The words nationalism and patriotism are commonly bandied about to describe people’s entrenched political commitments, and both labels have made frequent appearances in the run-up to next month’s US elections. For a psychologist, however, these terms represent distinct but variable expressions of how humans identify with their society. In fact, the personality differences between nationalists and patriots seem to be universal across cultures, suggesting they are part of our common heritage as humans.
Although nationalists and patriots are both nominally devoted to their society, they relate to it differently. Patriots show pride in a shared identity and sense of belonging – sentiments that come naturally to native-born citizens and naturalised immigrants alike.
With their passion directed toward their own group, patriots emphasise the quotidian needs of their communities - food, housing, schools, and so forth.
By contrast, nationalists couch their identity in glorification. As concerned as patriots are with caring for their fellow citizens, nationalists are preoccupied with preserving what they perceive as a superior way of life, and with keeping their people safe from outside threats. But patriots and nationalists also have divergent ideas about who constitutes “their people.”
Nationalists prize those aspects of their identity that set them apart from others. Hence, they place great importance on demonstrations of loyalty, customary rules of order, obedience to recognised authorities, and the preservation of established social relationships. These values gained purchase as once-egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies settled down and differences in individual and group prestige and power emerged.
Patriots also give “their people” a high standing, but they regard that status as something to be earned rather than merely defended. By implication, patriots allow for the possibility of continual improvement.
Looking across the natural world, we find the closest parallels to nationalists shown by the ants, which stick tightly to what amounts to a colony flag: A particular scent that all members share as a kind of emblem of the group’s identity. In humans, a patriot can become as teary as any nationalist in displaying allegiance to emblems such as a flag or anthem; however, nationalists are especially sensitive to such symbols.
For nationalists, even a brief exposure to the national flag or a respected leader spurs an intense reaction, as does the absence of a symbol when one is expected. This is exemplified by the uproar among American White nationalists over Black professional athletes, who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence.
While nationalists are much more suspicious of diversity than patriots are, that doesn’t mean the latter are immune to prejudice. By reserving their ardor for fellow citizens or members of their own race or ethnicity, patriots may also end up discriminating, at times unwittingly, against those unlike themselves.
Mark W Moffett,