What Is Patriotism? Definition, Examples, Pros and Cons

Group of children marching in 4th of July parade
Children Marching in 4th of July Parade. DigitalVision/Getty Images

Simply stated, patriotism is the feeling of love for one’s country. Demonstrating patriotism—being “patriotic”—is one of the necessities of being the stereotypical “good citizen.” However, patriotism, like many well-intentioned things, can be harmful when taken to an extreme.

  • Patriotism is the feeling and expression of love for one’s home country, along with a feeling of unity with those who share those feelings
  • Though it shares patriotism’s love of country, nationalism is the belief that one’s home county is superior to all others
  • While considered a necessary attribute of good citizenship, when patriotism becomes politically mandatory, it can cross a line

Patriotism Definition

Along with love, patriotism is the feeling of pride, devotion, and attachment to a homeland, as well as a feeling of attachment to other patriotic citizens. The feelings of attachment may be further bound up in factors like race or ethnicity, culture, religious beliefs, or history

Historic Perspective

While patriotism is evident throughout history, it was not always considered a civic virtue. In 18th-century Europe, for example, devotion to the state was considered a betrayal of devotion to the church.   

Other 18th-century scholars also found fault with what they considered excessive patriotism. In 1775, Samuel Johnson, whose 1774 essay The Patriot had criticized those who falsely claimed devotion to Britain, famously called patriotism “the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Examples of Patriotism

There are countless ways of showing patriotism. Standing for the National Anthem and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are obvious ones. Perhaps more importantly, many of the most beneficial acts of patriotism in the U.S. are those that both celebrate the country and make it stronger. A few of these include:

  • Participating in the representative democracy by registering to vote and voting in elections.
  • Volunteering for community service or running for elected government office.
  • Serving on juries.
  • Obeying all laws and paying taxes
  • Understanding the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities contained in the U.S. Constitution.

Patriotism vs Nationalism

While the words patriotism and nationalism were once considered synonyms, they have taken on different connotations. While both are the feelings of love people feel for their country, the values upon which those feelings are based is very different.

Feelings of patriotism are based on the positive values the country embraces—like freedom, justice, and equality. The patriot believes that both the system of government and the people of their country are inherently good and work together for a better quality of life.

In contrast, feelings of nationalism are based on a belief that one’s country is superior to all others. It also carries a connotation of distrust or disapproval of other countries, leading to the assumption that other countries are rivals. While patriots do not automatically denigrate other countries, nationalists do, sometimes to the point of calling for their country’s global dominance. Nationalism, through its protectionist beliefs, is the polar opposite of globalism.

Historically, the effects of nationalism have been both positive and negative. While it has driven independence movements, like the Zionist movement that created modern Israel, it was also a key factor in the rise of the German Nazi Party, and the Holocaust

Patriotism versus nationalism became a political issue recently when U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron verbally sparred over the meaning of the terms.

At a rally on October 23, 2018, President Trump defended his populist “Make America Great Again” platform and protectionist policies of tariffs on foreign imports, officially declaring himself a “nationalist.”

“A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much,” he said. “And you know what? We can't have that. You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It's called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist.”

President Macron, however, speaking at the 100th Armistice Day ceremony in Paris on November 11, 2018, offered a different meaning of nationalism. He defined nationalism as “putting our nation first, and not caring about the others.” By rejecting the interests of other countries, Macon asserted, “we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential, its moral values.”

Pros and Cons of Patriotism

Few countries survive and prosper without some degree of patriotic feelings among their people. A love of country and shared pride bring the people together, helping them endure challenges. Without shared patriotic beliefs, colonial Americans may not have chosen to travel the road to independence from England. More recently, patriotism brought the American people together to overcome the Great Depression and achieve victory in World War II.

The danger—the con—of patriotism is that when it become a mandatory political “doctrine,” it can be used to turn groups of the people against each other and can even lead the country to reject its own fundamental values. A few examples of the dangers of extreme patriotism in the United States include:

  • As early as 1798, extreme patriotism, spurred by fears a war with France, led Congress to enact the Alien and Sedition Acts allowing the jailing of certain U.S. immigrants without due process of law and restricting the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press.
  • In 1919, early fears of Communism triggered the Palmer raids resulting in the arrest and immediate deportation without trial of more than 10,000 German- and Russian-American immigrants.
Patriotic Sign on Japanese Grocery Store
An Oakland, California grocery store bears a SOLD sign as well as one proclaiming the patriotic loyalty of its owner. The Japanese-American owner of the shop, a graduate of the University of California, put up his 'I Am An American' sign the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Soon afterward, the government shut down the shop and relocated its owner to an internment camp. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images
  • After the December 7, 1941, Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, the Franklin Roosevelt administration ordered some 127,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry imprisoned in internment camps for the duration of World War II.
  • During the Red Scare of the early 1950s, the McCarthy era saw thousands of Americans accused without evidence by the government of being communists or communist sympathizers. After a series of so-called “investigations” conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, hundreds of those accused were ostracized and prosecuted for their political beliefs.

Sources and Further Reading