Debating ‘patriotism’ in a changing America
Across the country hundreds of thousands of students marched in the 1960s, taking the streets to protest various figures: the draft, President Johnson, President Nixon, and the Pentagon. Nevertheless, they were all standing in solidarity against one common target: America’s role in the Vietnam War. Demonstrations grew in strength with some triggering violence as well as backlash. Altogether, this large group of individuals taking a stand—holding up signs and yelling with fists in the air—prompted the question, ‘What is patriotism?’. Were these outward acts against the government’s choices an extension of showing love towards one’s country or could they be classified as a high form of disloyalty? Today, topics that spark similar questions are demonstrations surrounding Black Lives Matter, the election results, and racial inequalities. Ultimately, many have been left wondering, is America’s most recent wave of protests patriotic? Or is the country drifting away from a feeling that used to be more widespread: a love of the U.S.?
What is Patriotism?
Patriotism, or the love of one’s country and a positive side of nationalism, has historically been both a healthy and toxic multi-faceted ideal. For some, it encompasses standing in solidarity with the flag and the government under all circumstances. For others, actions such as protesting the government and pushing for reforms are at the heart of patriotism. Overall, although it’s widely agreed upon that patriotism includes loving one’s country, how that love should be shown is often at the forefront of heated debate.
Nationalism, the belief that everyone belongs to a nation and that each nation should be sovereign, is a similarly complex and traditionally twisted concept that is regularly taken too far.
Sophomore Ellie Novak recognizes the duality of patriotism as well as the side effects of nationalism when it’s taken to an unhealthy extent.
“I think that patriotism comes with a certain identity of loving your own country,” said Novak. “But it also comes with an identity of oftentimes hating other countries and wanting to be better than them. Patriotism is often taken too far in thinking that every other country is wrong and it kind of shields your mind from being able to accept other ideas. It narrows your worldview, and a lot of people in our nation are so closed off to other ideas because they love America so much that they can’t see other sides.”
American patriotism is especially complex because of its foundation in values distinctive from most other countries. In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, Steven Smith, professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University, dates this back to the Declaration of Independence, calling it “not only a statement of who we are but who we aspire to become”.
“Historically, [patriotism in the U.S.] has been based not on blood and soil or claims to be a chosen people,” stated Smith. “But on principles of equality and freedom.”
Patriotism and protesting
Regarding the arguments surrounding whether or not protesting is a form of patriotism, Novak believes fighting for the betterment of the country is in fact patriotic.
“Loving your country and wanting it to be better and protesting for that, for the rights of your people and for wanting your country to be a better place,” described Novak. “I would say that’s patriotic.”
Novak identifies pushing for the improvement of America as an aspect of patriotism significant to her. “I do feel a certain need to want my country to be better,” said Novak. “I’ve thought about what if I was a politician someday and working to make my nation a better place. I think that side of patriotism is something that’s important to me.”
Much like Novak, Smith —whose book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes came out in February — believes that being evaluative of America in efforts to become closer to the ideal nation fits into the definition of patriotism. He also argues that loyalty to one’s country teaches valuable lessons and when displayed correctly, patriotism is an admirable quality.
“At its best, patriotism isn’t indoctrination into a cult of the nation but a form of moral education,” stated Smith. “Patriotism teaches that real loyalty to our country involves virtues like civility, law-abidingness, respect for others, responsibility, love of honor, courage, and leadership. Rather than saying ‘my country right or wrong,’ patriotism is reflective and self-critical, working to bring America closer to the country it can and should be.”
“Loving one’s country” in today’s times
AP U.S. History and Government teacher, Collin Quinn, recognizes that two groups are heard loudly when it comes to patriotism, those who see America solely as an exemplary nation with a triumphant past and those who see America only for its injustices and oppressive history.
“To be able to hold these two perspectives in mind, acknowledging the really difficult things that have happened, taking responsibility for where America and Americans have made choices and acted in ways that were unjust and oppressive, but then also acknowledging the ways that democracy has developed, how America has done good and brought about things that we’re thankful for. I think it’s really hard for people,” explained Quinn. “I think we’re drawn to one kind of narrative or the other, and the middle narrative is really nuanced and complicated. Most people don’t necessarily want to have a conversation about the complexity of U.S. history and the difficulty, but also the beauty and the sorrow that we have to acknowledge.”
The late Garry Gutting, former philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame and prolific author, unabashedly claimed to be a proud patriot in his 2012 New York Times opinion piece, “Is Our Patriotism Moral?” In this article, he explored whether or not modern morals force the rejection of patriotism.
Gutting, who died in 2019, described what patriotism looked like in his life through a retelling of his family’s Fourth of July traditions.
“…There’s this special moment when we read out loud the Declaration of Independence and follow with a toast (American sparkling wine, of course), ‘To the United States of America!’” detailed Gutting. “And I have to force back tears of pride at being an American. This is my own distinctive experience of what we call ‘patriotism,’ and I suspect that many Americans experience something similar, and acknowledge it in their own ways.”
Gutting held patriotism of high importance in his own life and encouraged others to do the same. Ultimately, he saw patriotism in a positive light through his focus on the good things it could bring.
“Amid the frequent confusion, frustration, and anger of our political disagreements,” stated Gutting. “Patriotism — a deep-seated love of our country — remains something that has the potential to bring us together, particularly at times of national crisis or triumph.”
Despite Gutting’s strong pro-patriotic feelings, he recognized that others see patriotism as an attitude unable to be defended by contemporary morals. However, he made several arguments against the validity of this claim.
“Certainly, patriotism can take an explicitly amoral form: “My country, right or wrong,” explained Gutting. “But even strong traditional patriots can accept moral limits on the means we use to advance the cause of our country.
Overall, Gutting saw America as a nation attempting to adhere to modern morality, loyalty to the community, and individual freedom all balanced with aspects of patriotism.
“I love America,” exclaimed Gutting. “Because I still believe that this sublime project is possible.”
Why is patriotism declining?
After 9/11 in 2001, 87% of Americans claimed to be “extremely” or “very” proud of their country, according to polling done by Gallup. As of 2020, the same polls reported that only 63% percent of Americans fall into this category, putting pride in the United States at an all-time low. This drastic decline in passionate support of the country can be chalked up to the many threats patriotism faces in the present-day world.
Nathan Johnson—who teaches World History, AP European History, and Debate— puts distance from America’s founding as one of the reasons to blame.
“What a tremendous accomplishment in the early 1800s to say we’ve created the first democracy in the new world, the first colony to break away from a European master,” said Johnson. “Then, afterward, to create a government for the people that’s succeeding so other people around the world are looking at us as a model. What a tremendous pride there would have been in that in the early decades. The farther away we get from that, the easier it is to forget what an accomplishment it was.”
Johnson also points out the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a common enemy threatening our ideals as another cause of decreasing patriotism. Instances such as fighting monarchy in the 19th century, the Nazis in the 1940s, and the Soviets in the 1950s brought America together and created a spirit of unity among diverse backgrounds. Following the September 11 attacks—when America felt a collective, strong sense of being endangered by an adversary—George W. Bush received a 90% job approval rating in polls done by Gallup. This was the largest wave of support for a president in polling history and proved the capacity of an overt enemy to put patriotism, as well as solidarity, through the roof.
America’s identity as a worldwide powerhouse has also contributed to the lessening number of people who would describe themselves as patriots in a historically patriotic country.
“We’re really powerful,” stated Johnson. “There’s a significant current of feeling bad about that and feeling like there’s something wrong and we have to apologize for things because we’re really powerful.”
Patriotism and unity
Across the board, many believe a wave of patriotism would greatly benefit a divided America.
“We could use some more patriotism right now,” expressed Johnson. “I wonder if we might be getting to a point where there’s a pendulum swing and more people realize that and think, maybe we should work on this a little bit. Now how would we work on it? That would be up for debate. But I wonder if we won’t see a movement of leaders in different areas—political leaders, business leaders, community leaders—who might say maybe we should focus on patriotism in a divided country.”