American Values Report

The Problem With American Patriotism

Patriotism has come to mean blind love of country, leaving little room for critique.

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On Saturday, October 8, I watched Thomas Benfer, a retired middle school science teacher, speak in front of an American flag. He begins by meticulously listing specific funding cuts Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano would make to Pennsylvania’s system of education. “The district where I live would lose $6,014,904… when we’re talking about cutting education, it’s really detrimental to all Americans,” he said. Benfer is an older white man, wearing jeans, a button-up shirt, a brown jacket, and, most notably, a cap identifying him as a veteran of the Vietnam war. He goes on: “As a person who taught science, climate change is extremely important…” before asking the crowd, “I don’t know how long you want me to keep going?” The sparse crowd of about 15 people hunkers down against the wind and murmurs encouragement. Benfer continues, “On September 26th, Mastriano says he’s against same sex marriage…”

Before Benfer can go on, he is cut off by a man in a black truck, who pulls over and yells, “How long have you liberals called Vietnam vets ‘baby killers’, but you are the ones who want to pass laws to murder babies?” 

Benfer doesn’t acknowledge the heckler, but, rather, begins his sentence again, raising his voice over the cries of “baby murderer.” “Mastriano is against same sex marriage…” The heckler continues, “All that shit you say about vets…” The crowd, including myself, responds in unison, one voice rippling over another: “He’s a vet!” This time, Benfer does pause. He takes in the crowd, we nod back at him, and he turns back to his notes, “So, when we think of what we can do in this country, we gotta, we gotta work. We gotta progress. We gotta not go backwards.” 

This contentious moment in Pennsylvania—a critical state in both the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election—is a distillation of a larger existential battle that has been generations, perhaps even centuries, in the making. As former President Donald Trump inflames his supporters with promises to “take back that beautiful, beautiful house that happens to be white”, current President Joe Biden has identified Trump’s most ardent supporters as a threat to “our very democracy.” The subtext, here, is that both sides view the other as enemies of the American experiment itself. The current battle is far more than a battle over mere policy differences. Rather, what we are witnessing is the latest incarnation of a much longer war over who we are as a nation—both now and in the past. A nation that presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have called our “shining city on a hill.” It is quintessentially, a battle over American patriotism itself: What is America? Who are Americans? And what does it mean to be loyal to our nation and to one another?

I, like many on the political left, have always had an uneasy relationship with the idea of “patriotism.” I was raised in a family of liberal Democrats, by a father who was a historian, and, early on, I absorbed the view that I should evaluate our country as an object of study—not a source of positive or negative moral value. I was made aware, through a historian’s lens, that my country’s early economic prosperity—its very survival as a nascent state—lay in the buying, selling, and torture of people deemed unworthy of not only citizenship, but humanity. In the words of my father, “our country was founded on slavery and conquest.” I learned that those who created our country—our Founding Fathers—espoused democratic ideals of liberty and freedom, often denouncing slavery in the strictest terms, while simultaneously encoding this same system in our Constitution, the very core of our nation’s identity. We were, it seemed under any objective view, a country founded on the great ideas of brilliant, yet craven, even wicked men. Men who could intellectually conceive of justice, but not personally enact it, even as they undertook what some believed a God-given enterprise: the construction of a nation. 

The concept of  “patriotism” is thus a thorny one. Political scientists, sociologists, and historians are also in disagreement about what exactly “patriotism” implies as an abstract concept, as well as how it concretely unfurls in the minds of American citizens. There is, however, broad consensus that patriotism, in the abstract, entails a benign, or perhaps even constructive attachment to one’s country. Patriotism seems to mean exactly what its etymology—patrios–Greek for “of one’s fathers”—would suggest: A familial relationship both with the country itself and with those who coexist within this same country. An imagined community. And, if the country is the metaphorical father or parent, then its citizens must logically be not only its children, but kin–siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles–with one another. This–a national family–is the supposed shining city on the hill. 

Red-Coded Symbolism

Research has shown that I am not alone in my hesitancy over patriotism, either in America or elsewhere. For example, though scholars typically distinguish between patriotism and nationalism as abstract concepts, these impulses–when measured empirically–are highly correlated with one another in American minds: those who espouse high levels of patriotism also espouse high levels of nationalism, even jingoism. These same individuals, in turn, tend to be conservatives. These correlations manifest in our collective psychology like a kind of cultural code. Enthusiastic national pride–so often expressed through flying the flag or singing the anthem–is the business of conservatives; not liberals.  

The Republican Party began to entrench their position as the arbiters of national love and loyalty during the later years of the Vietnam War. As anti-war protesters burned and cut flags, conservatives advanced multiple pieces of anti-flag desecration legislation. Liberals responded: so-called “flag desecration” was speech, a more fundamental American virtue than a mere symbol.

In the ’60s and later, liberals and those of similar ideology won flag desecration cases in the Supreme Court, but lost the broader ideological battle over American patriotism, at least insofar as American identity can be located in national pride or symbolism. Scholars have determined that, by the 1990s, both conservatives and liberals associated the flag and other American symbols with the Republican Party. Even the words “freedom” or “independence” became  heavily coded as conservative. 

This all appeared to change, at least for a few weeks, in 2001, when Americans experienced something unprecedented in our shared history: a mass-casualty terrorist attack from a foreign power on American soil. As the nation united in shock and mourning, American flags proliferated. In a late September, 2001 editorial, The New York Times declared: “Sept. 11 made it safe for liberals to be patriots.” Other newspapers followed suit, with the Baltimore Sun declaring: “The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 propelled the United States toward war. But they also ended a war: a cultural conflict, smoldering since Vietnam, over the political connotations of displaying the American flag.”

However, our justifiable national grief segued into irrational national vengeance. With this vengeance—which quickly veered away from any pretense of national defense—came a new resurgence of Manifest Destiny–the idea that there existed some moral imperative for America to bring the world under its American purview, by force, if necessary. Anyone who opposed this neoconservative vision was fundamentally anti-patriotic. The brief moment of national unity had ended. When I saw those American flags fly as our country bombed Baghdad in the name of our exceptionalism, I felt not just the neutral absence of so-called patriotism; but, rather, fear, even hatred, of my country.

The Republican seizure of distinctly American symbols–and the concept of American patriotism itself–was so complete that, over the past two decades, researchers determined that their traditional measures contained a derailing confound: questions intended to measure patriotism such as “How happy do you feel when you see someone flying the American flag? or “How proud are you to be American?” consistently elicited more positive responses from Republicans and more negative responses from Democrats. This methodological confound reflected our own psychological code–born from our shared history–conservatives were the true American family; liberals were the disgruntled, ungrateful black sheep.  

However, after researchers of patriotism designed new methods to measure American patriotism, a general consensus has emerged: there is no singular type of American patriotism, but, rather, multiple ways in which individuals might experience love, loyalty, and even kinship within this country. One is “uncritical patriotism”—frequently referred to as “blind patriotism”—defined as an unquestioning devotion to one’s nation-state. The other is “constructive patriotism,” characterized  as an “attachment to country characterized by critical loyalty” and “criticism driven by a desire for positive change.”

Blue, Red, Or United?

Despite Republican control over the symbols of patriotism, critical patriotism within the Democratic Party has always existed, at least under the surface. However, in the post-Vietnam era, few liberals ever really successfully claimed the label of patriot.

This all changed as, in 2004, Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. My older brother came into the kitchen, excited, telling me, “Magdi, You have to listen to this guy. You’ve never heard anything like this guy.” We stood rapt as Obama outlined his positive vision of our shared country: “We are not red states or blue states; we are the United States.” We were, according to him, an unfinished project, corroded at its core with shame and violence, but also, somehow, alive with hope. To Obama, it seemed, as Americans—as American patriots—we had the power to honestly admire our founders’ written vision of liberty, while simultaneously condemning their gruesome hypocrisy. We had the power to then take this truth and move on, in our modern era, and render these beautiful ideas a more concrete independence, justice, and equality. As he said, “I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history. We can make the right choices.” Obama’s idea of America became, albeit briefly, an America for which I felt anything akin to national pride. 

It did not, however, work out as Obama or his supporters had envisioned. Though he won the 2008 election in a historic mandate, his presidency was immediately undermined in fundamentally existential ways. To Obama’s opponents, he was illegitimate. Not on the grounds of his political beliefs—though these were discussed superficially—but on the grounds that he was, as a Black man, not only anti-American and anti-patriotic, but, not, in reality, not actually American at all. This conspiracy—“birtherism”—was not relegated to the dark corners of the internet but, rather, augmented by conservative media and politicians. In 2012, Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, jovially told a mostly white suburban audience outside of Detroit, Michigan, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.” The crowd applauded, to which Romney, now considered one of the most moderate members of the Republican Party, responded, “They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” Obama, by his mere existence as a Black man in power, became the target for the most base ugliness in our shared country: we were all still, ostensibly, Americans-by-name, but we differed in whom we considered had equal claim to citizenship. And, perhaps even more fundamentally, in whom we considered our kin, members of our shared national identity. 

We know what happened next. The undermining of Obama as both a president and a citizen precipitated first the Tea Party—a national white populist movement—and then, finally, the rise of Trumpism. When Trump lost the 2020 election, he attempted first to nullify the votes of millions of mostly Black citizens and, when this failed, his supporters—under the mantle of patriotism—flew both American and Confederate flags as they attacked the Capitol, waging insurrection against democracy itself. 

Now, in the wake of the 2022 midterms, whether the next presidential election has a democratic outcome, one determined for and by the people, or whether it will resemble something more akin to a coup still feels up for grabs. In the face of this threat, liberals seem increasingly comfortable claiming what is perhaps the most basic level of American patriotism: loyalty to the institution of democracy itself, as well as a true commitment to all that democracy entails, such as equal citizenship, regardless of race, gender, or creed. Republicans, in contrast, are advancing their own vision of what America should be: white, Christian, theocratic, and, fundamentally, anti-democratic. 

For my own part, I maintain an uneasy relationship with the term “patriot.” I tend to revert, at least intellectually, to a more neutral view: love or even hatred of one’s country interferes with the truth of what one’s country has been, what one’s country is, and what one’s country can be. I do not, on a daily basis, feel any joy or hatred for this geopolitical space into which I happen to have been born. But then I do recall seeing Benfer—a man I may have previously coded as a conservative—in deep red Pennsylvania, speaking about education, marriage equality, and women’s rights. I remember his continued defense of the rights of others, even as his own distinctly American service—was attacked. I think of how we all responded, that sparse liberal crowd, in unison, to shield Benfer from the heckler. Perhaps this space, this reflexive desire to protect one another, was our own common cause. Our own small, fragile, shining city on a hill.

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