On Patriotism

I’ve been sitting with the idea of being “proud to be an American” recently.

This is a notion that’s been largely ceded to the right in my lifetime. People on the progressive left have been far too aware of the many problems with our culture and government to fully embrace patriotism, or symbols of patriotism like the flag.

And yet, I’ve always been happy to be part of this country, and also aware of the unique value that the United States offers. Over the last 250 years, we’ve been pioneers in the field of individual liberty. Always imperfectly, yes, even utterly hypocritical at times, as when our slave-owning founding fathers wrote about the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we’ve held those values. We’ve kept ourselves pointed in the direction of democracy and liberty, even as our actual day to day practices have lagged far behind.

I think this is vitally important, and a look around the community of nations currently shows us why. Russia made the transition from Monarchy to Communism 100 years ago, but they had the habit of totalitarian rule, and that’s the form that communism took. Then they overturned communist totalitarianism with a free democracy, only to succumb to the lure of another totalitarian ruler in the form of Putin. China continues to do very well with economic reforms while keeping totalitarian rule in the hands of the communist party leader, Xi Jinping; they recently modified their constitution so that he doesn’t have any term limit, and he may go on to be dictator for life.

There are democracies throughout the world, in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa, but few of them have the cultural commitment to individual rights and self-determination that America has. So this is precious. Without that thorough commitment, totalitarian regimes can easily emerge from democracies, as was the case in Turkey, or in Venezuela.

As the dominant military and economic power on the planet, we’ve promoted these values. Any new level of liberty that we engage with, such as feminism or gay rights, becomes embedded in our culture and reflected around the world. Our influence forces other societies to look at those values – they may choose to set themselves against them in some cases, but we’ve forced the issue.

However, while we’re still militarily dominant, we’re being economically eclipsed. China’s combination of central control and engagement with the world economic market has enabled them to make massive infrastructure investments, both domestically and across the world, that may soon lead their economy to eclipse us.

This is why I think it’s important for us to reclaim our patriotism. The future culture of the world hangs in the balance. It’s important for us to find a strong alignment with individual rights and self-determination in order to hold strong against the global temptation to give in to the charismatic autocrat. It’s vital for us to be motivated and clear-headed about our economic future if we want these American values to survive into the 22nd century.

American conservative culture embraces patriotism, but in their expression it’s a love of national identity without any commitment to American values. This is clear from all of the ways that Republican leadership has blatantly subverted the norms of democratic government in the interests of power – from government shutdowns, to gerrymandering, to the refusal to consider confirmation of Merrick Garland, to legislatures trying to take power away from incoming fairly elected democratic governors, to President Trump’s current border wall “emergency”. If you don’t care about democracy as long as you win, you aren’t in alignment with American values.

Liberals and progressives in this country are very hesitant to use words like “patriotic”, or to get engaged with plans to increase American influence in the world. There’s a tremendous temptation to say, hasn’t America done enough damage? But I would make the case that it’s exactly the criticisms we hold of our country that show our love for the fundamental values. We hate the growing disparity between rich and poor and the lack of opportunity for American workers today, but that’s because we love the traditional American value of being the land of opportunity, of being a place where hard work and willingness to contribute can provide people with a stable life and opportunities to grow. We hate that African-Americans are at vastly increased risk for being shot by police officers, because we yearn for a land where all people are held as equal, where we’re judged not by the color of our skin but the content of our character.

For all the ways in which the American left criticizes the country as falling short – the values we’re falling short of are by and large American values. They’re our heritage and our responsibility.

And they’re something to be proud of.

Comments 2

  • […] my recent post on patriotism, I spoke generally about the importance of American values. Certainly the most preeminent among […]

  • thank you for so elegantly expressing a view that I carry in my heart.
    I am not even sure why but I find a few tears in my eyes.
    the beginning of emotion was brought on when you wrote,
    “If you don’t care about democracy as long as you win, you aren’t in alignment with American values.” and then at the end, “the values we’re falling short of are by and large American values. They’re our heritage and our responsibility.”
    It is a shared since of values I long for, our word and action to match…or at least head in the direction of matching because falling short and trying again is part of striving to be our best.

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