Why it is OK to be a Patriot but not a Nationalist.
Many of you are probably looking at the title and saying to yourself, aren’t those two words synonyms? Grammatically, yes, they are. But as a political scientist, I would like to take a moment and argue why it is better to call yourself a patriot instead of a nationalist.
In April 2016, the then-Minister of the Economy in France, Emmanuel Macron, announced that he was to seek the French presidency and form a new political movement called En Marche ! A few months later, Macron eventually left the government and entered into campaign mode; he essentially pushed aside his political mentor and then-President François Hollande and sidelined any real hopes the Parti socialiste (PS) had of retaining the presidency.
About a month after Macron announced the formation of En Marche !, I arrived in France to work at the Juno Beach Centre. Macron intrigued me, and I saw him as a voice that could represent all the values that I hold. It turns out that most French voters thought so as well.
By time I arrived home in Canada in January 2017, the world had changed. Donald Trump was the President-elect of the United States. In France, the traditional political establishment was collapsing, with both the PS and Les Républicains falling further behind En Marche ! (EM) and the Front national (FN).
This is when things really began to change when it comes to the terms patriot and nationalist. And this change was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic.
Growing up in the age of terror has left a mark on my opinion of both of these words. Under George W Bush, the word patriot was used to fight terrorism.
It was a word that I came to associate with the political right, and for a time, the political far-right (today, Bush has transformed into a sane, establishment, moderate Republican voice, a far cry from the beginning of the century). And just as Bush has changed, so has the word patriot. The reasons for this change are disconcerting.
If we start with this side of the Atlantic, we can see that the change in connotation occurred toward the end of the Obama Administration during the 2016 presidential campaign. The rise of Donald Trump has brought the world back to a period where armed, far-right, angry white men are marching in the streets with torches menacing people of colour, LGBT people, immigrants and refugees, and women.
Trump has brought politics back to a quasi-1930s period where fascism and far-right politics were abundant. What is key to this point is that the fascists movements in Italy, Spain, Hungary, and elsewhere and the Nazis in Germany all subscribed to the idea of nationalism. They all said that they nation was the one true, pure nation.
Nationalism, which from its nascent stages in the XIX Century had a mixed record of being positive and negative, was now pushed solidly into the negative, restrictive light of far-right politics. This is again happening today with the rise in white nationalism across the United States. It is a nationalism in response to globalisation and a liberal internationalism, things that the United States helped to orchestrate since the end of World War II.
So, in the North American context, being a nationalist (outside of Quebec, which is a conversation all of its own) is now linked to white supremacy, racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, and pretty much anything that the liberal élite has constructed. As this term solidifies its place on the political far-right, the term patriot is undergoing a transformation.
This transformation was especially clear during the French presidential election. Upon my return from France, I befriended two French exchange students who were studying at my university in the 2017 winter term. At some point during this time period, Macron gave a speech in which he asserted, as I am now, that it is better to be a patriot than a nationalist.
I remember understanding exactly what he meant, but my one French friend said to me, ‘it’s utter nonsense what he is saying! Patriotism and nationalism are one in the same’. I tried to explain that that was not what Macron was meaning.
Just as the American far-right had co-opted the word nationalism, the FN of Marine LePen was using the word nationaliste to its political advantage (members of the Front national, now the Rassemblement national, are traditionally referred to as frontiste). LePen twisted the word to refer to xenophobic, anti-migrant French people who were more likely to support her candidacy than Macron’s.
The picture Macron painted illustrates well the difference between the two terms. The nationalism of Trump and LePen has limits; it sets up the old binary of us versus them. This binary is especially dangerous today when we see that people who were born in France or the United States and have known no other country are now viewed by nationalists as an ‘other’ because of the colour of their skin, their religion, and even their sexuality and political affiliations. At last we see the true dangers of nationalism.
On the one hand, nationalism limits who belongs, and on the other, patriotism opens the door to be more inclusive. Patriotism opens the door of belonging to all the citizens and residents of the country. Being patriotic — flying the flag, proudly singing the national anthem, celebrating the country’s athletes in the Olympics — is compatible with the internationalist worldview that Macron and Secretary Clinton were defending during their respective presidential elections. Patriotism can still be destructive, but by and large it does not create as hostile binary as nationalism does.
In the end, as we corral ourselves into these two terms, we perpetuate a mentality of us versus them within our societies. Both has weaknesses, and both are weakening our democracies in their own ways. But, if one must choose a side, choose patriotism for it is more compatible with internationalism and the creation of a more just, inclusive, and forward thinking society.