It is not surprising that Americans have confused patriotism with nationalism. One of the main objectives in writing this book is to suggest that we change the conversation where patriotism is concerned—moving the country to more enlightened and emotionally intelligent patriotism. American patriotism incorporates freedoms, innovation, and a society that builds up its citizens and protects our way of life. Americans struggle to define a heritage that makes sense for the 21st century. Understanding our nationalistic history and how it is woven throughout American history can help understand American patriotism's journey. Our patriotic core is based on democracy and liberty. Nationalism becomes the driving force enlisted to protect democracy and freedom.
George Orwell describes his views on nationalism and patriotism in a 1945 article Notes on Nationalism in the British Magazine Polemic:
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words normally are used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged. Still, one must distinguish between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By 'patriotism' I mean devotion to a particular place and a specific way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his individuality.
What drives conflict: The desire for power. What drives nationalism: The passion and self-determination to protect a nation's culture and freedoms no matter what a country has to do to achieve that goal. A patriot defends their country's culture and society. A patriot is not a provocateur. Politicians and political parties have differing views on how our culture and society should look. The word "patriotism" becomes a definition of convenience during election time. Its malleability is determined by the brand of patriotism benefiting a political party’s agenda.
The word Nationalism has crept into the American lexicon over the years, most recently with America First becoming associated with nationalist thinking. Are we witnessing a new nationalism to regain a fading American patriotism? In the context of the role the U.S. has played across the globe as a moneylender, a brother in arms, and a peacekeeper—the America First ethos has been labeled nationalistic. As we drift toward putting our interests at home above protecting democracies abroad, does that resemble a provocateur, or does it resemble a nation preserving its heritage? American priorities placed first above global issues are not a simple task in the world of 21st-century global economies and geopolitics.
America First suggests that Americans are moving toward prioritizing a way of life that allows democracy to continue and flourish. We want to bring jobs and manufacturing back to the U.S., to encourage purchases in the U.S., rather than propping up our standard of living by purchasing cheaper goods made elsewhere. This mentality is not a desire for a power grab—it is a genuine redirect to shed consumer dependence and regain our independence. We are yearning for the American patriotic afterglow of the post-war years.
Change is constant, and history repeats itself. Change is why our two-party system has created an elected symmetry throughout our history. The majority selects the best option for what the majority sees as the country's most pressing needs at that time in history. We have elected 17 two-term U.S. presidents—with Lincoln, McKinley, and Nixon not serving their full second terms. Four out of five of our last sitting presidents have been two-term presidents. That had not happened since early in our history when Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe served two terms. It is interesting to reflect on our recent history in electing two-term presidents since the 1980s, a lifetime away for voters in their thirties and an entire voting career as someone in their fifties. What does this historical repeat of voting patterns suggest? Two-term presidencies usually indicate a society wanting stability amidst rapid change.
Our Founding Fathers Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were the architects and signers of the framework for this country to function independently from England, to put the health and welfare of its citizenry first, and to end tyranny and oppression. Is that the beginning of patriotism or nationalism? Or both? Perhaps the idea that nationalism was the springboard for this country's birth, and that patriotism followed makes more sense. The "revolutionary" process to get early America from A to B—from tyranny to freedom—bears the markings of nationalism. It could be argued that patriotism was born as the American culture and way of life developed from our nationalism.
We revisit nationalism throughout our history, just as most countries do when their way of life is threatened or untenable. Revolution around the world to end tyranny defined a new way of life, born from nationalism. The advent of trade, a better quality of life, and the drive for personal independence brought a collective realization that people could change their society to a better place and system.
It began in 1776 with the American Revolution and then moved to the French Revolution in 1789, the Haitian Revolution in 1791, and the Irish Rebellion in 1798. Revolution triggered civil wars in the mid-1800s in Italy, the Germanic states, and Denmark. Revolution and nationalism swept through China and Russia, two massive countries whose 2,000-year-old histories were mostly sovereign and tyrannical. In early 1989, the Tiananmen Square Protests and the resulting massacre ultimately motivated the abandonment of Communism in parts of Asia and Africa. Later that same year, the hugely symbolic and triumphant fall of the Berlin Wall ended Communist life in East Germany. A successful domino effect wound its way through Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. In 2010, beginning in Tunisia, anti-government protests and armed rebellions sparked the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East against oppressive regimes. More recent history includes Brexit, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, as another example of countries creating change to upend the status quo and regain their national identity or reject oppressive government practices.
Our American patriotism and the ability of any democracy to develop its heritage comes from citizen individuality. It comes from the rights of free countries to define their national pride through the individual contributions of free citizens. Most countries do not get to a place of developing patriotism without first going through a period of rebellion and then nationalism to protect and sustain their quality of life.
A dialogue involving nationalism often includes the subject of a strong military in the conversation. An enduring culture requires a strong, organized military that protects our borders and our way of life. It makes sense. Democratic nationalism does not intend to partition other countries. It exists to unite and strengthen our values and ideals rather than twisting them into the oppressive ideology we sought to change for the original 13 colonies.
Protecting the fabric of our American society is how we maintain a sense of order, pride, continued growth, success, and individual freedom. Those of us making careers outside of the military—entertainers, athletes, business people, teachers, higher education, the manufacturing industry, artists, etc. thrive because we have dedicated people to protect us. It is of great importance to remember that our soldiers and diplomats give the rest of us the freedom and the privilege to contribute and build an exceptional society.
Think about our founders' mindset when they created the framework for this amazing, first-of-its-kind nation. How can Americans preserve the Founders' carefully framed blueprint for a 21st-century American democracy?