Opinion: given recent history and events, there is understandable reticence to use the term, but are there ways to restore patriotism's reputation?

By David ThunderUniversity of Navarra

As a wave of populist leaders across the Western world, from Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to Marie Le Pen and Viktor Orban, exalt the distinctive values and culture of their respective nations, skeptics look on and wonder whether this newly-discovered "love of country" is anything more than political opportunism dressed up in patriotic garb. Althought nationalism is back on the political agenda, I for one, have rarely heard a European proudly describe himself or herself, or anyone else for that matter, as a "patriot."  

From the Latin word patria, meaning "fatherland" or country, patriotism has a distinctly positive resonance, entailing a pure and noble love of and devotion to one’s country. Given its positive connotations, why is it that many of us seem unwilling to publicly endorse the qualities of a patriot, or the role of patriotism in society?

Perhaps many of us are reluctant to use a term that exalts love of country when we know very well that "love of country" has a very chequered history, to put it mildly. For example, we cannot ignore the legacy of two deadly world wars and a potentially apocalyptic arms race, all driven, supposedly, by the "patriotic" defence of the respective homelands of competing nations.

We have already been experimenting for several decades with alternatives to old-fashioned nationalistic patriotism

Besides the embarrassing and tragic spectacle of two world wars supposedly undertaken for "love of country," we should not forget the arrogance and violence of many of Europe’s colonial policies in Africa and the Americas that were authorised in the name of national "greatness."

It should come as little surprise, then, if there is a certain reticence, especially in Europe about the use of terms like "patriotism" and "patriot". Their historical pedigree may include noble exploits such as Cicero’s campaign against Roman corruption, but patriotic sentiment has also been harnessed by ruthless dictators such as Stalin and Hitler to justify mass murder.

Nevertheless, functional polities requires loyal citizens who are willing to sacrifice private interests for the common good. If you do not inspire them with talk of patriotism, then how can you communicate to them the value and point of political loyalty?

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report from 1966 on the conferring of honorary degrees on the nearest living relatives of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation

We have already been experimenting for several decades with alternatives to old-fashioned nationalistic patriotism: one is political loyalty rooted in economic interest. Here, the idea would be that the political system keeps the economy ticking over, maintains public order and safety, and provides a welfare net for those who are less fortunate.

Another alternative to strongly nationalist or ethno-nationalist patriotism is a general commitment to a shared constitution that guarantees everyone’s rights and permits some degree of decency, justice and solidarity. This is what some philosophers, such as Jurgen Habermas and Jan-Werner Müller, have called "constitutional patriotism." The object of loyalty is less a particular, ethnically and/or culturally defined nation, than the abstract principles of its political constitution, as they have been transmitted through the nation’s legal and political traditions.

Indeed, the European Union could be viewed as a giant experiment in "constitutional patriotism": an overarching constitution or political union that extends and perfects the abstract principles of national constitutions in a larger union of peoples. 

It seems, then, that we are confronted with a stark choice

The problem is that neither of these two substitutes for traditonal ethno-national patriotism - economic pragmatism on the one hand, and constitutional patriotism on the other – are proving to have all that much staying power, especially in economically challenging and volatile times. Economic pragmatism has led to industrial disputes and public disorder when states have failed to deliver an acceptable economic minimum - as is happening with the "yellow vest" movement in France - and may prove ever less convincing with the predictable decline of the welfare state.

Constitutional patriotism has proved too abstract and intangible to many citizens, especially when they perceive that their way of life and their economic security is under threat. The globalisation of trade, culture, and migration has left many citizens feeling quite insecure in their sense of identity, making abstract constitutionalism look too ethereal to cling on to, and opening a path in many European countries to the resurgence of nationalism of a more or less ethnic and/or religious type (e.g. Hungary, Poland, France, Germany and the United Kingdom).

It seems, then, that we are confronted with a stark choice. Do we continue to insist on principles of political loyalty which hold limited appeal for ordinary citizens, creating a vacuum that is filled by growing ethno-nationalist sentiment? Or do we find a way to recover the best elements of old-fashioned national patriotism, including its rootedness in land and culture, while distancing it from narrow forms of ethnocentrism or blind devotion to national interests?

We might restore the good name of patriotism by undertaking a philosophical effort to articulate a form of patriotism that seeks to make one’s country the best it can be

One widely neglected alternative to economic pragmatism, constitutional patriotism and ethno-national patriotism is local civic patriotism that takes pride in our political institutions, but roots those institutions at a more local level than that of the nation. This confederalist approach would tie patriotic sentiment primarily to cities, towns and districts governed by robustly participatory political institutions, and united in a political alliance constituted by powers delegated from the bottom up.

If cities, towns and districts had robust political autonomy, as occurs in Switzerland, each political unit could develop its own distinctive culture and identity, and would have to negotiate with other units in order to build sustainable national political coalitions. In this way, national politics would be the product of a broad-based coalition of local interests, rather than a set of policies driven by the interests and ideologies of a few high-profile political and economic actors.

Finally, meaningful political decentralisation would help to ensure that patriotic loyalty was divided between different levels of political community, creating potential checks against unilateral manipulation of the collective narrative by governing elites.

Parallel to this we might restore the good name of patriotism by undertaking, with philosophers like William Galston, a serious philosophical effort to articulate a critical, intelligent form of patriotism that seeks to make one’s country (or one’s city, or canton or region) the best it can be, rather than blindly regurgitating self-serving nationalist ideologies dished out by political elites.

Dr David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer in political and social philosophy at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Navarra


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ