Coming from the subcontinent I was raised to love and defend my country no matter what (e.g. in discussions always say that no matter what my country did not do anything wrong).

I am now living in Germany. Because of its past the Germans are a bit sensitive with this topic. And here my eyes opened to the fact how dangerous or irrational nationalism can be.

I know it is a powerful tool used by the government/establishment to control people in masses. Are there also other reasons for governments to encourage nationalism? What would it take for people (especially in my part of the world or even the US) to realize the concept of nationalism is flawed?

UPDATE: the word patriotism was replaced with nationalism after reading most of the answers. The word nationalism is more appropriate for this question.

  • 5
    Homo-sapiens is by nature/biology a tribal animal. Most people don't need much encouragement in some form of national identification, though it is not always toward the one in which they live, which can cause problems. Sensible governments endeavour to channel "patriotism" in ways that are useful.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 14:07
  • 5
    The nation state is a recent invention and people had to be persuaded, encouraging patriotism was part of that process. Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 14:46
  • 3
    Looking back on my British education, it was pretty patriotic but I also read there this quote from EM Forster: 'If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.' He wrote this in an essay long after the first world war and on the eve of the second. Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 14:48
  • 1
    @Mozibur Ullah Forster merely follows a well-established theme in British letters. Samuel Johnson in 1754 wrote that 'Patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel'.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 18:34
  • 4
    Check out the definition of Patriotism vs. Nationalism. My very basic interpretation is that Patriotism is being proud of and standing up for your country; nothing wrong with that. Nationalism is very similar but takes that a little further to the point of "my country is better than other countries". I think that's where things get a little blurry; that's where people start to defend their country "no matter what", which is a terrifying notion. It becomes an "us vs. them" mentality where admitting fault or wrongdoing would appear as weak instead of honest.
    – Kalmino
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 21:06

8 Answers 8


This is more sociology and even evolutionary biology than politics, in some way. Pretty much any un-cited statements in this answer are likely cited in one way or the other in Dawkins' "Selfish Gene".

People (as in, the actual species of homo sapiens) evolved in a way that make their circle of caring very small - we mostly care about well-being of our own genetic family, which is usually a pretty small unit (unless you are Genghis Khan :).

Beyond that, we are a social animal that is tribal, with the biggest social tribe our brains able to accommodate as a close social circle being in low 3 digits (I can dig up research, but IIRC it's something like 150 or 250 people tops).

As such, people "naturally" don't perceive others outside their family/tribe as "mine", on nearly the same level. Therefore, in order to motivate people to be social on a larger scale - including sacrificing something up to and including your life for the benefit of the larger society and individuals in it - you need other forms of motivation.

Typically, historically, there are three such motivations:

  1. Force.

    If you don't do what you ought to for the larger society, its rulers (or rather their enforcers) will go all enforceful on you, to make you pay your taxes, or go as a soldier to war, or follow the laws of the rulers.

  2. Leverage the above-mentioned familial/tribalism built in mechanisms, by subverting or diffusing them:

    • Royalty used to marry off their kids to other royalty to cement diplomatic alliances. You may not care to defend a neighboring kingdom as is, but if your nephew rules it, it is in your interest to do so.

    • In modern world, you try to social engineer people by faking these relationships - from "brothers" concept when referring to one another in many religions, to "comrade" salutation in socialist movements as the two obvious examples.

  3. Or, you can subvert the genetic influence that limits your caring about socialization to family/tribe, by overriding it with memetic influence.

    The last bullet point in #2 is the beginning of that. The concept of "nation" and "patriotism" is the end point of that - you create a memetic system that postulates as an axiom that "your social circle is the whole country". If it's sticky enough - either memetically or socially or both - you get the people right where you (as a ruler/society) need and want them, mentally.

P.S. To address the "What would it take for people (especially in my part of the world or even the US) to realize the concept of patriotism is flawed?" sub-question:

this is premised on the assumption that "the concept of patriotism is flawed" - which is debatable (and hard to debate either way since "flawed" isn't exactly well defined). However, one should take great care to not confuse the tool (patriotism) with the use of the tool (patriotism can be used to send Apollo 11 to the Moon or to lift millions out of poverty - or to send millions of young men to slaughter each other in the trenches of Europe).

Nor, to confuse the concept of "patriotism" (I care about my "larger tribe" of a nation) with "chauvinism" - or whatever else negative "ism" - which entails disliking/being antagonistic to other nations and their people's. Just as you can be proud of your child for winning a sporting event without hating or wishing ill will on your child's competitors - as per the above write-up, both kinds of feelings are rooted in the same exact origins.

  • Jingoism is the irrational hatred of a foreign country and all citizens/residents there in.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 15:54
  • 2
    @hszmv - not quite. iric, Jingoism implies actually using force or wanting to, not just having thoughts regarding other countries.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 15:57
  • 3
    Regarding your third paragraph, What is the Monkeysphere? is a (slightly-NSFW due to language) humorous explanation of how to arrive at that number and what exactly it means.
    – user5586
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 19:38
  • 1
    I'm tempted to upvote this and delete my answer because this has some good information about why patriotism doesn't arise naturally and has to be taught if it is to exist. However this answer doesn't say why patriotism is thought to be a good thing that should exist, or at least why the government wants it to exist.
    – Readin
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 0:46
  • @Readin - your answer is good, please don't delete it
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 3:32

I think you're mixing up patriotism and nationalism and a while ago I found an interesting quote that describes the difference:

"The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.", Sydney J. Harris, Source: Purely Personal Prejudices - Strictly Personal (1953)

  • I would say that "nationalism", etymologically and semantically speaking, is the assertion, when made by someone, conveying their belief that a nation is a functional larger unit of human society whose orderly existence greatly helps the survival of its constituent members. As such, patriotism is defines as "love for one's country", which a person would possess, logically speaking, if they believed in the idea of a nation in the first place. So patriotism back-implies nationalism, but nationalism doesn't necessarily imply patriotism (though, this would be a rare instance)
    – axolotl
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 23:38
  • 2
    You should c&p this answer to What's the difference between patriotism and nationalism? at Philosophy.SE
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 0:07

Power, plain and simple.

The more patriotic the people in general, the more power the State has. The State is, after all, the single institution most representative of a country. It's easy to conflate the two, especially on purpose.

Note that this is true even if the State is benevolent. If you're running a government and your true objective is to raise the well-being of the people in general, you'll still want power with which to achieve that objective.

  • The answer isn't wrong per se, but should provide some evidence for the first sentence of second paragraph. As a counterexample, Americans were super patriotic in the early Revolution days, and the state had almost no power (by design). On the opposite side, 50% of the country currently is vocally anti-patriotic, yet the power of the state is the highest it's ever been and growing super fast - in part fueled by that anti-patriotism.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 15:30
  • this is the true answer, all these appeals to biology are over-simplistic, spurious and fatalistic. OP is completely correct that in the long term, global scale, nationalism is harmful. The problem is that in the short term, selfish proximal scale, it benefits the leaders of the day personally, their power, to whip it up in their nation's people. This doesn't need over-reaching biological theory to answer. Social theory is there for those prepared to heed it.
    – benxyzzy
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 17:12

As answered by Noam Chomsky:


What in your view are the main reasons for patriotic feelings in the USA? Do you believe that such feelings can ever be justified? Do you think such feelings exist on a similar scale (in a similar manner) outside the USA, and do you think they can be justified in other countries?


The questions are serious and important, and merit reflection and analysis.

To begin with, we have to be more clear about what we mean by patriotic feelings. For a time when I was in high school, I cheered for the school athletic teams. That's a form of patriotism — group loyalty. It can take pernicious forms, but in itself it can be quite harmless, maybe even positive. At the national level, what "patriotism" means depends on how we view the society. Those with deep totalitarian commitments identify the state with the society, its people, and its culture. Therefore those who criticized the policies of the Kremlin under Stalin were condemned as "anti-Soviet" or "hating Russia". For their counterparts in the West, those who criticize the policies of the US government are "anti-American" and "hate America"; those are the standard terms used by intellectual opinion, including left-liberal segments, so deeply committed to their totalitarian instincts that they cannot even recognize them, let alone understand their disgraceful history, tracing to the origins of recorded history in interesting ways. For the totalitarian, "patriotism" means support for the state and its policies, perhaps with twitters of protest on grounds that they might fail or cost us too much. For those whose instincts are democratic rather than totalitarian, "patriotism" means commitment to the welfare and improvement of the society, its people, its culture. That's a natural sentiment and one that can be quite positive. It's one all serious activists share, I presume; otherwise why take the trouble to do what we do? But the kind of "patriotism" fostered by totalitarian societies and military dictatorships, and internalized as second nature by much of intellectual opinion in more free societies, is one of the worst maladies of human history, and will probably do us all in before too long.

With regard to the US, I think we find a mix. Every effort is made by power and doctrinal systems to stir up the more dangerous and destructive forms of "patriotism"; every effort is made by people committed to peace and justice to organize and encourage the beneficial kinds. It's a constant struggle. When people are frightened, the more dangerous kinds tend to emerge, and people huddle under the wings of power. Whatever the reasons may be, by comparative standards the US has been a very frightened country for a long time, on many dimensions. Quite commonly in history, such fears have been fanned by unscrupulous leaders, seeking to implement their own agendas. These are commonly harmful to the general population, which has to be disciplined in some manner: the classic device is to stimulate fear of awesome enemies concocted for the purpose, usually with some shreds of realism, required even for the most vulgar forms of propaganda. Germany was the pride of Western civilization 70 years ago, but most Germans were whipped to presumably genuine fear of the Czech dagger pointed at the heart of Germany (is that crazier than the Nicaraguan or Grenadan dagger pointed at the heart of the US, conjured up by the people now playing the same game today?), the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy aimed at destroying the Aryan race and the civilization that Germany had inherited from Greece, etc.

That's only the beginning. A lot is at stake.

  • With all due respect to Chomsky's work in computer science, this is just his personal opinion based on his ideological biases, not some view backed by reasoning or evidence. I will leave aside that his wording is ironically the very evidence of said patriotism except on ideological basis - those agreeing with him are about "peace and justice" (implying those don't, are against them), those disacgreeng are doing thing dangerous and destructive. Again, no evidence other than his ideological judgement, based on who is "in" vs "out" group ideologically.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 15:27

People will always form groups, be they natural (family) or not (programming language), and they will generally prefer their group over others (in-group preference). Neutrality when you belong to one of the groups (or even out-group preference) is quite rare.

Heritage/ancestry is one of those criteria humans base their groups on, as is who your favorite sports team is, what programming language or framework to use, which political party you like best, who is the best James Bond actor, or how potato is pronounced.

While a single human cannot maintain social relations up with every other individual of a large group, it's usually very easy to decide if an unknown person is "of one's kind" or not, and I think you'd need to prove that this is something artificial that is used by "the government" to control people.

  • "People will always form groups..." That is a bit speculative. Who knows how human society will be organized in 100 years. We could all be individuals by then. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 10:40
  • Looking at the future is difficult, no doubt, but we do have a long history of seeing humans (and our cousins in apes etc pp) form groups. That the sun has risen every day in the past isn't proof that it will tomorrow, but it's a pretty safe bet.
    – janh
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 10:46
  • It may be a rather safe bet for now but why betting at all? What would change about the answer if you would have written "People always formed groups ..." which would have been undoubtedly true and leaves the speculation about the future development to the reader. Not claiming more than is necessary is probably a good way to improve answers. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 11:29
  • Putting it in past tense might imply that "it has been that way (but is no longer)", which I don't think is accurate, and there is no reason to doubt that this fundamental human behavior will change. We might certainly ascend to becoming purely rational minds without bodies and devoid of anything that has developed over (tens/hundreds of) millions of years of evolution. Is that likely enough to announce it for behaviors that have been defining throughout history?
    – janh
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:24
  • Strictly speaking putting it in past tense does not imply anything about the future, although it is sometimes used when speaking about things that change or may change. Anyway I doubt this human behavior must stay the same for all eternity. We seem to just disagree here. I'd leave it at that. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:39

Wikipedia explains a phenomenon known as in-group favoritism as follows :

In-group favoritism, sometimes known as in-group–out-group bias, in-group bias, or intergroup bias, is a pattern of favoring members of one's in-group over out-group members. This can be expressed in evaluation of others, in allocation of resources, and in many other ways.

This interaction has been researched by many psychologists and linked to many theories related to group conflict and prejudice. The phenomenon is primarily viewed from a social psychology standpoint. Studies have shown that in-group favoritism arises as a result of the formation of cultural groups. These cultural groups can be divided based off seemingly trivial observable traits, but with time populations grow to associate certain traits with certain behaviour, increasing covariation. This then incentivises in-group bias.

Two prominent theoretical approaches to the phenomenon of in-group favoritism are realistic conflict theory and social identity theory. Realistic conflict theory proposes that intergroup competition, and sometimes intergroup conflict, arises when two groups have opposing claims to scarce resources. In contrast, social identity theory posits a psychological drive for positively distinct social identities as the general root cause of in-group favoring behavior.

In layman's terms, in-group favoritism is a social phenomenon that consists of people associating and identifying with certain collectives and then favoring members of that collectives over people who are not a member of that collective. At the psychological level, this phenomenon can be traced back to a general need to feel part of something greater. At a higher level, it appears to have grown out of the necessity to cope with millennia of inter-group competition between different tribes, clans, etc.

Now, this "group" could be based on anything that unites people. It could be shared gender, shared religion or shared race. But it could also be a hobby you share with others. Anything that you have in common with other people can result in a group identity among members of the group and therefore in favoritism between members of that group vis-a-vis non-members of that group. Ideologues and political leaders who understand this mechanism manipulate this mechanism to create cults around a certain group of shared characteristics.

If you look at all inhabitants of a country, there's but a single trait shared between all members of that country. Thus, for the leader of said nation, membership of that nation is the one characteristic you want to emphasis to create a sense of "belonging part of a greater whole", especially if you want to unite your population against a certain enemy. This is what is known as civic nationalism. However, other forms of nationalism exist based on different criteria. Religious nationalism, for example, puts its emphasis on a shared religion and ethnic nationalism on a shared ancestry.

Whichever form of nationalism is prevalent in a region largely depends on that nation's ethnic and religious composition and the main causes of conflict between different groups within that region. However, each form of nationalism shares the same roots in in-group favoritism and political leaders using it for their political agendas not just with each other but also with eg. Feminism or Marxism, where respectively gender and class are the main characteristics of group identity.

Whichever characteristic is used as the basis of group identity, the more one's own individual identity is intertwined with one's group identity, the more one is willing to both die and kill for that group and everything it stands for! And the more fanatics any group has, the more powerful it becomes.


Survival and natural selection. If people aren't patriotic, they won't fight to defend the country well. If they don't defend the country well it will eventually be subjugated by a country whose people do fight for their country. The country that takes over, once in charge, will teach the people to be patriotic to them and if they remain in charge long enough that teaching will take hold. Thus non-patriotic countries are replaced by patriotic countries and the all countries end up being patriotic.

  • 1
    "If people aren't patriotic, they won't fight to defend the country well." This seems far-fetched. I would defend my country to protect my family, I don't need patriotism or nationalism for that. You could argue that you need patriotism for conquest, but even that proved wrong historically.
    – Thern
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 10:55
  • So by your logic, Germany should already have disappeared since, as the OP explains, that country is very sparsely patriotic for historical reasons.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 11:38
  • @Bregalad Germany, as an unpatriotic country, is a young country in a strange situation of being surrounded by very peaceful country, having a non-aggressive protector, and being part of a very powerful alliance. This situation was, someone ironically, created by Germany's past uber-patriotic behavior.
    – Readin
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 15:59
  • @Nebr Defending your country because you are defending your family works when the defense is immediate and local. It is less successful when your country has millions of people and the attack is dozens or even hundreds of miles away from your home. It also doesn't help when your leaders are trying to prevent threats from becoming larger by acting thousands of miles away.
    – Readin
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 16:02
  • @Readin But the attack will be incoming, even it is now dozen miles away. It could not be expected from the Nazis or the Sovjets to stop and ignore my hometown just because it was a hundred miles away currently. That would be very naive to assume. And it is an ongoing question if the attempt to preventing threats thousands of miles away has really mitigated the threats, or maybe even increased them. Especially in the case of terrorism, the war on terror had a rather questionable success.
    – Thern
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 8:26

I don't know about "countries" and I don't know that I agree with that statement. What I do know is that showing pride in your country, your town, your village, your locale, and your family is just an extension of showing pride in yourself and your own people, which is an extremely healthy and some might say, morally good instinct. Having a high self esteem is a good thing for all manner of reasons, and this is just an extension of that same thing.

I think you'll find that a lot of people who dislike nationalism were influenced by the anti-nationalist Communist and Communist-Anarchist thought of the past, during the 1600s or so, which was specifically created and written by exiles, undesirables, and other people who did not have a community to which they belonged to. So lo and behold - naturally, they sought to downplay the idea of nations, because to them the idea of a nation has been nothing but a pain, and encouraged radical egalitarianism, where everybody who is basically not a dog or a cat is "my fellow human", which is just stupid, because that's not the only thing that makes a human a human, his cultural baggage, the values, his biology, race, sex, society and economic performance do.


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