Requiem For Patriotism
Patriotism in America is in a bad way. Once thought indomitable in the face of any aggressor, unmovable in the face of any movement, and so enviable in the face, and in the mind, and in the hopes of any number of people across the globe, it now staggers against the ropes. It’s there that you’ll find patriotism leaning—hunched over and anemic, bloodied and beaten—gloves down, chest collapsing, with its support receding. Not a chair in sight upon which it might rest, nor a salve for its blistered wounds, patriotism is left to fend for itself. Even still, after having taken these lumps and absorbed these arrows and slings, it’s not yet so enfeebled as to lie down and throw in the towel.
Waning as it has over the course of the past few years, patriotism in America (as measured by the Gallup organization’s annual poll) has reached an historic low. As this year’s most recent polling data reveal, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves “extremely proud” of their country is down from 51 to 47%. Small though this decline may seem (what is a reduction, after all, of four measly points from a 51% majority to a 47% plurality—one’s almost tempted to chalk it up to a rounding error) it is, in fact, an astonishing and precipitous drop when compared with those findings gathered in 2003.
It was then, in the midst of America’s double invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, that 70% of us considered our pride to be on the better side of “extreme”. Viewed through the disputatious and fractured lens of our politics of today, such a figure is wholly incredible—by which I mean, beyond belief. Few are the issues upon which so large and overwhelming a majority of Americans have since agreed. And while that’s not to say that every one of those 70% back then agreed that the wars in the Middle East were ultimately justified or right, it is to say that there was something of a patriotic zeitgeist undergirding the moment. Anyone of a certain age remembers the feeling all too poignantly and well. As the ash and rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon settled, our American patriotism swelled. There was an ineffable uniformity of pride and a shared sense of direction. There was a consanguinity of fate and a high national esteem—one not previously equaled nor known since.
This pride, however, such as it existed in early 2003, was to be short-lived; it predated what would soon become the country’s main source of discomfort and unease. American soldiers were dying in an arid morass where western liberalism found no roots. The “American way” seemed increasingly less apt for export—especially once shipped into the hands of rogues acclimated more to theocracy and barbarity than to democracy and civility. Regimes were turned over, despots were toppled, and power vacuums ensued. All said, countless Islamists, infidels, and civilians died in a sanguinary process that came to be known to us as “liberation”. Any notion of success in the region was uncertain, as any notion of it remains to this very day.
Understandably then, our passing discomforts about the whole situation in the Middle East turned into a more acute malaise. In turn, our malaise became a chronic antipathy from which we still haven’t fully escaped. Americans in droves came to view their country’s interminable and expensive presence in the Middle East as precisely that; everlasting and financially draining and unnecessarily so. Politicians and analysts tried to assuage America’s growing disquiet with phrases like, “gentle hegemony”, but our country’s presence there was beginning to look suspiciously like a costly occupation.
In time, and in the absence of weapons of mass destruction and of other promised ills, America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan became something that piqued not our pride, but our shame. It became a badge not of honor and moral fortitude, but one of acrimony and moral turpitude. It divided the country as every current and lesser issue does today. The left bashed Bush relentlessly and charged his administration for gratuitous crimes against humanity. Some of the more ardent accusers are still pursuing the case to this day, thinking there are offenses of which he can still be found guilty. The right, besieged equally as strenuously by Democratic doves from the rear and the mujahedeen to the east, returned the invectives in kind. All this, while patriotism began its slow retreat.
But such is the consequence of war. Or wars, I should say. So long as the battle is considered just (and not a moment longer) and so long as the sacrifices are commensurate with the costs, wars tend to invite from the public its approbation rather than its opprobrium. Once public sentiment turns, however, the galvanizing spirit and the pride are quickly lost. At that point, their recovery becomes the chief task of the incumbent in the aftermath or the government to come.
Yet, once lost, they’re not so easily retrieved. The current polling dishearteningly shows us as much. Even more lamentable is the breakdown of that much-sought-after “extreme pride” as it pertains to our two dominant, discordant political parties.
Amongst Democrats polled, only 32% ascribe to themselves the feeling of “extreme pride” in their being American citizens. This figure is eleven points lower than it was in 2017—a remarkable if not wholly unexpected drop with the rise of President Trump. That said, however, even in 2013, when President Obama was the Commander-in-Chief, the percentage of Democrats who felt “extremely proud” to be Americans sat at an uninspiring 56%. A surprising and, above all, telling figure this proves to be, as the Democrats had just succeeded in electing President Obama to his second term with an overwhelming victory over Mitt Romney. Granted, in the latter half of President Obama’s tenure, the Republican congress was absolutely intransigent, and legislation was seldom won, but the fact that their man was again in office ought to have made them just a bit cheerier with patriotic pride. It wasn’t to be found.
For those of us pining for the patriotism so manifestly lacking on the left, it’s to the right with haste you can to turn. There, you’ll find the telling of an altogether different American tale. With relative consistency, Republicans have continued to respond that they feel overwhelming proud to be Americans. This year, in response to the Gallup poll cited above, their figure reached 70%, as it has with little deviation for the past few years. Though not a group immune to the fluctuations of sentiments nor the vicissitudes of taste, Republicans have maintained a much greater, a more durable, and a more exalted sense of pride than the Democrats have. This has remained true both before and during the tenure of President Trump.
Gleaned from these results and their shocking disparity between patriotism on the left and right therein is the following question: why is it that the extreme pride the right feels in being an American so far exceeds that feeling of the left? For the general well-being of the country, and with any hope to seeing its current fragmentation healed, this is a pressing and a vital question.
One could make the facile claim that that left’s sagging pride is merely a symptom of President Trump. Clearly, though, this isn’t the case. As shown, preceding his ascent, the left’s regard for its national pride was already quite low. The ascension of Trump into the White House may have exacerbated the left’s low percentage, but it was dropping prior to his even becoming a political entity; it was low when he was but a mere billionaire layman—chatting on “Fox and Friends” from time to time and mongering scandals about Obama. Nor is it inversely proportionate with the rising pride (in the era of Trump) of the right. The percentage of those on the right who deem themselves “extremely proud” to be Americans hasn’t catapulted in a way that’s commensurate with nor explicable by Trump’s rise. An overwhelming majority (of Republicans, that is) was extremely proud to be American when Obama was president, and with little variation, the same holds true for Trump. Charge them though we should for their unctuous grasping at his coattails and their fulsome prostrations at his feet, it’s not Trump alone who’s stirred in the Republicans’ breasts their soaring American pride. It pre-exists him.
Thus, in viewing this current discrepancy in patriotism between the left and the right, Obama’s tenure can serve as the control to which we compare the Gallup poll’s present results. Viewed through this lens, it shows us that even during the halcyon days of Obama, when Democrats should’ve been proudest and happiest, their patriotism was deflating. The reasons for this could be many. I’ll hazard but a few.
For one, Democrats are wont to lend their sympathies to the wretched and the oppressed. This is laudable and it’s absolutely necessary and without such concern, the world is measurably worse off. So long as there is suffering, inequality, barriers to entry into this country, and exploitation of the vulnerable by the business class, you’ll hear a stirring in the heartstrings on the left. And in most cases, the trembling chords are resonant and appropriate and salient. But shy of socialism, there is no system of government that can be so benevolent as to make all of these unavoidable ills disappear. Their mitigation is perhaps the most feasible pursuit, but that’s rarely sufficient for today’s increasingly progressive Democrat. Believing in the perfectibility of not only man but of the society in which he toils, such a leftist expects a utopian deal. The oppressed need not only equal opportunities and especial protections, but equal outcomes and results. Falling short of this somewhat newfangled ideal could be a cause for the drop in pride.
For another, it could be that modern progressive Democrats care less for the institutions upon which America was built. Rather, it seems increasingly to be the case that they think of said institutions’ as fundamental affronts to democracy. They see in them both implicit and imagined biases that can’t go unanswered. That’s not to say that such a leftist would abrogate the Bill of Rights if given the chance, or that he’d consolidate our three noble branches of government into one, or that he’d nationalize all business and collectivize all private property for the common good. One would hope, given his druthers, such a Democrat would leave those types institutions unperturbed. It is to say, though, that this type of Democrat would probably look upon America’s original pillars with rather scorn than sanctity. After all, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—take your pick—all were members of the bourgeoisie privileged white patriarchy against whom it’s become so lately fashionable to rail.
So clear is it to see that these men—hypocritical slaveholders the lot of them (although they live in our memory on a sliding scale of hypocrisy. Madison, for example, owned a large number of slaves whom he failed to free, while Washington made it an emphatic point in his will to not only free his slaves on his Mount Vernon estate, but to fund their educations as well)—were part of America’s founding, but were also responsible for her original stain. Further, the ideas that inspired their own were born of the minds of men like Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Hume, and Burke—Anglican aristocrats, Scottish polymaths, and an astringently conservative Irish parliamentarian who were cut in a similar Tory cloth.
One last reason for the falling percentage of Democrats’ patriotism is the at once equally voguish, anathematized, and exalted word that’s been everywhere and back again for the past two years—that word is, of course, globalism. Most any study will reveal that Democrats value above patriotism universalism. Their immediate “circle” of sympathy is less provincial and more global. They see themselves not as blue-blooded Americans who are first and foremost bound to the confines of the grand frontiers of our own ideals, but as citizens of the world. Their sympathies are German, Indian, Mexican, and above all, cosmopolitan. That’s not to say that this manner of thinking isn’t important. Quite the contrary, if we’re to have an operable, thriving, free-market, and modern society, it’s absolutely vital. But left unchecked, it does seem to leave only a tincture of patriotism behind. Universalism, globalism, and to a greater extent, ideological relativism quietly become the solvent into which the old red, white, and blue recede.
And that’s what’s happened to our pride in America. It’s receded. But it’s not yet dwindled so much that it can’t be retrieved. After all, America—as an ideal—is greater than any one man, longer than any insufferable moment, and stronger than any offense. It speaks to our highest and most valued concepts. It’s time we all more closely listen.