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Surprised by those Fourth of July tanks? Here’s what political science can tell us about nationalism, patriotism and public opinion.

Nationalism doesn’t always involve militarism. And patriotism is different from both.

- July 3, 2019

President Trump will celebrate the Fourth of July with armored tanks and other military vehicles rolling through the streets of D.C. — something he admired when he attended France’s Bastille Day celebration in 2017. But French President Emmanuel Macron might take exception to Trump’s framing of the event.

Soon after Trump declared that he is a “nationalist” and “somebody who loves our country” in 2018, world leaders gathered to remember World War I. Macron took that opportunity to counter Trump’s message when he warned that “the old demons are rising again.”

According to Macron, leaders and the public alike should embrace patriotism, not nationalism. Doing the latter, Macron implied, risks another devastating conflict.

As the United States celebrates Independence Day with fireworks, flags and armored tanks, here’s what you should know about nationalism, patriotism and foreign policy attitudes.

Nationalism and patriotism are not the same.

Like sports teams, churches and families, our national identities represent a type of social identity that fulfills our need to belong and form boundaries around “us,” our in-groups, and “them,” our out-groups. For many people in the United States, being “American” is a key part of their self-concept.

Despite Macron’s insistence that “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” political science research shows that patriotism and nationalism are different facets of a person’s national identity.

On one hand, people can feel a sense of belonging and closeness to their country. Some people use the word patriotism as shorthand for “love of country” — a subjective feeling of inclusion in a national group that many scholars label “national attachment.” People who feel connected to the United States in this way view their nation positively, but their “in-group love” does not imply hostility to outsiders.

On the other hand, nationalism involves feeling committed to one’s country and seeing it as better than all others. Nationalists believe the world would be better off if more countries resembled their own.

Research shows that patriotism and nationalism are not just conceptually distinct but form separate dimensions of a person’s national identity when scholars measure them together in U.S. surveys. This means that people can strongly identify with the United States without being nationalists and vice versa. However, the two often go together. Most studies find a positive correlation between patriotism and nationalism.

To many Americans, being patriotic means being white.

Nationalism, but not patriotism, predicts militarism.

This distinction carries importance in debates about how a person’s national identification influences their foreign policy attitudes. If national identification encourages aggression, then it might have earned its bad reputation among those such as Macron who fear that a nationalist, jingoistic public could drive their country into conflict.

When researchers measure both facets of identification, they find that nationalists, but not patriots, are more hawkish in their foreign policy approach. Psychologists Rick Kosterman and Seymour Feshbach provided early evidence for a positive correlation between nationalism and beliefs that the United States should continue producing nuclear weapons to counter the Soviet threat, for example. Psychologists Christopher M. Federico, Agnieszka Golec and Jessica L. Dial similarly find that nationalism is associated with support for military action against Iraq.

Political scientists Richard K. Herrmann, Pierangelo Isernia, and Paolo Segatti surveyed a representative sample of U.S. adults to show that nationalism predicts militarism — the general belief that the United States should use force to pursue its goals abroad.

But these studies find limited evidence for a relationship between patriotism and militarism. Herrmann, Isernia and Segatti conclude that when controlling for nationalism, higher levels of patriotism are associated with stronger support for international cooperation, not conflict. When a person’s positive view of her country does not depend on dominance over others, they remain open to collaboration through international organizations.

Trump supporters and opponents are increasingly divided over whether constitutional principles are threatened

My research suggests that not all nationalists are militarists.

Despite the near-consensus among scholars that nationalism prompts militarism, I wanted to know whether such beliefs about U.S. dominance always involve hawkishness. People in the United States disagree about what it means to be an American. I argue that differences among nationalists will affect foreign policy attitudes.

When people think about the United States as a united community, maintaining U.S. superiority means using force to protect the group’s unity against outside threats. When a nationalist instead defines their identity based on equality and reciprocity, they are less likely to support force. This view sees expressing American greatness as entailing international give and take.

In October 2016, I surveyed 632 U.S. adults who resembled the general population on gender, age, race and census region via Dynata. I randomly assigned some participants to a group in which they read a short passage about what it means to be an American. Others were assigned to a control group, in which they read information about the size of the United States but nothing else.

Some of those who read a passage about being American read one depicting Americans as a united community, using the “all for one, and one for all” mantra. Others read a passage portraying Americans as holding the same rights/responsibilities and abiding by principles of reciprocal fairness.

All respondents then answered a series of questions that enabled me to measure nationalism, with a scale that asked respondents whether, for example, the world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like Americans. Finally, I measured militarism by asking participants whether they agree with questions about support for the use of military force.

To see how different concepts of being American influenced responses, I compared militarism in the two groups that read a passage to militarism in the control group. With that comparison, I found that among people who scored in the top 33 percent on nationalism, the group that read about equal rights, responsibilities and fairness scored 7 percent lower on militarism than did nationalists in the other two groups.

This response calls into doubt the belief that nationalism will always promote aggression. However, the sample is small, and the experiment cannot tell us about overall levels of different nationalisms in the United States. Nor can it tell us whether having tanks and military flyovers in the District will affect what it means when Fourth of July flags wave around the country. What it can tell us is that the mix of patriotism and nationalisms on display will not necessarily indicate a hawkish public.

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Kathleen E. Powers is assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.