Nationalism has a bad reputation today. It is, in the minds of many educated Westerners, a dangerous ideology. Some acknowledge the virtues of patriotism, understood as the benign affection for one’s homeland; at the same time, they see nationalism as narrow-minded and immoral, promoting blind loyalty to a country over deeper commitments to justice and humanity. In a January 2019 speech to his country’s diplomatic corps, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put this view in stark terms: “Nationalism,” he said, “is an ideological poison.”
In recent years, populists across the West have sought to invert this moral hierarchy. They have proudly claimed the mantle of nationalism, promising to defend the interests of the majority against immigrant minorities and out-of-touch elites. Their critics, meanwhile, cling to the established distinction between malign nationalism and worthy patriotism. In a thinly veiled shot at U.S. President Donald Trump, a self-described nationalist, French President Emmanuel Macron declared last November that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”
The popular distinction between patriotism and nationalism echoes the one made by scholars who contrast “civic” nationalism, according to which all citizens, regardless of their cultural background, count as members of the nation, with “ethnic” nationalism, in which ancestry and language determine national identity. Yet efforts to draw a hard line between good, civic patriotism and bad, ethnic nationalism overlook the common roots of both. Patriotism is a form of nationalism. They are ideological brothers, not distant cousins.
At their core, all forms of nationalism share the same two tenets: first, that members of the nation, understood as a group of equal citizens with a shared history and future political destiny, should rule the state, and second, that they should do so in the interests of the nation. Nationalism is thus opposed to foreign rule by members of other nations, as in colonial empires and many dynastic kingdoms, as well as to rulers who disregard the perspectives and needs of the majority.