What is American Patriotism?
There's an inherent tension in our national ethos.
Andrew Michta argues that we must “Rebuild American Patriotism.” Michta is currently dean of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and has had a distinguished and varied career. But his case reads like it was cobbled together from stories at Breitbart and Fox News.
I’m sympathetic to his objective:
The American nation, arguably the most unique experiment in the history of modern nation-states whose foundational ideals have been passed from one generation to the next for over two centuries, is fracturing, with stress fissures more visible each day. The once-accepted view of America as one nation, with the attendant sense of pride rooted in the belief in its exceptionalism, has been steadily losing ground over the last three decades, while secondary drivers of group identity, such as race and ethnicity, claim ever-greater prominence in our public discourse.
But he immediately goes off the rails:
A byproduct of the post-Cold War globalist ideology, the deconstruction of the American nation has been aided by the spread of a broad form of neo-Marxist progressivism now dominant at our colleges and universities and our major media outlets, and has been reinforced by a failed immigration policy that no longer demands the acculturation of newcomers. The American national idea is being “deconstructed” into tribal narratives, with the attendant loss of self-confidence that historically imbued Americans with a shared national identity and dedication to individual freedom. Consequently, our historical and cultural DNA is no longer being passed onto subsequent generations. Rather, our elites, especially the youngest among them, are increasingly intent on replacing the traditional American national narrative of the “melting pot” with what Samuel Huntington aptly called a multicultural “salad bowl” of different cultures and ethnic groups, living side by side but retaining their distinct values and identity markers. The same goes for basic knowledge of the “what” and “how” of our republican form of government. We have essentially stopped teaching civics in American schools,1and as a result it is not uncommon today to encounter a college freshman with only a vague notion of our national history and the workings of our government.
I’ve seen no evidence of a radical ideological shift in our colleges and universities, let alone toward “neo-Marixst progressivism.” I’m not even sure how that would happen given academic freedom. And, frankly, there was more Marxist sympathy on campus when I was an undergraduate—and, certainly, when Michta was—than there is now.
There has been no significant changes to our immigration policies in half a century. It’s true that, when my mom became an American citizen in 1965, the government-issued study guide implored that there are only “Americans” and not “hyphenated-Americans.” But that notion went away a long time ago—well before the end of the Cold War.
I, too, tend to think that we’ve gone too far in emphasizing the negatives of the American experience. But Michta illustrates the perils of the other extreme in his insistence that “dedication to individual freedom” was somehow a universal American ideal in some halcyon previous era.
I have two kids in elementary school and can assure you they’re still learning civics. And, having taught undergraduates as long ago as 1994, I can tell you that college freshman have long only had a vague notion of our history and workings of our government. I suspect it was ever thus.
The progressive politicization of American academia, especially in the humanities, has all but reduced the complex and rich civilizational heritage of modern America to group narratives built around the tone of one’s skin or gender identity. This reductive recompilation of American national identity is exemplified by the opaque term “people of color,” hurled with abandon against the equally broad but vacuous category of “whites” amidst incessant charges of racism and discrimination. In our quotidian existence in which we transact business, engage with government, consume media and pursue education, we are presented today with a system in which bureaucratically mandated racial, ethnic and gender categories impact access to jobs, education and other public benefits—this in a country whose “greatest generation” went to war to eradicate two totalitarian regimes committed to the belief that a person’s racial identity should define his or her place in the social order.
This paragraph is such a hot mess that rebutting it would take a blog post of its own. Let’s just say that, despite all of the obstacles America’s radical academic elites have placed in their way, white people seem to be doing okay in the job market. And that, not only didn’t we fight World War II to promote racial equality, we didn’t practice it at home for a considerable period thereafter.
Those paragraphs poison the essay, making Michta come across as a grumpy white guy seeking to Make America Great Again. Yet I’m quite sympathetic to his core argument once we get past the bizarre throat-clearing.
As America as a cohesive, binding concept loses definition, so too does support for it. In a poll conducted last year by Gallup, only 47 percent of all Americans declared themselves “extremely proud” of their nationality—the first time in the 18 years in which the poll has been conducted that fewer than half of the respondents expressed those levels of national pride. Only fifteen years ago, less than one generation, this number stood at 70 percent. According to the poll, decline in national pride was especially manifest among self-declared Democrats (32 percent, down from 43 percent in 2017, and 56 percent in 2013), and less than half of independents (42 percent, down from 48 percent in 2017 and 50 percent in 2013). By contrast, over twice the number of respondents self-identifying as Republican answered affirmatively when asked if they were extremely proud of their nationality, at 74 percent in 2018, with a two percent increase relative to the year before, and a three percent increase compared to 2013. The lowest level of national pride was found among the youngest American cohort, aged 18-29 (33 percent—a drop from 55 percent in 2013); those groups among whom a majority expressed extreme pride were the two oldest, ages 50-64 and 65 and older, with 56 and 58 percent respectively. Perhaps most strikingly, college graduates were significantly less proud of being American (only 39 percent), compared to the majority of those without a college education at 52 percent.
We’ve discussed this issue before. Partly, this is a function of “pride” and “patriotism” being hard to define and thus being defined differently by different groups and cohorts. But, like Michta, I’m concerned by the trends to the extent they’re a proxy for something else. Like this:
The current fracturing of the American nation into warring tribes augurs poorly for our future. A sense of national cohesion and the attendant mutuality of obligations remain essential to national security, for without it we will lack the resilience that only a cohesive nation can bring, whether to a crisis or to the state-on-state competition with China and Russia that is looming over the horizon. A people riven by internal discord and increasingly bereft of a sense of pride in its own nation is vulnerable to external meddling in its national affairs, and, ultimately may lack the requisite resilience to come together in a national crisis or war. As the assault on American exceptionalism in our public sphere gathers speed, a tired citizenry, offered an ever-more restrictive menu of choices when it comes to which events from the collective national memory it is allowed to preserve and which it must censure, feels the bonds of mutual loyalty and obligation fray at the seams.
On this, Michta and I are in full agreement. I just don’t think this is a result of neo-commies in academia and the lamestream media but rather the proliferation of means that enable us to cleave to like-minded groups and the mobilization of grievances by cynical politicians, pundits, and others.
But to speak of a nation in the 21st century is not to engage in ethno-nationalism or to build nativist theories; rather, the American nation needs to restore and pass forward the idea of an “extended kinship” which allows each citizen to experience a sense of communion and solidarity with his/her people. Progressives brought up on a steady diet of postmodernist ideology have for decades pushed forth the notion that nationalism is by definition a negative sentiment to be suppressed, conflating patriotic national pride with the worst totalitarian excesses of fascism and Nazism. In reality, national pride is the sine qua non of a modern working polity, for this sense of “extended kinship” embodied in a shared language and values, as well as the maintenance of a broad consensus on a people’s historic narrative, are the necessary glue that fosters the sense of mutuality of obligation critical to a properly functioning civic culture as its make compromise in politics a shared public good. We even have a word to distinguish this feeling from the kind of ethno-nationalism more prevalent in Europe: Patriotism.
Again, I’m broadly in agreement with Michta even while he, ironically, ensures that broad swaths of people will reject his argument precisely because his language and tone are so divisive.
Even as a young Army officer, I rolled my eyes at the treacly patriotism of Lee Greenwood. But, even in my most partisan days, I thought Jimmy Carter, Tip O’Neil, Michael Dukakis, and even Jesse Jackson were genuinely trying to make the country better and just had different conceptions of how best to go about it.
While I more-or-less maintained that view until the last couple of years, we’ve increasingly created what comparativist political scientists call reinforcing cleavages. Our civic culture increasingly has an Us versus Them mindset and, because They are evil, pretty much anything goes.
Michta’s article continues but in a way that takes us away from the conversation I want to have. So let’s move on to Dave Schuler’s commentary on the piece. He observes, somewhat ominously:
America as a nation cannot be revived without taking steps that too many people would find intolerable.
The commenters quickly descend into white nationalism and Dave rejoins:
During the same period you’re highlighting the Germans, French, Italians, Dutch, etc. not only sent their own citizens to concentration camps, they executed them by the millions. Do you know how many Japanese-Americans were executed in the internment camps? Zero.
You condemn us because we’re not living up to our ideals and values perfectly. However imperfectly applied they are still what we have in common. We don’t have ties of blood that unite us or a millennia-old shared history. We don’t even have a shared language, religion, or denomination. If you have something else to propose as the basis for building a nation, please propose it.
I don’t agree with bob’s at least implied claim that the United States needs a super-majority of people of primarily European descent to maintain any sense of national unity. Some of the most patriotic people I know are black. Or Japanese-American. I do think that acculturation of immigrants should be the norm, the expected. I don’t think we can remain together peaceably without revering the Founding Fathers and despising our history.
Later in the conversation, in response to the assertion that “Every multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country is a brutal dictatorship,” Dave argues,
That isn’t true. It isn’t true of Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, or Sweden, each of which fits that characterization. What is true is that in each of those cases the majority culture dominates the minority culture economically, socially, and politically. That is even still true in Canada which has really struggled to bring equality to the Francophone minority.
I think that’s right. And I agree with Dave that the measures that would be required to do the same in the United States would be, to say the least, uncomfortable.
This gets to a conversation I was having with @DrDaveT and others on the Puerto Rican statehood thread.
Like Dave Schuler, I think acculturation of immigrants should be expected, as should adherence to the American creed. But defining that in a way that also allows for immigrants to shape American culture—something that, paradoxically, is also very much part of our creed—is beyond challenging.
And, here, Michta may be right to partly blame academia and deconstructionism. Dave Schuler and I explicitly reject a white nationalist construction of American patriotism. And yet I can’t explicate a vision of American nationalism/patriotism that doesn’t hew to an idealized vision of the founding creed—which was indeed based on a white, European sensibility.
Nationalism and patriotism are inherently exclusionary. They require loyalty to an Us and a willingness to defend it against all Thems. And, yet, the American mythos is also based on welcoming immigrants into the melting pot, simultaneously assimilating them and absorbing bits and pieces of their cultures. And, because that process can take generations, there’s always going to be a tension in those ideals.