On Patria: Patriotism as Tribalism

7 min readJul 5, 2020

I belong to a North African tribe called the Danagla. Once upon a time, that meant a great deal. It decided who I could and couldn’t wed, who my sworn enemies were, and who my lifelong allies might be. For some, mostly older tribe members this identity remains meaningful today. Many had branded their faces with a hot iron in a tribal ritual to mark their allegiance.

They can be seen to this day with their loyalties seared into their flesh.

More broadly however, tribalism is now viewed with scorn. It’s considered an outdated, divisive sentiment. After all what is the difference between Danagla, Shaigiya, Sukkot, and Mahas? We are all, so we’re told, Sudanese.

So in its stead, we have patriotism.

Whereas tribalism is now decried, patriotism is held up as a virtue. Across the world, patriotism is actively fostered, praised, and rewarded. Compare for instance the Google Image search results for the terms “Patriotism” and “Tribalism”:

Patriotism vs. Tribalism

Patriotism is love and loyalty, tribalism strife and conflict.

But is patriotism really much of an improvement?

In the fullness of time, I believe patriotism too will become a dirty word. It is after all tribalism but bigger, founded on the same divisive, self-preserving, fearful instincts.

At the outset let’s be clear: love for one’s culture, history, food, music, rituals, traditions, costumes, lore, and what have you, is not patriotism. Patriotism is devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country. I’m not sure there’s a term for the former, but patriotism describes the latter.

Patriotism and Nationalism: separated by an invisible line

Moreover, nationalism and patriotism are not at their core qualitatively different. George Orwell argued that whereas nationalism is offensive, patriotism is defensive. But that’s a superficial distinction. When pressed, patriots too will raise their nation’s interests over others. Voltaire was therefore right to say “it is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.” Nationalists might be more fervent than their younger siblings the patriots, but at their root is the same impulse: devotional allegiance to one nation to the exclusion and detriment of others.

Like tribalism, patriotism stems from a natural instinct to form groups and cherish the familiar. Contrary to the old adage, familiarity breeds fondness not contempt. Familiarity is safety, familiarity is home. These natural sentiments are difficult to rebuke.

But our tendency to form social groups has a well-documented underbelly. Decades of research have shown that we form groups on the faintest of pretenses. We value and defend those within our groups, but denigrate and neglect those without. We recognise individualism and nuance among our peers, while essentialising and seeing uniformity in others. Groups believe their members share virtues, while non-members share flaws. Group members can be swayed hither and thither by compatriots, but remain skeptical and dismissive of those on the outside. I could go on.

Henri Tajfel, father of Social Identity Theory and populariser of the In-group/Out-group paradigm

Patriotism is tribalism stretched to fit the nation state. Nations in turn are a largely arbitrary delineation of peoples, a fact truer today than ever before.

Take the United States. Its peoples come from every corner of the world. They share not a religion, nor a language, nor an ethnicity, nor any discernible trait. There may be enclaves of homogeneity, some quite large, but none capture the populace as a whole. What binds Americans first and foremost is paperwork. A piece of paper or a database entry that marks them citizens. In every other respect they are dissimilar.

Of course, there are more uniform nations, but is their patriotism any more defensible? On the contrary. Nations whose membership is restricted to biologic, religious, or similar traits, are more reprehensible not less.

Nations come and go. They shrink and grow. Their values shift, their tongues drift, their constitutions are amended, re-written, scrapped, and upended. In 2011, South Sudan seceded from the North, shrinking the land mass by a quarter and the population by a fifth. Should my patriotism have shrunk in proportion?

Bush Senior on the US 1988 shooting down of Flight 655, wherein 290 people were murdered including 66 children: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

Beyond the capricious nature of the nation state, patriotism corrupts our rational and moral judgment. Patriotism fosters zero-sum thinking. It gives rise to inane catchphrases like “America First!” and “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (“One People, One Nation, One Leader”). It blinds us to our inextricable interdependence. It juxtaposes one nation’s interests against another’s, and justifies the pursuit of those interests at all costs. It deafens us to the suffering of others; particularly suffering at our own hands.

Flight 655 victims and victims

To the extent that patriotism involves larger groups and therefore fewer “tribes”, it’s an improvement. But this improvement is more than countered by the sheer violence larger groups can inflict. We Danagla, for instance, would be hard-pressed to drop an atomic bomb on the Shaigiya. The nation state is a more capable organizational structure and therefore more capable of violence.

World War II: patriotic celebration went hand in hand with annihilation

What then is the value of the nation state?

It is an administrative expedience. Nation states are best suited to minister to domestic needs and allocate domestic resources. The Prime Minister of Sudan, Mohamed Hamdok, for instance, would have a difficult time navigating domestic politics in say Brazil or Malaysia. He lacks a fluency in the respective languages, social structures, histories and belief systems. No, he’s far better suited to govern Sudan. He understands its constituents better and knows how to perform the delicate posturings specific to the politics of that part of the world. In that sense, patria is useful. Beyond this it quickly becomes harmful.

Happily, the fall of patriotism is likely to be as natural and inevitable as the fall of tribalism. Tribalism fell because it eventually could not meet the needs of the moment. The world grew too big, too complex, too interconnected to accommodate local feuds and bickerings. More importantly, tribe’s folk traveled, traded, and integrated, and the lines between Danagla, Shaigiya, and Mahas blurred and disappeared in all but name.

We’re edging towards such a moment for nations. The world is increasingly internationalist. A fight against internationalism is like a fight against physics. People diffuse and entropy dictates that the future holds more intermingling not less. It may be derided as a sentiment of “cosmopolitan elites” by some, but we’ve already seen how the failures of patriotism itself can catalyse the demise of the nation state. After all, it was the horrors of World War II, fueled at every step by national hubris, which gave rise to arguably the most successful internationalist peace project in history, the European Union.

From Tribalism to Patriotism, from Patriotism to Continentalism, from Continentalism to…?

Many of us have multiple citizenships. Third culture kids are a growing demographic. Almost everything we consume from smartphones to t-shirts rely on other nations. And the former President of the United States, arguably the most ostentatiously patriotic country on Earth, had a Kenyan father, an American mother, and was raised in Indonesia. As a French-Chinese-Australian friend once said to me, “there are only so many hyphens we can bear before the whole thing seems pointless.” And as it turns out, we are all hyphenated.

Today it’s almost impossible to imagine the world organised along tribal lines. The primacy of the nation state will also someday seem impossible. What will take its place? Ever larger regional governments? Decentralized Autonomous Organizations? I suppose it depends on the time horizon we consider. But what is certain is that the fall of patriotism will accompany the rise of humanism and the decline of bigotry, and brinkmanship.

Over tens of thousands of years we’ve gradually expanded our in-groups from hunter-gatherer bands, to clans, to tribes, to fiefdoms, kingdoms and others. The nation state is only the latest iteration and there’s no reason to believe it’ll be the last.

That we form social groups is inevitable, but that we accept their damaging baggage is not. The civilizing process has taught us to resist primal urges when they clash with reason and morality. And what could be more unreasonable and immoral than pitting ourselves against the rest of humankind.

Happy Fourth of July.