Kushay's Matter Bank Politics

[AK] How Patriotism Works

This note will discuss the psychology behind patriotism. Source:

Patriotism functions as a tool to make your community more solid and identify outsiders, especially if there’s not many other commonalities to bind you together (ex: if you’re an ethnically and religiously diverse country like Indonesia and US).  In a study published in April in the journal Psychological Science, scientists had two groups of people learn and perform different rituals together. These rituals had no particular meaning — just a lot of shuffling around and arm-waving, mostly — but after each group took their turn performing their own ritual, experiments showed that subjects who had previously never met one another were much more likely to trust members of their own group and distrust members of the opposite group.

This creates a bias that has big implications:

1. In politics, when someone makes an argument, one way to refute it is to look at the proposal and go point-by-point through and refute it. Mostly that’s an ineffective losing strategy in politics. A more effective way to engage in political debates is to discredit the sponsor of the idea. So you say the person who’s sponsoring this idea is crazy, is un-American, is a traitor, is not authentic, is representing some foreign power, so they’re not really looking out for America.

2. It turns out that the way you deploy the patriotic jargon matters. A study published in the journal Political Psychology in 2007 found that introducing patriotic symbols into a political discussion can warp the terms in which people think about the issues. Talk to people about patriotism as an ideal of common purpose, working toward goals together, and they’re more likely to embrace expansive political ideas. Multiculturalism and social identities become more appealing, and more important. But prime people with the suggestion that there’s something essential about Americans, and they’re likelier to reject outsiders or variance from a “common cultural standard.” So patriotism can be both utilized by the left and right.

The questions to ask when analyzing patriotism is as follows: Who are we? What holds us together? What do we have in common? Why are we together? Do I belong? Do they belong, whoever ‘they’ is?, whoever ‘they’ is?

For US, the answer to that seems to be biased in favor of right-wing politics. A series of experiments published in the journal Political Psychology in 2008 showed that exposure to the American flag tends to make people more supportive of authoritarianism, more opposed to racial and gender equality, more antagonistic toward foreigners, and more supportive of the idea that America should dominate the world.

Researchers have long known that this effect redoubles in wartime. The political scientist John Mueller in 1970 described what he termed a “Rally ‘Round the Flag” effect, wherein nearly any new military event — a bombing campaign, an attack on the homeland, an invasion of a foreign country — prompts surges in nationalist patriotism and the popularity of the American president. It doesn’t matter why violence is happening. As long as American might is on display, people get pumped up.

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