Nowadays, nationalism has a strong negative connotation attached to it. This stigma doesn't apply to patriotism.

What's the difference between them?

If there is a difference to what extent could nationalism be a positive force for good?

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    "This stigma doesn't apply to patriotism" could be very subjective and culture specific. Or even subject to patriotism. ;) Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 15:59
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    An illustrated example, courtesy of smbc-comics.com: smbc-comics.com/comics/1476886340-20161019.png
    – WoJ
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 17:47
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    Nationalism is the term people use to refer to a patriotism different than their own.
    – walen
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 8:24

4 Answers 4


George Orwell in 'Notes on Nationalism' said it best I think,

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on 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 more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

  • 16
    Sounds like a pretty subtle distinction and based on my understanding of his writing reads like "patiotism is what I like of popular action, and nationalism what I dislike" I'd be less skeptical if a pro-expansionist would say the distinction was similar.
    – user9389
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 19:38
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    @notstoreboughtdirt The distinction is clear. One is defensive, and the other is offensive (in the verbal sense of the word). It's the difference between proselytism for a church and belief in a deity of a church.
    – Anoplexian
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 20:06
  • I think that Orwell would agree that in popular discourse the definitions can be fuzzy. However, this is why he defined the terms in 'Notes on Nationalism.' Also as I was reviewing, I noticed that I had accidentally left out part of the definition. So I've updated the quote. Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 20:08
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    @notstoreboughtdirt—patriotism can be seen as a subset of nationalism, but they aren't the same thing.
    – RobG
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 3:12
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    SMBC created a comic that I feel reflects this perfectly: smbc-comics.com/comic/an-important-distinction Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 5:05

Nationalism: I should do what is best for my country even at the cost of other countries. Nationalists sacrifice others. Nationalists also tend to believe in a zero-sum world. In order for their situation to improve, that of someone else must worsen.

Patriotism: I should do what is best for my country even at the cost of myself. Patriots sacrifice what is theirs.

While the two start similarly, they end up at very different places. Of course, they also are often used as synonyms, sometimes incorrectly.

  • 14
    Where do these definitions come from? Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 18:04
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    this is a rather simplistic and slanted view Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 21:00
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    @DrunkenSanta9035768, of course it is simplistic. All the answers here will be simplistic. Otherwise they would be published as books instead. You also say it is slanted. That, you are going to have to explain better. In what ways is it slanted?
    – mikeazo
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 16:07
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    Props for referencing the concept of Pareto efficiency per your comment on a "zero sum world". Game Theory is very much a factor in Nationalist policy.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 18:06
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    @DrunkenSanta9035768 Rather than just say the answer is simplistic, why don't you focus about how the answer is wrong or not useful? Simplicity itself is a good thing Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 19:32

Below is a summary of some key differences, based on the Nationalism and Patriotism articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I'll use examples from American politics for my own convenience.

Nation/State Distinction

One of the classical distinctions is the difference between the nation and state. The nation is a primordial ethnic or social category, while the state is a formal political organization. In today's world we typically assume the two are connected, but in the past the two were independent. For example, today a person is a citizen of the United States and perceives themselves to be a member of a cohesive social unit - "Americans".

In the past, a person may have been a citizen or subject to a leader, but would have identified themselves based on their ethnicity, clan, etc. The idea of "belonging to" a state didn't make sense, except as a legal term.

In this sense, "patriotism" is an affinity for your state and "nationalism" is an affinity for your nation. When Americans support American military campaigns they are generally acting as patriots by supporting the victory of our state over our state's enemies. Nationalist support is more varied: some Americans support having Christian prayer in schools on the basis of a perceived Christian-American national identity. Other Americans would consider freedom of religion to be an important part of our cultural identity.

This definition is most useful when a single state is not homogeneous: it has a variety of different cultures which prevent the "nation" from syncing with the "state".


Patriots and nationalists have different concepts of self-determination.

Nationalists desire to enhance their national identity. They often will pursue politics as a means to do this. In many formulations, the existence of a nation-state is the ideal outcome. For example, Algerian nationalists in the the 1950s pursued a war with France for independence and the opportunity to create a socially-Algerian Algeria, free of French control. On a less dramatic scale, the Religious Right in America uses the state to pursue their own social and cultural goals. In their view, the state should (ideally) mirror their nation's views.

Patriots are not interested in the self-determination of ethnic or cultural groups. On the contrary, in pursuit of the self-determination of their state they may be happy to curtail the interests of social groups. For example, enhanced policing of rebellious areas strengthens the state at the expense of the groups being policed. They might encourage the military to act in a situation which benefits their state, but which harms the nations they will be involved with abroad.


Patriots and nationalists justify their belief differently. Patriots will justify patriotism on the basis of all the positive aspects of their state (a kind of catalog of virtues). Nationalists justify nationalism on the basis of identity, "it's who we are".

There is No Difference

There are many arguments in favor of there being no real difference at all. To summarize:

  1. There is no political theory literature on patriotism, only nationalism.
  2. Most discussions of either could easily be applied to both.
  3. When definitions are made, they typically encompass what a non-expert would think of as both patriotism and nationalism.
  4. The scant references to patriotism that do exist reference non-expert works which do not provide any clarity.
  5. In today's world, the nation and state are the same, preventing any need for different ideas in the first place.
  • 1
    "In today's world, the nation and state are the same" - There are many places where this is not true.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 5:11
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    @indigochild "In today's world, the nation and state are the same" this was maybe true in a modern era but it's not true for our postmodern times. An how can it be an empirical statement, when (at least) the existence of the European Union obviously is not deniable? Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 15:38
  • @indigochild, so you are denying the existence of the European Union? Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 16:13

From a linguistic perspective I would say in most cultures Nationalism carries the connotations of attacking, aggression, dividing, hate etc.

Whereas, Patriotism carries the connotation of defending, helping, uniting, (nostalgic) kindness etc.

Generally, I would say there are no differences between these words. But where come the different connotations from?

Speaking with Foucault there are products of the (cultural) discourse. This discourse is formed by aspects of the language, institutions and performative utterance.

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