“Patriotism” vs. “Nationalism”: What’s The Difference?

You’ve probably heard of public servants carrying out great acts of patriotism. You’ve probably also heard of concerns of a rising wave of nationalism around the world. Yes, both words involve some form of pride in one’s country, but there is an incredibly important distinction to be made between the two.

Historically, both patriotism and nationalism were used roughly in the same way. But they significantly diverged along the way, and one has a much more positive connotation than the other. Do you know which is which?

What is patriotism?

The word patriotism is a noun that means “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.”

The term often brings to mind people directly involved with the defense of a nation, namely military service members as well as state and local government representatives. For example: The soldiers showed exemplary patriotism defending their country from attack.

Patriotism, however, can take many other forms outside serving in the military and public office. Diplomats, teachers, first responders, and so many more all exemplify patriotism in the many forms of good they do in service of their communities.

There are millions of government employees, as well as millions who volunteer their time in the interest of their country. Individual acts of pride, such as displaying an American flag at one’s home, are also examples of patriotism.

The word patriotism is first recorded in the early 1700s. Interestingly, by the 1770s, the word patriot could refer to “a member of a resistance movement, a freedom fighter,” specifically those who fought against the British in the war for independence—associations that persist today.

Patriotism is based on patriot, which is recorded in the 1500s. This word ultimately derives from Greek patriṓtēs, “fellow-countryman or lineage member.” The root of this word, in turn, means “fatherland.” Paternal, patriarchy, and even English’s own father are related.

What is nationalism?

In most contexts today, nationalism is “the policy or doctrine of asserting the interests of one’s own nation viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations.” In short, nationalism is a kind of excessive, aggressive patriotism.

Modern nationalism is rooted, in part, in French and American revolutions that fought for the sovereignty of their people over monarchies. This historic nationalism is generally viewed favorably, a cornerstone of Western liberalism and democracy.

However, fascist regimes have merged the fervor of nationalism with the notions of superiority, especially when it comes to ethnicity and religion. In such contexts,  “patriots” can become those who happened to agree with you or look like you, and “traitors” those who do not.

This form of nationalism is what happens when patriotism gets out of hand and morphs into something more exclusionary, isolationist, and … well, chauvinist. For example, The lecturer’s speech on immigration and foreign policy quickly devolved into nationalism, blaming undocumented migrants for the climbing unemployment rate, making much of the audience feel uneasy.

Such nationalism can result in jingoism, which is a form of extreme nationalism promoting vigilant preparedness for war and an aggressive foreign policy. It can also result in isolationism, or “the policy or doctrine of isolating one’s country from the affairs of other nations by declining to enter into alliances, foreign economic commitments, international agreement.”

Recorded in the early 1800s, nationalism, as you probably guessed, is based on nation, ultimately from a Latin word meaning “birth, tribe.”

How to use patriotism vs. nationalism

When using these words, it’s important to keep context, and connotation, in mind:

Patriotism generally has a positive connotation. It’s used for various positive sentiments, attitudes, and actions involving loving one’s country and serving the great good of all its people.

Nationalism generally has a negative connotation. It’s used for political ideologies and movements that a more extreme and exclusionary love of one’s country—at the expense of foreigners, immigrants, and even people in a country who aren’t believed to belong in some way, often racial and religious grounds.

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