Constitutional patriotism

Jürgen Habermas, who furthered the ideas of constitutional patriotism

Constitutional patriotism (German: Verfassungspatriotismus) is the idea that people should form a political attachment to the norms and values of a pluralistic liberal democratic constitution rather than a national culture or cosmopolitan society.[1][2][3][4] It is associated with post-nationalist identity, because it is seen as a similar concept to nationalism, but as an attachment based on values of the constitution rather than a national culture. In essence, it is an attempt to re-conceptualise group identity with a focus on the interpretation of citizenship as a loyalty that goes beyond individuals' ethnocultural identification. Theorists believe this to be more defensible than other forms of shared commitment in a diverse modern state with multiple languages and group identities.[5] It is particularly relevant in post-national democratic states in which multiple cultural and ethnic groups coexist.[4] It was influential in the development of the European Union and a key to Europeanism as a basis for multiple countries belonging to a supranational union.[6]

Theoretical origins

Constitutional patriotism has been interpreted in a variety of ways, providing a range of positions.[7][2][8] On one end, there is the vision that the concept is a new means of identification to a supranational entity;[9] while on the other end, there is a focus on understanding the attachment in terms of freedom over ethnicity.[10] It is largely contested whether constitutional patriotism is supposed to be read as a replacement for nationality or traditional identity; or as a balance between the two, allowing for the "transient account of identity consistent with the diversity, hybridity, and pluralism of our modern world."[11] There are also multiple opinions as to whether a prior group identity is necessary before a moral, political one is achieved.

The concept of constitutional patriotism originates from Post-World War Two West Germany: "a 'half-nation' with a sense of deeply compromised nationality on account of their Nazi past."[12] In this context, constitutional patriotism was a protective and state-centered means of dealing with the memory of the Holocaust and militancy of the Third Reich.[12] The concept can be traced to the liberal philosopher Karl Jaspers, who advocated the idea of dealing with German political guilt after the war with 'collective responsibility'.[13] His student, Dolf Sternberger explicitly introduced the concept on the thirtieth birthday of the Federal Republic (1979). However, it is strongly associated with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas.


Sternberger saw constitutional patriotism as a protective means to ensure political stability to maintain peace in Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War. He framed the concept as a way for citizens to identify with the democratic state in order that it could defend itself against internal and external threats.[12] Thus, with the emphasis on state defense and protection, Sternberger linked constitutional patriotism to the concept of militant democracy.[12] He drew on Aristotelianism, arguing that patriotism had traditionally not been linked to sentiments towards the nation.[12] Constitutional patriotism is a development of Sternberger's earlier notion of Staatsfreundschaft (friendship towards the state).


Jürgen Habermas

Habermas played a key role in developing, contextualizing and spreading the idea of constitutional patriotism to English-speaking countries.[3] Like Sternberger, Habermas viewed constitutional patriotism as a conscious strengthening of political principles, however, "where Sternberger's patriotism had centred on democratic institutions worth defending, Habermas focused on the public sphere as providing a space for public reasoning among citizens."[12]

Post-war West Germany provided the context for Habermas's theories. During the historian's dispute of the late 1980s, Habermas fought against the normalization of "exceptional historical events" (the rise of Nazism and the events of the Holocaust).[14] Constitutional patriotism was Habermas's suggestion as a way to unify West Germans.[14] As he was concerned by the shaping of German identity through attempts to return to traditional national pride, he argued for Germans to "move away from the notion of ethnically homogeneous nation-states."[3][12][15] Thus it became an "inner counterpart to the bond of the Federal Republic to the West; it was not only an advance in respect to traditional German nationalism, but also a step toward overcoming it."[16] To Habermas, post-national German identity was dependent on understanding and overcoming its past, subjecting traditions to criticism.[14] This historical memory was essential to constitutional patriotism.[14]

Habermas believed a nationalistic collective identity was no longer feasible in a globalized modern world and scorned ethnic cohesion as a part of nineteenth century nationalism irrelevant in a new age of international migration.[17] His theory was therefore grounded in the idea that "the symbolic unity of the person that is produced and maintained through self-identification depends... on belonging to the symbolic reality of a group, on the possibility of localizing oneself in the world of this group. A group identity that transcends the life histories of individuals is thus a precondition of the identity of the individual."[18] In a disenchanted world, individual and collective identities were no longer formed by internalizing nationalist values but by becoming aware of "what they want and what others expect from them in the light of moral concerns" from an impartial position.[12]

He argued that the European nation-state was successful because "it made possible a new mode of legitimation based on a new, more abstract form of social integration."[18] Rather than a consensus on just values, Habermas believed the intricacies of modern societies must rely on "a consensus on the procedure for the legitimate enactment of laws and the legitimate exercise of power.”[19]