing of national pride. The former is compatible with liberalism; the latter is to surrender liberalism to patriotism. 

I don’t pretend that leaving patriotism would be painless. For some, the break-up will be difficult or even impossible. Politicians, for example, will find that the mandatory veneration of national pride in our political culture will make renouncing patriotism tantamount to professional suicide, at least for the time being.

Nevertheless, liberals can’t seriously confront the illiberal patriotism at the heart of much contemporary politics without attacking the patriotism that lends these movements so much of their passion, legitimacy and support. And we can’t attack patriotism if we still want to be patriots ourselves. If our aim is to promote a more rational, peaceful and free world, it’s time we abandoned patriotism.

David Mountain

David (@DavidMwriting) is a freelance writer and Masters student at the University of Edinburgh. He is fascinated and infuriated by the power of patriotism.

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