Another Fourth of July is upon us – that’s Independence Day for any non-U.S. citizens whose lives don’t actually revolve around what’s going on in the States. It’s time for fireworks, grill-fests, parades, flag-waving, and all things patriotic. But what does that word really mean? Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as having or showing great love and support for your country: having or showing patriotism. And patriotism is defined simply as the love that people feel for their country. Nation-states certainly benefit from citizens who love and support their country. From paying taxes to fighting and dying for one’s country, such behaviors help ensure a nation endures and is competitive on the global stage.
From a cultural evolutionary perspective, patriotism, when felt by most of the citizenry, helps ensure that between-group evolutionary forces dominate over within-group forces at the level of the nation-state.10 Patriotism helps ensure that greater degrees of competition occur between nations as opposed to between subgroups within a nation, which weaken it in the global arena. It does this in part through increasing member uniformity, often with a sense of urgency, in pursuit of the nation’s common interests. And uniformity among group members (typically achieved in part via social/cultural norms) enhances a group’s cohesiveness, cooperation, and functional integration.1,2,3,7,8
However, I should note that patriotism for one’s own country doesn’t automatically equate to hostility against other nations. In actuality, there exists a continuum that ranges on the one end from generally peaceful coexistence and overall cooperation among nations composed of patriotic individuals (i.e., the European Union) to on the other end armed conflict among nations also composed of patriotic individuals. Along that continuum are cooperative allies who still compete economically or even occasionally spy on one another, as well as generally antagonistic nations who come together to participate in more friendly competitions at the Olympics. In all cases, patriotism increases uniformity among the citizenry, working against within-group forces.
Specific social control mechanisms involved include norms that encourage patriotism, such as reciting the pledge of allegiance in school, playing the National Anthem at sporting events, and participating in Fourth of July celebrations. The transition across the liminal boundary separating childhood from adulthood, marked by rites of passage tied to U.S. citizenship like registering for Selective Service or registering to vote, can also encourage patriotism. There are other social control mechanisms that take more of the “stick” approach to discouraging “unpatriotic” behavior through various laws and norms. These range from disapproving sideways glances received for not removing one’s hat during the national anthem to being executed for treason.
If we adopt Elinor Ostrom’s eight design features that are the hallmarks of groups able to successfully cooperate, the norms mentioned above help define who we are as citizens of a nation.6,11,12 They address the first design feature – establish a strong group identity, including understanding and agreeing with the group’s purpose.11 Peer pressure, gossip, large-scale boycotts, resulting in legal actions, etc. address the fifth design feature – graduated sanctions to correct misbehaviors, which begin with friendly reminders and escalate only as needed.11
But patriotism has a dark side as well. It can be a particularly powerful unifier when coupled with an “other” perceived to represent a dangerous threat by those in power. The forced removal of Native Americans from their lands, the Japanese internment camps of World War II, McCarthyism and the Red Scare, shaming protestors for exercising their right to kneel during the National Anthem, and Trump’s cruel immigration policy, were all arguably fueled by patriotism run amok. They harm citizens and non-citizens in the name of the state which is typically portrayed as under threat.
While such actions may unify a portion of the nation, they also usually have a unifying effect on other subgroups opposed to such actions. Such subgroups view the nation’s common interests differently and express their love and support of country through resistance in various forms. This is another form of patriotism, and it’s where I find myself personally. The many actions of the Trump administration worthy of resistance are too numerous to comprehensively list here, but include such things as dismantling the EPA, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, supporting a tax plan that will exacerbate the divide between the haves and have-nots, seemingly starting a trade war, targeting the Office of Government Ethics, targeting the free press, fueling hate against minorities, undermining international alliances, the travel ban, and of course the cruel separation of immigrant children from their parents. Trump has chosen a path of divisiveness to appeal to his base, calculating that this will be sufficient for him to remain in power and further bend the presidency to his own apparently authoritarian leanings. He is betting that the dominance of within-group forces will ultimately benefit himself and his own – country be damned.
Resistance is necessary but won’t be enough. We must also engage the other side to help tear down the in-group/out-group barrier.4,5 While engaging Trump’s most vocal supporters may have little impact, positive engagement could likely be had with the many Trump voters who remain relatively silent. And honestly, it’s past time to more deliberately look at tearing down such barriers at the international level. We need to view ourselves as members of the same species occupying a single planet with other species we depend on in one form or another. Humans have been effectively cooperating with one another and competing against “the other” since we were hunter-gatherers. But the threats humans collectively now face, many fueled by climate change, require more effective global cooperation.
As David Sloan Wilson has previously indicated, it’s not enough for nations to be uniform and functionally effective for their own short-term success and/or long-term survival.9 The actions taken by nations in this pursuit sometimes negatively impact our species at the global scale – nations may benefit at the expense of the species as a whole. Global cooperation requires a means of effectively upscaling to the global level Ostrom’s eight design features or upscaling other attempts to harness the social control mechanisms that evolved in our hunter-gatherer villages. A species or even planetary focused form of patriotism could be an important part of that.
So, this Fourth of July, I’ll be patriotically resisting in some form the Trump administration, its policies, and its focus on a divisive, within-group strategy to maintain power. At the same time, I’ll be looking for opportunities to express a global form of patriotism. Sharing this article on the Fourth is one way I’ll be doing both, and hopefully starting some conversations in the process. I’m curious what others are doing on the Fourth to resist the Trump administration or display a form of global patriotism.
- Boehm, C. 1996. Emergency Decisions, Cultural-Selection Mechanics, and Group Selection. Current Anthropology 37:763-793 [CB].
- Boehm, C. 1997a. Egalitarian Behavior and the Evolution of Political Intelligence. In Machiavellian Intelligence 2, edited by D. Byrne and A. Whiten. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [CB].
- Boehm, C. 1997b The Impact of the Human Egalitarian Syndrome on Darwinian Selection Mechanics. American Naturalist 150:100-121.
- Harmon, M. J. 2014a Your turn: Breaking bread with the ‘other’ side. Lawrence Journal World March 31, 2014. http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2014/mar/31/your-turn-breaking-bread-other-side/.
- Harmon, M. J. 2014b Earth’s delicate ecosystems offer only limited resources. The Kansas City Star April 30, 2014. https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article347894/Earth%E2%80%99s-delicate-ecosystems-offer-only-limited-resources.html.
- Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- Sober, E. and D. S. Wilson. 1998. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London.
- Wilson, D. S. 1998. Hunting, Sharing, and Multilevel Selection. Current Anthropology 39(1):73-97.
- Wilson, D. S. 2014. Blueprint for the Global Village. This View of Life. September 4, 2014. https://evolution-institute.org/focus-article/blueprint-for-the-global-village/?source=sef.
- Wilson, D.S. 2015. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Wilson, D.S., R.A. Kauffman, Jr, M.S. Purdy MS. 2011. A Program for At-Risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27826. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027826
- Wilson, D. S., E. Ostrom, E., and M.E. Cox. 2013. Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32.