Nationalism vs. Patriotism: What's the Difference and Why it Matters

Nationalism vs. Patriotism: What’s the Difference and Why it Matters
By Sam Jacobs - May 07, 2021

The terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” are often used interchangeably. This is understandable, as they have somewhat overlapping meanings, both of which suffer from a certain amount of vagueness. However, there are a number of key differences between the two that are worth shedding light on. In the final analysis, we believe that the term “nationalism,” while not denoting anything totalitarian by its nature, is not an accurate term for the sentiment that exists in the United States. Nationalism, it would seem, is more suited to Europe or Asia, places with historic nations, united by common language and ethnicity that are necessarily tied with a certain area of land.

There’s a lot to unpack here and the differences are extremely subtle. And to give a bit of a spoiler, we’re not going to be taking the position, as is often the case, that patriotism is fine but nationalism is simply a metastatic and malignant form of patriotism.

First Things First: How Do Both Differ From Libertarianism and Conservatism


Before going any further, it’s worth taking a few minutes to distinguish both patriotism and nationalism from libertarianism and conservatism. We can do this without parsing out the difference between patriotism and nationalism – and for that matter, libertarianism and conservatism.

Libertarianism and conservatism operate from a similar set of principles. These principles are abstract and platonic in as much as they are about divining the truest form of an ideal ideology from a stated goal. Libertarianism has a clear philosophical principle: more liberty is always good. American conservatism is a diffuse and often contradictory philosophy, but for the purposes of extrapolating the difference between conservatism and other ideologies, we will say that the defining characteristic of American conservatism (as opposed to European conservatism, which has a much greater overlap with nationalism), is that of limited government.

We can conflate both of these ideals into the somewhat more vague notion that “freedom is always good.” The point here isn’t to oversimplify and make a strawman. It’s simply to come up with a uniting ethos to illustrate how nationalism and patriotism as ideologies differ from currents that have been more mainstream on the American right for a longer period of time.

Nationalism and patriotism, on the other hand, might find value in freedom and might even make a secondary goal out of it. However, the uniting principle of each is that it is the country itself, the success of the body politic, that is paramount, not more abstract notions of freedom.

Thus, the key difference is that conservatism and libertarianism are philosophically driven ideologies where results take a backseat to principles. On the other hand, nationalism and patriotism are pragmatic ideologies, where the proof is in the pudding. Another way of phrasing this is that libertarianism and conservatism are non-consequentialist, whereas nationalism and patriotism are consequentialist. Conservatism and libertarianism are guided by “doing the right thing,” whereas nationalism and patriotism are more “the ends justify the means” type of philosophies.

It is worth noting, briefly, that Sam Francis, an advisor to the 1996 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, urged him to not even compete for the mantle of “conservative,” instead telling him to identify as a nationalist, patriot or America Firster. His ideas are considered enormously influential on President Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Definition by Contrast: What is Globalism?


Nationalism and patriotism also stand in contrast to globalism. While this term is thrown around a lot, it is worth discussing what it is and what it means and how it is different from its alternatives.

Globalism is, simply put, a view of politics that values trans-national bureaucracies over the nation state. Sometimes these are big, shadowy institutions like the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group, but more commonly they are far more innocuous-looking non-governmental organizations (NGOs or sometimes “QUANGOs” for “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations).

NGOs generally present themselves as some kind of politically neutral entity that is just about “good people doing good things.” Amnesty International, for example, was, for many years, an organization dedicated to defending people who were held in jail for their political or religious views. They now lobby for legalized abortion and liberalization of gay marriage laws across the world. Regardless of how one feels about either of these issues, it seems difficult to square either of these with the mission of Amnesty.

NGOs are largely how George Soros exercises power over the political process of countries, which has led to them being expelled from Hungary and Myanmar. They tend to have generic names like “United We Dream” or “International Rescues Committee.” Thus, they are difficult to attack on their face – are you opposed to dreams and rescues?

Globalism is marked by both its global orientation and hostility toward the nation state, but also its view that democracy is a means to an end. When the democratic process fails to provide the “correct” result, this is taken as prima facie something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected. This can be seen in the liberal-globalist response to the election of President Trump in 2016, but also the whole attitude of globalists toward nations like Poland and Hungary, whose democracies consistently oppose liberalism in toto at the ballot box.

What is Revanchism?


One of the defining characteristics of nationalism – and a great place to start talking about how nationalism is more appropriate for Europe than the United States – is revanchism. This is a word that you’ve probably never heard before, but the concept will immediately become clear.

Revanchism comes from the French word meaning “revenge.” The term, if not the philosophy itself, originated in the period between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War. It specifically referred to French ambitions to retake the “lost provinces” of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been extracted by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War, the war which led to the formation of the German Empire.

“Irredentism” is an almost entirely identical concept.

Broadly, both terms refer to the notion that in a given country – say, Serbia – there is a “Greater” version of it. Thus, Serbian nationalists do not believe that Serbia represents the whole of the Serbian nation. There is territory outside of Serbia in Croatia, Montenegro, and elsewhere that is part of the “natural borders” of Serbia and needs to, in the eyes of the nationalists, be reincorporated into the legal borders of Serbia for the nation to be made whole.

This isn’t to pick on the Serbians. Virtually every nation in Europe has a revanchist faction somewhere, even if it’s very small and marginal. To give a few examples, Spain would very much like to reclaim Gibraltar, but there are also movements for a Greater Greece (the “Megali Idea”), Greater Hungary, Greater Russia, and many others. So why do these movements exist in Europe, but there’s no movement for the United States to annex Canada or retake the Philippines?

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