A Defense of American Patriotism

The question of patriotism is a contentious one nowadays, inspiring of fiery rebuttals and visceral reactions. It is strange to think of something that has so historically been a fixture of civic life as being so suddenly controversial. Patriotism, in our present environment, is not quite the unifying glue that it once was. A territory for one to set aside one’s partisan particulars and confess a transcendent loyalty to one’s country has morphed into something more undesirable and fractious. Nowadays, the once sedate concept of patriotism has acquired new powers of vexation, and it appears drawn out of relative obscurity, dislodged from its previous positioning as a cultural background and thrust into the land of national debate.

The ideal of patriotism has become splintered down the center, largely by the joint actions of the Left and Right political factions in a historically unprecedented fashion. The anxious chatterings of “political polarization” are not new: we have been witness to them for years. Some will say that this is a reality due to the increasing extremity of political positions but perhaps it is not so much a result of worrying herding to the ends of the political spectrum but moreso the increasingly disappearing “neutral ground” between the two sides. This neutral ground should not be mistaken for an area of “compromise” but rather, should be thought of as a common vision that rises above the din of partisan politics.

Its the sort of thing you see embodied in robust community displays of July 4th patriotism — a still-thriving, traditional endeavor that leaps over party lines. Our national holidays, landmarks and American symbolism — think the flag and the Statue of Liberty — are relics mostly stripped of politics and heavy on patriotism. Our modern dilemma thus emerges: We have lost a tame, but still dynamic version of national patriotism and have found ourselves swimming, instead, in political contention. And the reason so many people find patriotism “problematic” in our present climate is precisely because it has become enveloped by politics — its controversy, then, is largely derived not from its inherent nature but its political overlay.

The Left finds themselves presently weary with patriotism and increasingly cynical. Part of this reaction may stem from the aggressively oppositional stances towards President Trump that compelled many to utter ‘Not my President’ sentiments. The Left is also responsible for exacting withering critiques on American exceptionalism and having a dark view of America’s credentials, a soured opinion of our nation’s prowess. There are no doubt a slew of complex reasons for a dwindling of national patriotism on the Left front and I won’t begin to untangle them all here. I would speculate, however, that the modern Left has been heavily influenced by post-structuralism, a strain of European “intellectualism” that appears to have imparted a distinctly cynical flavor to the Leftist stance towards American patriotism.

On the other side of the aisle, the Right finds themselves morally outraged at the Left’s seeming defiance towards patriotic gestures. The Kaepernick scandal bears testament to precisely this outrage. The Right did not take kindly to what read as offensive anti-Americanism. Thus, this is the situation we find ourselves in today: mutual offense emanating from both sides of the political spectrum. The Left is offended by American Exceptionalism and finds something repelling about it whereas the Right is offended by what they would consider to be the Left’s degradation of patriotism. And currently, a battle is ensuing — a culture war, if you could call it that.

I think the problem lies in how most of us are conceptualizing patriotism within the frame of politics. Rather, it needs to be lifted out of politics and foisted above all the commotion. As it is, various voices wax on about the nobility of attempting to “unify politics” but I question the wisdom of that endeavor. Ultimately, patriotism isn’t politics — and we don’t want it to be.

One of the interesting features of patriotism is that it is not very ideological. It’s divorced from the intellectual arguments scattered throughout the political arena and mostly removed from the tug-of-war of ideas. Instead, patriotism swims at a level almost below conscious thought. It is, in most cases, something intuitively felt. It is an instinctive emotional reaction, coded somewhere in our DNA. It is embodied in the ineffable swell of pride we experience witnessing the straight, severe lines of a military formation, or perhaps gazing up at the looming, sternly etched presidential visages of Mount Rushmore, or even standing before the proverbial Stars and Stripes rippling in the breeze.

To be fair, America in particular can be singled out as historically having a particularly fervent patriotic tradition. Consider the Independence Day fanfare, the rousing refrains of multiple patriotic anthems diligently drilled in elementary school, the unquestioning belief in the superiority of the U.S. that is held by many. Other countries have in the past remarked on the eccentricity of American patriotism which they chose to read as perplexing excess.

But what’s startlingly unique about the American situation is the distinction that can be drawn between government and country. The U.S. on the whole has historically held deep skepticism towards its government but in spite of this, has largely retained an underlying love for America. Of course that begs the question: what does “love for America” even mean? It’s a notion difficult to pin down, possibly because it is a visceral loyalty, a nearly emotional connection that has much to do with the story of our origins and the famously stirring creed that defined it.

America is also a relatively young country and importantly, was a nation founded. The birthing of our nation was dramatic and vigorous and a thoroughly gripping feat. Express revolution from the British Crown heightened the intensity and the ardency of the whole ordeal. Due to these momentous origins, the clear ideals passionately put forth back in 1776, and the success that America would go on to have, a fiercely patriotic tradition begins to make an awful lot of sense. Contrary to its British counterpart, for example, the founding of America was a colossal project and a conscious decision.

These features separate the U.S. from older countries whose histories extend further back into antiquity and who had no splashy, galvanizing revolutions that involved making a country essentially from scratch. We repeatedly harken back to the days when our country was founded and the exciting ideals of freedom and personal sovereignty that were debuted then. In some ways, America’s split and internal conflict regarding patriotism we observe today may just be the natural growing pains of a young nation.

All this said, moderate patriotism is beautifully natural and actually politically sensible. Furthermore, it needn’t be overly complicated. It is actually, contrary to what many would think, the lifeline of a politically polarized America. It is the “common ground” we are perpetually seeking.

After all, diluting one’s personally-held political convictions in the name of “compromise” is not an advisable solution — after all, we should want to keep the intellectual diversity and honesty. Instead, to address the cultural tension, something ought to be done about the current wilting of confidence in patriotism (which, unfortunately, has been messily marred by too much contaminating political talk). Presently, many find patriotism not only unnecessary but will even go so far as to perceive it as an embarrassing, ugly, or otherwise superfluous fixture of society.

I don’t suppose this thinking is very helpful. Though, let it be said that patriotism can indeed bring out the best in humanity but can also bring out the worst (think cases of extreme nationalism). Even so, patriotism ought to be properly recognized as a potentially unifying force that can supersede the level of identity politics which we presently find ourselves ensnared in and that many lament as unduly popular nowadays. A patriotism that focuses on our commonalities as an entire nation and our shared love of liberty, perhaps, is unquestionably superior to the current fragmented, tribalistic nature of warring ‘identity’ factions of American society.

Patriotism has a humanistic feel to it as well as an existential importance. It weaves dignity and belonging into our individual human lives and can foster rapport among a citizenry. In times of national emergency, a robust patriotism has time and again emerged through the cracks in the shaken foundation, materializing out of a rattled national consciousness that now felt inextricably coalesced around a common vision of American perseverance and identity.

There are merits to keeping patriotism alive for it serves a decent and honorable purpose in society. To function as a nation, a shared vision and a common loyalty helps tremendously. Furthermore, a patriotic impulse is natural to humans who are wired to hunger for belonging in a group. Some may find this groupish mentality primitive and problematic, but it is a basic feature of human society all the same and is unlikely to be teased out of human nature via any kind of activism anytime soon.

Joint admiration for the collaborative project of a nation that we share with both our ancestors and our successors has been unwarrantably ridiculed by some political factions in recent years but we ought not to continue this. The stubborn reality is this: Humanity will never shed its instinctive desire for loyalty to a particular nationhood and will never be content to live in a borderless, cosmopolitan world. However, neither is it ideal to indulge all groupish tendencies (what we are seeing currently in regards to identity politics) so that we lose sight altogether of an overarching patriotic loyalty that smooths tensions, leaps over divisions, and fosters national community.

Many are fearfully repulsed by nationalism which is modernly seen as a close cousin to patriotism. The former, however, can unquestionably have ugly effects that we need only look to the pages of history for. But nationalism is divergent from patriotism in the sense that it boasts ultimate superiority while patriotism is simply confidence in one’s particular nationhood.

Are we not, as individuals endlessly promoting the importance of self-confidence? Why, then, does confidence in one’s nation freeze so many in fear, as if such muscular patriotism is some kind of dirty sin?

Others might also pose the argument that patriotism masquerades as propaganda — that it is a slippery name bequeathed to the age-old impulse of government to keep their citizens loyal via the ancient devices of anthem, flag, and custom. This is a simplistic, crude perspective on things, however, only because we can never escape what one might call “propaganda” and besides, perhaps we actively choose to engage with anthem, flag, and custom, because we desire not only to fashion a sense of solidarity with history but also mutual obligation with our fellow American citizenry to preserve and to serve a land that we all inhabit.

Patriotism both fosters a respectable sort of nostalgia for the past, serving to reacquaint ourselves with our predecessors, but also, on the flipside, sculpts a sense of idealism into people’s minds. Is there not, after all, threads of patriotism apparent in the notions of hard work, the American dream, transcendent hope for a better future? There is, of course, much quibbling over the present feasibility of these aims but on a psychological level, that’s besides the point. Patriotism, and particularly the freedom-laced American version, instills resolve and ambition into a citizenry. And patriotic symbolism in all its regal beauty nudges our deeply-held admiration for our own nationhood.

In approaching the seemingly coarsening political environment that we witness today, perhaps patriotism presents itself as an unusual, but nevertheless potentially powerful contender for the national unification that we are so endlessly in the quest for. Thus we ought, as a nation, to collectively pause and take a deep breath and remember the wisdom of our own innate common ground as American citizens.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. laurennreiff@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store