As we were celebrating the 4th of July in traditional American style — barbecue, flag, fireworks, and all — a question popped into my head: Are conservatives really more patriotic than other Americans? If you were a foreigner spending some time in the USA, getting news from the mass media and just talking to people, you might easily get that impression — especially around the 4th, when conservatives seem to be the ones most likely to display those big American flags.
In fact you might easily get that impression on any day of the year, when conservatives seem to be the ones most likely to put their love of country on display in all sorts of ways, aiming to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about their patriotism.
But what’s the truth behind the display? Are conservatives actually more patriotic? Well, it depends on what you mean by patriotism.
And there lies the heart of the matter: Conservatives appear to be more patriotic because they have so much control over the very meaning of the term. Most of the time, when anyone uses the word “patriotism,” it turns out to mean what conservatives say it means.
Debates about the meaning of patriotism may rage in the margins of our political life. But in ordinary day to day America, where the real action is, nobody pays much (if any) attention, because the fundamentals of patriotism are generally taken for granted. And they are assumed to be pretty much what conservatives usually say they are: the right words (“greatest, and freest, country on earth,” “support our troops,” “I regret that I have but one life to give,” etc.); the right images (Uncle Sam, Statue of Liberty, Capitol dome, etc.); the right actions (waving the flag, singing the national anthem, etc.) — the words, images, and actions that they love to flourish on the right. So of course most Americans say the right is more patriotic.
Oh, sure, on the 4th of July you’ll find even the most liberal politicians throughout the land proclaiming their particular brand of liberalism as truly American and genuinely patriotic. Politicians of every stripe do that every day. Most organizations that have any significant clout, across the political spectrum, will loudly assert their patriotism too, if they are pressed to say anything about the issue. But expressions of patriotism outside the conservative orbit are widely received as a kind of window-dressing, not to be taken too seriously.
Conservatives’ expressions, on the other hand, are generally seen, in the main stream of the culture, as the genuine article. They are credited as totally serious and as an essential piece of the whole conservative package — naturally, since patriotism is defined so largely in conservative terms.
But the intrinsic special connection between conservatism and patriotism is only an appearance. It’s like a magic trick. A good magician’s tricks are so dazzling because the audience wants to be dazzled; the trick is a transaction between the magician and the audience.
In the same way, the idea that conservatives are especially patriotic — that they understand and feel patriotism more deeply, that it’s more fundamental in their lives — has taken root throughout American political culture only because everyone who is not conservative has agreed to play along. Conservatives control the meaning of patriotism because most everyone else lets them get away with it.
As long as conservatives have such a strong lock on patriotism, they have a built-in advantage in the political arena — especially among the 20% or so of voters who don’t have any special allegiance to either major party, leaving their votes always up for grabs.
A lot of those uncommitted voters stay that way because they don’t see much clear-cut difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. When you look at two alternatives that appear roughly equally balanced, any one factor can tip the scales. Who knows how many votes Republicans get from voters who see the two parties as roughly equal, except that the GOP appears to be so much more devoted to patriotism. The GOP will always have that advantageous appearance as long its control over the language, imagery, and ritual of patriotism goes unchallenged.
Moderates and liberals could push back. They could take a firm stand in favor of their own brands of patriotism; show that theirs are just as genuine as any conservative’s; insist that patriotism is just as important in their lives as in any right-winger’s; make the meaning of patriotism a defining political battleground, as important as gender rights or immigration or Social Security. Even on the progressive far left, there is plenty to contribute to a conversation about patriotism.
Trying to challenge conservatives on this ground would be an uphill struggle, to be sure, because they have a major advantage on the right: They are generally quite sure that they know what patriotism is, and they tend to agree with each other on their definition. So they present a pretty solid united front (at least when viewed in the rather hazy, general terms that most Americans see all things political).
Everywhere else on the political spectrum there is a lot more questioning, disagreement, and uncertainty about the true meaning of patriotism, though the degree will surely vary from point to point on that spectrum. The further you go toward the left, the more uncertainty there is about whether patriotism of any kind has any value at all. Eventually you reach a point where it’s widely taken for granted that patriotism is something bad, something to be rejected out of hand.
That extreme stance is not likely to win too many votes, so it doesn’t have much direct political power. Nevertheless it has an important political effect: The questions about patriotism raised so pointedly on the far left have seeped across the whole left side, and even into the center, of the political spectrum, stirring up the uncertainty that weakens the Democratic Party on this issue.
It’s been going on for a long time. In the 1830s William Lloyd Garrison, the great preacher of nonviolent abolitionism, wrote: “Breaking down the narrow boundaries of a selfish patriotism, [I have] inscribed upon my banner this motto: My country is the world; my countrymen are all mankind.”
But the most important historical root of our current situation is, without doubt, the Vietnam war. As the antiwar movement grew, so did the belief that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrels who had led us into, and now perpetuated, the war — from Johnson and Nixon on down to the millions who gave unwavering support to those presidents’ war policies.
Those millions waved their flags and spouted patriotic rhetoric as a sign of their support for the war. So it was perhaps inevitable that, from the antiwar side, it became harder and harder to distinguish patriotism from militaristic chauvinism.
To be sure, some antiwar activists went out of their way to insist that they were the true patriots; they even carried American flags as they joined the protesting crowds. But their message was drowned out by the louder voices on their side decrying patriotism as a root of the war’s evil. And antiwar patriots were largely ignored by the mass media, who were eager to put the spotlight on every “Amerikka” sign they could find.
One telling example: When Martin Luther King first publicly denounced the Vietnam war (a year to the day before he was murdered) he stressed that he was speaking out because of his deep love for his country and its ideals. But in antiwar circles then (and in liberal circles now) his patriotism was almost always ignored. All that got remembered was his eloquent critique of the war and of “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
The Vietnam war era raised questions about the meaning and value of patriotism more profoundly and persistently than ever before in U.S. history — questions that large numbers of Americans found unsettling, at least, even if they never bothered to think them through very systematically. The war excised the taken-for-granted patriotism that had once been the heart of American political culture. Instead of sparking a public debate about patriotism, though, it left only a gaping hole in the body politic.
Surely one part (historians will always argue about how big a part) of the rightward shift of the latter 1970s was a desire to escape that unsettled feeling and fill that hole by returning to the “good old days” of unquestioned patriotism. Ronald Reagan was the ideal pitchman for the job, selling the old-fashioned wine of patriotism in new bottles that perfectly suited the times. The demand was huge. But the supply, from Reagan and the right-wing movement he led, was unlimited.
Those who refused to buy Reaganism also refused to buy the heady brew of patriotism he was peddling, and vice versa. But they had no alternative vision of patriotism to offer because they were caught in the uncertainty about, or outright rejection of, patriotism that the war had brought them.
So the deal was sealed: Patriotism would come from the right. And whatever came from the right would be — by definition — the accepted meaning of true patriotism. Where else could that meaning come from, with the rest of the political spectrum in such disarray on the subject?
Moreover, the right was offering expressions of patriotism that had deep roots in America’s past, while the rest, if they wanted patriotism at all, would be happy only with some genuinely new formulations. At a time when so many Americans felt like changes were coming too thick and fast, the seemingly old had a natural advantage over the new. Conserving the familiar expressions of patriotism was more popular than the alternative of liberating patriotism to find new meanings and new values.
This was one of the many lasting effects — and one of the great tragedies — of the Vietnam war. How different things might have been if all the war critics, all the liberals, even all the radicals, had followed Dr. King’s lead and framed their antiwar sentiment within an overarching patriotism: a commitment to making a better America because they loved America so much. They might have declared, in all honesty, that they were trying to save America, as well as Vietnam, from all the evils the war brought; that they clearly loved their country more than conservatives, who applauded a war that did the U.S. (and, of course, Vietnam) so much harm.
It didn’t happen that way, and the damage was done. But it’s never too late for moderates, liberals, and even leftist progressives to start proclaiming their patriotism loud and clear. Yes, it would be an uphill struggle to break the perception of a conservative monopoly on patriotism. The conservatives do have all those advantages. But fighting for what’s right against daunting odds is the American way. What could be more patriotic?
So next 4th of July, if you’re sitting in a crowd waiting for the fireworks to begin and you’re not a conservative, you might seek out someone to your political right and say, “Hey, let’s talk about the real meaning of patriotism.” Maybe offer them a cold beer, too. It’s the American way.