Democrats Need Patriotism Now More Than Ever

From a New York Times guest essay by Jedediah Britton-Purdy headlined “Democrats Need Patriotism Now More Than Ever:”

Fourth of July fireworks echo eerily in a divided country. In theory, this patriotic holiday marks what holds us together, beyond all our disagreement. In practice it amplifies American division. The year that Independence Day memorializes, 1776, also lends its name to the Trumpist 1776 Project, a riposte to the 1619 Project. The very idea of patriotism risks becoming a partisan marker: In 2019, fully 76 percent of Republicans and only 22 percent of Democrats said they were “extremely proud” to be American, according to Gallup.

A recent Quinnipiac poll asked Americans whether they would fight or flee if the country were invaded: 68 percent of Republicans said they would stay and fight, compared with 40 percent of Democrats. Although such questions can only be conjectural, this one does suggest that some progressives are not so sure the country is worth saving, or at least risking their lives to save.Conservatives often say that liberals don’t really like this country, and these figures suggest they might have a point. In progressive circles, claiming patriotism is, at best, an eyebrow-raiser. As the 246th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence arrives in a country with the world’s highest incarceration rate, sky-high per capita carbon emissions, an epidemic of gun violence and abortion bans across much of the American map, progressive disgust has clear appeal.

But progressives need patriotism, more than ever in a time of understandable anger and despair. We want to make the world better by our lights, and to do that we need a stronger democracy. Patriotism in the right spirit fosters the civic trust and solidarity that democracy needs.

Patriotism shouldn’t be an excuse for glossing over failures and crimes — just the opposite. It adds responsibilities, even sorrows, to our lives. But it also fosters affection and, yes, pride.

The patriotism we need is the patriotism of July 5, which used to be a rallying day for abolitionists, particularly in New York State. Before the Civil War, July 5 was a rejoinder to the hypocrisy of Independence Day, which trumpeted liberty in a country full of race slavery. It was also, for many abolitionists, a day to continue the founding work of Emancipation, to build on and extend a flawed but radical inheritance.

Of course, some radicals, such as William Lloyd Garrison, embraced a fundamentally bleak vision of the country. Garrison denounced the Constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell” and pronounced himself “ashamed of my country.” But others such as Frederick Douglass, who was more intimate with the horrors of American life, concluded that American politics was not just a grim fate but also a crucible of transformation.

Douglass, in the famous July 5 speech often called “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” denounced national crimes in blistering terms, but also praised the Declaration of Independence as the pivot-point of Americans’ “yet undeveloped destiny.” Douglass called liberty and equality “saving principles” that the country could still make real.

Many progressive achievements have roots in the July 5 style of patriotism. When President Lyndon Johnson made the case for the Voting Rights Act in a national TV broadcast before Congress in 1965, he called the United States “the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose”: creating a free society of equal citizens. That purpose was a measure of failure as well as success.

In a country where “Emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact,” Johnson warned, if inequality was not addressed, America would “have failed as a people and as a nation.” The country could “gain the whole world and lose his own soul,” he said, paraphrasing the Book of Mark. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., too, called the principles of the American founding “a promissory note” that had come due, and urged the country to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

This version of patriotism links criticism of our country’s failings with a commitment to changing them. It cleaves to principles of freedom and equality because they are right, and also because they are ours, they are us. It addresses America’s worst aspects, not as enemies to be eliminated (as in our many domestic “wars” on this or that) but as we would approach a friend or family member who had lost their way. In this spirit, even the harshest reproach, the most relentless list of wrongs, comes with a commitment to repair and heal, to build a more just and decent country. It also entails a practical faith: As long as change might be possible, we owe it to one another to try.

These may sound like the gentle tones of a more naïve time. Don’t we know more now than earlier generations did about the cruelty and complexity of history, the intensity of white supremacy in the early Republic, the constitutional compromises with slavery? Haven’t we outgrown complacent patriotism? But this is wrong and, really, embarrassingly parochial. We do not know more about American injustice than King, or, for that matter, Johnson, the son of bigoted East Texas who became a complex but effective civil rights champion. There was nothing complacent in their patriotism.

They insisted that every American ought to shoulder some of the responsibility for their country’s crimes and failings, whether or not they had personally benefited or suffered from them. And, for Johnson and King, everyone deserved to take some pride in American progress toward justice. Patriotism was a practical task: to appreciate and preserve what is good, work to change what is bad, and remember that part of what is good in a country is that citizens can change it. Patriotic effort came with no guarantee of success, but it was an obligation nevertheless — a duty akin to what the philosopher William James once called “the moral equivalent of war.”

Today, America faces threats to national well-being and even survival: climate change, racial inequity, oligarchy, the economic collapse of whole regions. But the enemy is not an invader: These slow-moving crises pit us against one another. Spewing our carbon, living in our economically and ideologically segregated neighborhoods and regions, trading accusations of bigotry and bad faith, we are one another’s problems. In these conditions, it is hard to find threads of commonality. At some point, a liberal gets tired of saying, “We are better than this,” when we seem resolutely not to be.

But there is something beyond both one last “We are better than this” and your preferred update of Garrison’s “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” Progressive patriotism justifies risks and sacrifices to try to create a country that deserves them. Loyalty to the country, in this light, means faith that you and other citizens can still build better ways of living together.

Progressive frustrations such as climate inaction, gun proliferation and the erosion of reproductive freedom are rooted in ways our political system stops majority opinion from ruling — through the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court, for starters. Earlier political transformation, such as the New Deal and the civil rights movement, had to shift political power and make the country more democratic in order to make it better. Because democracy is power, and power is scary and dangerous, political trust and a generous vision of the country are especially important in making a country more democratic.

By the same token, peaceful political change is much harder among people who fear and mistrust one another, and who feel it intolerable for the other side to hold power. Only a quarter of Republicans, and about two-fifths of Democrats, believe the other party’s voters sincerely have the country’s best interests at heart. On the whole, Americans suspect that they live among people who are trying to destroy the country, and quite possibly to destroy them.

This is our dilemma. We need basic change, but cannot tolerate making it alongside fellow citizens who are also our partisan enemies. Yet we also cannot make it without them. We need one another’s support, maybe, and one another’s consent and cooperation, absolutely.

Patriotism softens the dilemma. It gives assurance that anger and criticism have affection and loyalty behind them. It conveys what Walt Whitman presented as the democratic promise: “I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”

With the trust that this promise can support, it is possible to hear, even welcome, complex and critical ideas — support for troops but criticism of certain wars and policies abroad, decrying inequality because it means the country is not asking enough of itself. Without this trust, any disagreement can become existential, and in politics we veer between fighting for our lives and trying to ignore one another altogether.

Readers may bridle at any suggestion that progressives need more patriotism. Democrats are trying to hold Donald Trump responsible for his bid to steal the 2020 election, while Republicans are mostly obfuscating or worse. Isn’t saving American democracy the apogee of patriotism? Yes, true enough; but in a time this deeply divided and unstable, it isn’t enough to be the party that insists on following the rules.

Rules are distillations of a deeper picture of how to live together. Saving — or perhaps achieving — democracy will require convincing enough people to embrace a vision of the country in which everyone can vote, votes count and majorities rule. Our rules and institutions depend, in the end, on our attachment to living with a shared politics. With that attachment, win or lose, many things are possible. Without it, nothing lasts long.

Patriotism may look masochistic. Nation-states have done terrible things and killed hundreds of millions of people. The desire to get out from under them is a recurrent theme in modern life, from Stalin’s and Mao’s regimes to the antebellum and Jim Crow South. But large and complex societies, such as we all inhabit today, have found no other way to organize themselves. We cannot avoid the dilemmas of political power. We can only try to use it for good.

Patriotism can seem morally arbitrary. Why should a border or citizenship papers mark the boundary of solidarity? Of course they shouldn’t: Progressive patriots should work for the rights of migrants and for humane international policies. (Two examples: support for refugees and for a global vaccine program.) But patriotism is a practical political attitude, and countries are the units in which most political power exists.

We humans have just a few ways to come together and cooperate. Sometimes we are market actors, worth precisely as much as our money. Sometimes we are co-ethnics, measured by shared language and religion, and the myth of bloodlines. Both economics and ethnicity bring us together as insiders and outsiders, or those who have and those who have not — particularly in the United States, with its braided histories of plutocracy and racial hierarchy. Only when we meet as democratic citizens do we become equals who can change the world together.

In a democracy, even a flawed one, patriotism supports our best chance to live as equals. As King explained in his denunciation of the Vietnam War, American empire and capitalist materialism at Riverside Church in 1967, his loyalties as a Christian radical went well beyond any nationalism, but as a citizen he called on fellow citizens to “recapture the revolutionary spirit” in American life and “make democracy real.”

Patriotism isn’t just a warm feeling, “loving the country.” It can fire anger when your own country upholds injustice or strips away essential freedoms, grief when pointless war abroad or avoidable violence at home makes America a destructive force. In politics as elsewhere, grief and anger are admissions of how much we have at stake in one another, and how much cause we have to care.

Patriotism isn’t a neutral, generic principle that somehow avoids taking sides. King and Johnson were fighting for their country’s soul against Americans with very different goals. But their way of evoking that fight — and, for King at least, of living it — could inspire what Ebony editor Lerone Bennett, Jr., writing about the crowd hearing King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, called “a certain surprise, as though the people had discovered suddenly what they were and what they had.”

Patriotic feeling is always attached to some vision of the country’s future, and, inevitably, to some Americans who share that vision more than others. It doesn’t transcend partisanship, but enriches partisan struggle, making it always an invitation to others to join you. It is a way of saying that we will not give up on one another, because the country that ties us together also gives us the power to remake it — in a better way, and, a patriot may feel, truer to itself.

Jedediah Britton-Purdy is a professor at Duke Law School and the author of seven books, most recently, “This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth,” and the forthcoming “Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Scary, Flawed, and our Best Hope.”


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