I’m not sure when my sense of patriotism began slipping away. Maybe it was in college, when I was exposed to a more complicated version of American history than I had previously known. Or maybe it was later, as a journalist covering the protests of people who felt — legitimately, it often seemed to me — as though they had been shortchanged out of the American dream. Or maybe it was when I had the opportunity to travel to other parts of the world, where I met people who had access to things like free health care and who were baffled by the idea of American exceptionalism. 

Whatever the case, for many years I experienced a creeping sense of cynicism about my home country. And by the time my first child was born, and I spent evenings reading over hospital bills and trying to plan child care, all I really wanted was to move to Europe, where it seemed both the health care and joie de vivre are universal. 

I mention this not because my experience is unique. Actually, it’s quite common. Patriotism is out of fashion for many Americans, and cynicism is in.  

But as our society has grown increasingly acrimonious, and as other countries have faced generational existential threats, I’ve had to reconsider my attitude. The fruits of cynicism — things like intractable political polarization and crumbling social norms — appear to be rotten. Meanwhile we’ve seen examples, such as the Ukrainians’ struggle against Russia, in which patriotism has staved off annihilation.

The United States is not a perfect country. Far from it. But what I’ve gradually realized — or, maybe, remembered — is that patriotism doesn’t require perfection. What it requires is faith in a place and its people. I lost my own sense of patriotism because I believed my country had too many problems. I regained it when I realized solutions are within our grasp. And at a time when progress on any issue seems painfully hard to come by, patriotism offers a way for Americans to come together and reach for a better future.   

The end of patriotism?

Whatever patriotism’s merits, there’s no question it has ebbed to a new low. In March, a poll from The Wall Street Journal and University of Chicago-based research institution NORC found that only 38% of Americans believe patriotism is a “very important” value. That’s a huge drop from 70% of Americans who said patriotism was very important in 1998, when the Journal first conducted the survey. 

Unsurprisingly, patriotism broke down along party lines: Only 23% of Democrats and 29% of independents said patriotism was very important. Meanwhile, 59% of Republicans said patriotism is very important. 

The poll’s findings are not a fluke. In 2022, Gallup reported similar results, with the number of survey respondents saying they’re “extremely proud” to be Americans falling to its lowest point since 2001, the first year in Gallup’s data. 

Gallup’s data similarly shows a partisan divide, but it’s significant that patriotism is waning among people at every point on the political spectrum. Republicans in 2022 were more patriotic than members of other political groups, but less patriotic than Republicans of the recent past. In 2003, for instance, 83% of Republicans were extremely proud to be American. By 2022, that number had fallen to just 58%.

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There has been pushback to these types of findings. Some observers have noted specifically that The Wall Street Journal-NORC results, for example, may have been influenced by changes in methodology. And many Americans passionately love their country. But it’s safe to say that even if we quibble over the specific numbers, all signs indicate that Americans are less fervently patriotic today than they were just a few years ago. That creeping cynicism I felt is pretty typical.

What is patriotism, anyway?

Modern Americans may be souring on the idea of patriotism, but it’s an idea that has intrigued thinkers for millennia. In ancient Greece, Socrates weighed in on the topic, describing himself as a “citizen of the whole world.” The Greeks also pioneered the idea that loyalty to the state isn’t necessarily absolute, but instead hinges on that state’s morality — something that was atypical among the many unabashedly ethnocentric civilizations of antiquity. 

Centuries later, patriotism was a popular source of debate among Enlightenment thinkers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that patriotism was important for preserving liberal values and freedom. He argued that if we “wish men to be virtuous” we should “begin by making them love their country.” 

Voltaire was more skeptical of the concept, accepting the idea of love for country but also arguing that “to be a good patriot one is the enemy of the rest of mankind.”

The Founding Fathers weighed in as well. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” — positioning patriotism as a kind of bulwark against illiberalism. Samuel Adams took a similarly proactive view of the concept, reportedly saying that “for true patriots to be silent is dangerous” and arguing that patriots’ responsibility was to actively prevent the ruin of their country. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly because I am an American, these definitions resonate with me. 

Still, I was hungry for a more practical way to understand patriotism, so I reached out to John Halpin. He’s the president and executive editor of “The Liberal Patriot,” a newsletter that has racked up nearly 20,000 subscribers by taking a kind of pragmatic, centrist approach to politics. Halpin told me readers of the newsletter tend to range from moderate Democrats to Trump-skeptical Republicans to people from across the political spectrum who have grown alienated with constant “apocalyptic rhetoric.”

When I asked Halpin how he defined patriotism, he said it’s about commitment to American values — freedom, political equality, pluralism — and the belief that “this is a good country, it’s based on good values that are time-tested, and the focus should be on the common good.” 

“If you’re a patriot, you believe in your country,” Halpin explained. “What it’s founded on and what it’s trying to achieve. And your focus is how we make it better for everyone.” 

Halpin also mentioned a concept he called “liberal nationalism.” Though the name might set off alarm bells for some thanks to the association of “nationalism” with fascism, Halpin was quick to make a distinction: Liberal nationalism is about inclusion, working for the common good, and enshrining liberal (in the classical lower-case L sense) values. It’s the opposite of exclusion, hate and division — values that dominated nationalistic movements in the early 20th century and which have been creeping back into many Western nations. 

Talking to Halpin was refreshing. Here was a way to think about patriotism not as a chest-thumping superiority complex, but as an engine for doing good. Patriots are people who think their country is worth improving. By the time I spoke with Halpin, I was fully onboard with this idea. But I didn’t get there overnight. 

From cynicism to patriotism

My own deflated sense of patriotism began to slowly recover toward the end of my time covering protests as a journalist. I first started covering protests when, while working for BuzzFeed News, I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. Over the next few years, I went to dozens of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. I interviewed hundreds of people in the streets. Many of these were exceptionally difficult interviews; at one gathering of several hundred people outside a local jail, nearly every person I spoke with was able to tell me the name of a friend or family member locked inside. It was moving when, in response to the protesters chanting, inmates began flickering their cell lights on and off. But I was filled with whatever the opposite of patriotic fervor is after visiting community after community where incarceration had become a fact of daily life. 

My coverage spanned the political spectrum. When I wasn’t working at Black Lives Matter protests, I covered many of Donald Trump’s rallies during his 2016 presidential bid. I spent my time at these rallies wandering through the crowds asking people why they were supporting someone who was upending so many political norms. As at the BLM protests, I interviewed hundreds of people, and their comments were not so different from what the protesters told me: Many felt left out by the political mainstream. During one particularly salient conversation, I spoke with a Trump supporter in Las Vegas who was gay and intermittently homeless. He had grown alienated from both political parties, and was struggling to afford medication and health care. As we spoke, he wondered aloud what he had to lose by supporting a highly atypical candidate. 

Thousands of people attended BLM protests and Trump rallies over the years, and of course I didn’t speak to them all. There were plenty of patriotic people in both groups. But overall these experiences offered a crash course in everything that’s wrong with the U.S.

People told me about experiencing discriminatory policing, a lack of housing, joblessness, expensive health care. They were worried about mass shootings and climate change and over regulation and wage stagnation. The “apocalyptic rhetoric,” to borrow Halpin’s phrase, was ubiquitous. 

But then something interesting happened. 

Before I moved on to different types of news coverage, I occasionally had the chance to revisit places I covered during moments of extreme unrest. And I was pleasantly surprised to find people fighting for change even after the cameras left. In one memorable instance, I returned to Ferguson, Missouri, and found people I first met amid a swirl of tear gas and smoke, now sitting quietly in a city council meeting. When the meeting ended, they shook hands and chatted with city officials. 

There were no heroic photos of this work. No chanting in the middle of the night as armored police looked on. But some people, at least, had been putting in the work to make their community better. “Huh,” I thought at the time, “as bad as things are, people haven’t given up.” It was eye opening and nudged me away from cynicism. 

Sometimes, the walk away from cynicism was more light-hearted too. A while back, scrolling through TikTok, I happened upon the account of Joshua Cauldwell-Clarke, an English actor who seemed to be wildly enamored with the United States. Under the user name “imjoshfromengland2,” he has built a following by having his mind blown by American food, road trips and even gas stations. Earlier this year, he and a friend went on a road trip through the U.S., during which he said, “I think I’m American at heart, I mean it. It’s breathtaking.” 

And you know what? He’s right. America is breathtaking. I’ve spent most of my life in western states, which are home to the ancient ruins of Mesa Verde, the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, the beaches of Southern California, and thousands of square miles of national parks — several of which, in my home state of Utah, look like they belong on the surface of Mars. Thanks to generations of immigration, American culture is unlike anything else in the world; I once lived on a street corner that had incredible Thai, Mexican and Armenian restaurants. It’s hard to imagine any other country with that combination. 

The list of reasons the U.S. is breathtaking could go on. Cauldwell-Clarke has commented many times on Americans’ hospitality, and obviously American culture — music, film, literature — is beloved far outside our borders. But the point here isn’t to create a comprehensive list of all the things we Americans excel at. Rather, it’s to highlight the value of getting an occasional reminder of the things many of us take for granted.  

Cauldwell-Clarke may now be the best-known person making this kind of pro-American content, but there are actually a lot of non-Americans posting about how much they love the U.S. A cynic might question these creators’ sincerity — they do get views and followers — but the comments sections tend to be filled with Americans getting an outsider’s view of their own country. And a lot of those Americans — including this American — seem genuinely inspired. For instance, the No. 1 comment, out of more than 30,000, on Cauldwell-Clarke’s video about moving to the U.S. notes that “it’s crazy how a Brit put the patriotism back in my heart.” 

Patriotism is about getting things done

Social media posts about surging patriotism offer a low-stakes, feel-good story. It’s fun to follow along with outsiders as they discover American barbecue or visit Buc-ee’s gas stations. These kinds of posts are useful reminders that no country is perfect and that for all of America’s flaws, it really is a unique melting pot unlike any other in the world. 

But the stakes are higher than mere feelings. Case in point: This spring, writer Richard D. Kahlenberg argued that the key to solving the current culture war over education is rejecting extremism on both the left and the right. What does Kahlenberg think ought to replace it? Patriotism. 

“Public schools can and should teach reflective patriotism,” he argued, “a sense that our nation may be flawed but also that America’s best ideals are worth fighting and dying for.” 

For Kahlenberg, that specifically means doing a better job teaching history, avoiding pessimism and acknowledging America’s “warts” while also emphasizing “democracy’s capacity for self-correction.” And he believes that this matters because public schools aren’t just about reading and writing. It’s also “because public schools teach kids what they share in common” and “what it means to be an American.”

Kahlenberg is framing patriotism as a way to move beyond extremism and petty bickering on a political issue, and it’s easy to imagine how a similar intellectual framework might be useful on other issues. A stronger sense of what we have in common might improve the way we approach everything from debt ceiling debates to climate change. 

But sometimes the stakes are even higher still. The best most recent example of this is the war in Ukraine. When the conflict began, everyone expected Russia to steamroll the Ukrainians in days. Russian soldiers were even reportedly told to bring parade uniforms for a victory celebration in Kyiv. Instead, the Ukrainian people rose to the occasion and, with help from their allies, have managed to stay in the fight for more than a year now. 

I’m not here to offer foreign policy analysis, or to weigh in on the West’s level of support for the Ukrainians. But what I can say is that the willingness of the Ukrainian people to fight is inspiring. Many of those who have given their lives were not previously soldiers. They include an Olympic cycling coach, an actor, a kick-boxer, a ballet dancer and several politicians.

Lest we assume that this is automatically what happens in times of war, we have only to look across the border to Russia. When Vladimir Putin announced a new draft last year to replenish his flailing army, reportedly hundreds of thousands of Russians fled rather than fight. The level of faith in one’s country has proven critical in this conflict. 

Writing about this idea last fall in The New York Times, David Brooks argued that the war isn’t just a military conflagration, but also an “intellectual event.” The Ukrainians are fighting for the liberal order and for their nation. It’s a battle, in other words, for liberal nationalism. 

Brooks went on to make the case that the “nationalism” part of that concept matters for giving citizens a sense of belonging and a willingness to defend themselves against foes. It has given the Ukrainians an astonishing tenacity in the face of Russia’s toxic illiberal nationalism. And, Brooks argues, “democracies need this kind of nationalism to regenerate the nation.” 

I think that gets at the crux of the idea. Patriotism can be exciting. It was fun and funny, for example, to see a NASCAR Camaro competing against Ferraris in a French car race, and to see Americans comment on the race online with rows of bald eagle emojis. But it’s also something much deeper than that. Patriotism is the engine that drives partisans to set aside their political differences and solve problems. And it’s the reason people step up to defend their nations. The stakes are existential. Cynicism is lethal. 

It took me a long time to come around to this idea because the U.S. is, of course, far from perfect. There’s too much inequality, homelessness and political polarization. Housing and health care are too expensive. Loneliness is rampant. Our life expectancy lags behind dozens of other countries. The list could go on. But watching foreign travelers fall in love with America, foreign fighters rise up to defend their homeland, and protesters double down to improve their communities has reminded me that imperfection and greatness are not mutually exclusive.

That at least is the idea that I hope to get across to my kids, who along with their peers will inherit whatever country we manage to leave them. When I think about my kids, I’m reminded of my oldest daughter’s first Independence Day a few years ago. At the time, we lived in a tiny house in California. Our immediate neighbors hailed from three countries on two continents, and most were first generation immigrants. When my daughter was born, about a month before July 4, it was these neighbors who first held her and gave her onesies. 

Not long after, on Independence Day, we wandered into the streets to watch as our neighbors — really, the whole neighborhood — put on the best firework show I’ve ever seen. It was a jumble of light and smoke and languages I didn’t recognize. The smell of al pastor tacos and bacon-wrapped hot dogs and curry mixed in the breeze. Everyone was celebrating and getting along. 

I often think about that Independence Day at this time of year, and about the fact that for all of our differences and disagreements, most of the time we do tend to get along. And that gives me hope for this country, and for the idea that it’s possible to be a patriot while still grasping for a better world.