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Divided We Stand

With America heading for one of the most fraught and potentially disastrous presidential elections in its history, it is difficult to see how such a deeply polarized country could ever be made whole again. In fact, today's divide is between two broad social types that both are essential to group maintenance and survival.

WASHINGTON, DC – The words nationalism and patriotism are commonly bandied about to describe people’s entrenched political commitments, and both labels have made frequent appearances in the run-up to next month’s US elections. For a psychologist, however, these terms represent distinct but variable expressions of how humans identify with their society. In fact, the personality differences between nationalists and patriots seem to be universal across cultures, suggesting they are part of our common heritage as humans.

Although nationalists and patriots are both nominally devoted to their society, they relate to it differently. Patriots show pride in a shared identity and sense of belonging – sentiments that come naturally to native-born citizens and naturalized immigrants alike. With their passion directed toward their own group, patriots emphasize the quotidian needs of their communities: food, housing, schools, and so forth.

By contrast, nationalists couch their identity in glorification. As concerned as patriots are with caring for their fellow citizens, nationalists are preoccupied with preserving what they perceive as a superior way of life, and with keeping their people safe from outside threats.