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Patriotism, nationalism, and the American flag

- November 18, 2008


During the recently completed presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s display – or lack thereof – of an American flag lapel pin became a source of considerable controversy. His disinclination to sport a flag lapel pin, or at least always to sport such a pin, resonated with insinuations that he is an “outsider” unfriendly to cherished American values and symbols.

bq. What kind of national attachment does the American flag bring out in Americans? …[I]t is crucial to consider that attachment to a group always occurs in the context of multiple groups, where the individual is a member of one group, but not others. The question then becomes whether identification with or attachment to one’s own group then implies that the individual rejects or derogates the other groups.

That’s Markus Kemmelmeier and David C. Winter, in an interesting recent study published in in Political Psychology (“Sowing Patriotism, But Reaping Nationalism? Consequences of Exposure to the American Flag,” vol. 29, no. 6, 2008). Kemmelmeier and Winter distinguish between patriotism (“the noncompetitive love of and commitment to one’s country”) and nationalism (“an ideology of superiority of the ingroup over outgroups” that “implies the exclusion or even domination of others.” The question then becomes whether the American flag evokes feelings of patriotism, nationalism, neither, or both.

To find out, Kemmelmeier and Winter conducted a pair of experiments in which the participants (undergraduate students) were asked to complete a questionnaire either in the presence or the absence of the American flag. The questionnaire contained items tapping both patriotism (e.g., “I’m proud to be an American” and “I would describe myself as a patriot”) and nationalism (“We should do anything necessary to increase the power of our country, even if it means war” and “In view of America’s moral and material superiority, it is only right that we should have the biggest say in deciding United Nations policy”).

In the first study, patriotism and nationalism turned out to be positively correlated, but the key finding was that when the participants were in the presence of the flag, the participants’ sense of patriotism wasn’t significantly enhanced, but their degree of nationalism was. The second study was similar but, unlike the first study, it was conducted after September 11, 2001. The same pattern of findings re-emerged.

Although Kemmelmeier and Winter concede that many people “may not care much for academic hair splitting and the scientific distinction between patriotism and nationalism,” they conclude that “the cultural practice of flagging is an important aspect of the maintenance and reproduction of the American national identity.” More troubling, nationalism has often been “implicated in aggression, oppression, and warfare. Does this imply that when exposed to the flag in their environment Americans are more likely to aggress against other nations? The likely answer is at least in part a ‘yes.’”