On July 3, the New York Times published an article that drew both heavy praise and blistering criticism. It isn’t difficult to see why: In A Fourth of July Symbol of Unity That May No Longer Unite, Sarah Maslin Nircasts the American flag as a “divisive” and “partisan” symbol, embraced by the right and avoided by the left. She tells the story of a New York farmer who prominently painted the flag on his truck to highlight his business. When a woman comes to purchase some of his produce, they struggle to strike a deal until he lets slip that he doesn’t have conservative leanings. His customer expresses relief that he isn’t a “flag waving something or other.” This piece follows a broader partisan trend where right-wing personalities and influencers commonly paint the left as incapable of expressing patriotism or being unwilling to show their love for or belief in America. If we are to build a movement of solidarity, we need to be able to strip the toxic elements of partisanship from the discussion and engage people where they are actually coming from. The reality is that people on both the left and the right have genuinely patriotic impulses, but their definitions of “patriotism” have diverged into completely different definitions. Much like the word “solidarity” is often held captive by the left, the very concept of “patriotism” has been monopolized by the right and used as a weapon against their supposed enemies.
With astonishing effectiveness, right-wing politicians and culture-makers have come to adopt and believe that the symbols of America as solely their own. If you listen to or read right-leaning media for long enough, you will come to believe that only the Republican Party (or the occasional libertarian) can be patriotic, a message reinforced by the symbols they employ: eagles flying majestically, flags waving, the Constitution and Declaration positioned centrally at any meeting held, and of course, the Pledge of Allegiance. In Ronald Reagan’s farewell address, he eloquently describes the right’s attitude, suggesting that his time in office led to a profound
“resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism…an informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions…but now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant…I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins…”
Voters on the right have taken his words to heart and gradually come to identify patriotism with unquestioning loyalty to America, a profound reverence for the Founders and the Founding era, and of the inherent goodness of the American mission. These symbols of America are transfigured into essentially sacred things that cannot be questioned because of their special place in the hearts and minds of every citizen.
Obviously, this mission can be good, but it can also be toxic. If you cannot question these understandings, or ask hard questions about America’s history, it becomes an object of almost cultic veneration. Challenging any of the aforementioned precepts is framed as inherently unpatriotic. When patriotism (good) turns into propaganda (bad), it is emptied of any ability it may once have had to unify. The right’s brand of patriotism, when it runs off the rails, can require you to hold roughly half of your countrymen with utter disdain because they simply aren’t devout enough for your tastes.
The left’s brand of patriotism is its own animal. Rather than unquestioned loyalty (or as Reagan put it, unambivalent appreciation) to the idea of America, the left is not afraid to dive deeper into the legacy of America. To quote Thomas Paine, the Godfather of the American left, “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” Freedom and liberty aren’t just things we inherit but must be fought for, not just once but continually. Yes, the Revolution happened, but slavery was still a widespread practice that took nearly 90 years to be violently exorcised from our country. From then on, Jim Crow laws continued to hold citizens down based upon the color of their skin. In the North, WASP culture discriminated against newly arriving immigrants from Catholic countries. On into the 20th Century, the left has held up America as an imperfect country aiming towards perfection. Still, in its own way, the left believes in America.
Martin Luther King Jr. in his commencement address at Oberlin College aptly describes a left patriotism when he describes the story of Rip Van Winkle sleeping for 20 years. When he first fell asleep
“the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was. This reveals to us that the most striking fact about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world – indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.
There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”
“There are two competing visions of what American patriotism should look like: One is an unshakable belief in the inherent goodness of America – that she is the light of the world, whom everyone should look up to; the other is the belief that we must be vigilant and on guard to protect and expand upon the American promise.”
Dr. King continues on to exhort the students to be engaged in the present revolution (the Civil Rights Movement) and to continue to have faith in the country. He firmly believed in America’s promise of freedom and fought for it by engaging with the more troubling issues in America and ultimately enacting positive change. “The goal of America,” he said, “is freedom.” People will ultimately become more free and prosperous through the action taken by everyday people, he believed, because that was the mission of America as he understood it.
Dr. King’s patriotism takes shape not as a passive conservatism that tells people to love America as she is but as an optimistic progressivism that calls people to do better, to continually improve upon what we have, to live up to what we stand for. This brand of patriotism calls us to love America as she could be. However painful and difficult, progress enables an ever growing number of people to live out the American dream.
All of that is to say, there are two competing visions of what American patriotism should look like: One is an unshakable belief in the inherent goodness of America – that she is the light of the world, whom everyone should look up to; the other is the belief that we must be vigilant and on guard to protect and expand upon the American promise. In mainstream political discourse, these two visions are pitted against each other in a zero-sum struggle. But they are not mutually exclusive, and much of the extreme polarization that we are currently suffering through is the result of the fact that we’ve spent decades prying these two vital forms of patriotism apart.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. As is often the case, the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke is helpful, here. Burke described society as a contract between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. We, as the living, are obligated to create a better future for our children, but we must also recognize what came before us – both the good and the bad. That is, the institutions we’ve inherited can be good, but they also need to be improved upon. Burke exemplifies the necessary two-fold work of loving your country and insisting that it live up to its ideal.
First, he acknowledges the uniqueness of each country and the history that brought it to where it is. Russell Kirk, inspired by Burke’s theory of the development of law and history in a country says of his inspired philosophy, “assimilate the laws of Scotland to the laws of England, and you destroy the character of a people, for law is the expression of their social being; you sow dragon’s teeth.” Within the traditions indigenous to his own place, however, Burke sought to utilize the laws of England to pursue justice.
Thus, he was deeply involved in the prosecution of Warren Hastings, the former governor of Bengal for his abuses against the Indian people. In his December 1, 1783 speech, Burke takes the East India Company to task for their miserable governance of India, saying such things as “there are abuses in the Company’s government” and “the Company never has made a treaty which they have not broken” and ending by saying, “I am able to take my share, by one humble vote, in destroying a tyranny that exists to the disgrace of this nation, and the destruction of so large a part of the human species.” Burke takes his country to task for the injustice perpetuated upon India by their rule, and in so doing sets himself up as a model for true patriotism. He loves his country and its uniqueness, but wants it to hold itself to its own standards.
His insights are equally applicable across the pond. America is unique and special. We were the first country to rebel against a modern empire and win, setting up our own unique government and institutions. We fought a bloody Civil War to rid the nation of slavery. We opposed fascism and communism in the 20th century. But we aren’t done yet.
The American flag can still unite us if we reclaim it from those who want to push a rigid ideological agenda on the nation. Calling for meaningful change doesn’t mean we have to do away with what we have. But, as Lincoln pointed out, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Healing this divide has to start in our own lives. Be kind to your neighbor who you may disagree with. Understand that they have a place in the narrative of America just as much as you do. Instead of calling someone un-American on social media, ask why they think the way they do. Engage, but don’t argue, with someone who views America differently than you. Common ground means we all have something to stand upon, so take a stand in your life to heal a divided nation.
Josh Williams is a graduate of Colorado State University with a BA in Political Science and Economics and currently works in nonprofit development. He is also a contributor to Front Porch Republic. Josh loves Star Wars to the point of obsession, a fact you cannot escape if you ever visit his office. He is a Colorado native and can be found out hiking, fishing, reading, or napping when not on the job.