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Opinion: Are there different ways to be a ‘good patriot’?

Loving your country because of its past and loving it because of its potential are two different, legitimate ways of loving America

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen

Of the various proposals for “how to fix American politics” we hear nowadays, one of the most familiar is the need to return to some shared American national identity. To reach this, some suggest we embark upon an ambitious program of national service, or agree on an updated national civics education curriculum, or perhaps promote participation in local government and national elections. Some suggest we need a moral equivalent of war to shock ourselves into unity; some suggest we need a communitarian civil-society revival to bring out our better angels.

These proposals may be all well and good for their own reasons, but oftentimes they seem to assume that there is, or should be, a clear consensus on what national patriotism and American identity look like. That vision of consensus and shared identity typically implies certain delimiters for who is “really” patriotic. And inevitably, where those lines are drawn reflects the cultural and political prejudices of those drawing up the “consensus.”

The deeper truth is that there are many ways to be a patriot, and these ways are not always compatible with each other. Loving your country because of its past, as conservatives are prone to do, and loving it because of its potential, as liberals like to emphasize, are simply different things. They can go together, but sometimes they don’t.

If “real” American patriots walk the earth among us, it’s worth asking why they would have to compromise or explain themselves to the skeptical. Doesn’t their virtue speak for itself? With the stakes of increasingly fractured public opinion thus elevated, the wistful chance to define civic virtue becomes yet another partisan culture-war football. 

And then we’re back at square one. We keep stumbling over the same obstacle and throwing up our hands, lamenting that half our fellow Americans are too un-American to see things our way. We are preternaturally disposed to base our patriotism on how unpatriotic our fellow Americans are, and how our patriotism makes us more disinterested, more civic-minded, more American than them. It is very hard, in this rhetorical mode, to consider that people who see most political questions differently from us might actually love America. More often than not, we assume they hate it.

Here’s a proposition: We of 2021 live in an age, not of insufficient patriotism, but of intense patriotism. Yet, there are many ways to be a patriot, many ways to love your country and many ways to express that love in your politics. Arguably, it’s that very diversity and intensity of patriotism that makes our polarization so intense, for better and for worse.

A few months ago my colleague John Wood Jr. wrote an op-ed for The USA Today, arguing that American liberals and conservatives view patriotism differently while loving America with equal fervor. He juxtaposed the patriotic thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the patriotic thought of President Ronald Reagan to make the point, that King (and modern liberals) adore America’s redemptive potential and future, while Reagan (and modern conservatives) revere America’s glorious past and heritage, and that these dispositions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Liberals tend to be proud of our country for our potential — “American ideals,” or something similar — while conservatives tend to be proud of our country for our past — “American heritage” or the like. 

It is very hard to consider that people who see most political questions differently from us, might actually love America. More often than not, we assume they hate it.

These are, of course, very different emphases, even if they’re not necessarily incompatible. They explain the different value judgments conservatives and liberals place on, say, memorial statues and “patriotic history.” They also do much to explain whether someone thinks The New York Times’s 1619 Project was either an important corrective or a pernicious foray into revisionist history, and whether they think the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission was likewise one or the other.

I think John’s framing is correct, but more complex than it might seem at first glance. Liberals can rightfully argue their ideals have existed within the American tradition since the beginning; and conservatives can legitimately say that vitality of American heritage and culture and premised on ideals. But despite each offering a potential touchpoint to come together, we tend to use the language of patriotism — across the spectrum of our differences — to excommunicate each other at least as much as we use it to find common ground. 

We can make decisions for ourselves as to how to love America, but to condemn our fellow Americans as un-American for loving it differently than we do is as intolerant as any of the theocratic and ideological persecutions of historic lore. There might be a unified American identity beneath everything, and maybe we can discover it; but we should not premise our tolerance and affection for our fellow Americans on their submission to our own ideas of patriotism.

There are many ways to be a patriot, and these ways are not always compatible with each other.

This isn’t just an exercise in civility or patriotic empathy. At some level this is a pragmatic question of national survival for a pluralistic society. At some point one of the beautiful things about American national identity is that, as Whitman says, it “is large,” and “contain(s) multitudes.” That kind of diverse society is intrinsically complex and pluralistic. So why should patriotism have to be based on a specific agreed-upon framework, either?

So, a humble proposal: In thinking on American national identity and American patriotism, let us acknowledge the essential tension between distinct, valid approaches to patriotism. We don’t have to acknowledge the moral equivalence of any of them — merely that the differences exist, and many of our fellow Americans, decent simple people, hold them as part of who they are. This might lead to tension, but let us not let that tension explode into hatred and contempt. May our propositions for shared identity sound less like enforced declarations of dogma and more like soul-searching dialogues.

After all, practical problem-solving has always been thought of as an American virtue. We should employ it here, and navigate implications of our competing ways of loving our country without destroying each other.

Luke Nathan Phillips is the Publius Fellow for Public Discourse at Braver Angels. His views are his own.