“The future belongs to patriots,” President Trump told the United Nations last month. But when it comes to Americans, at least, the data seems to indicate the opposite. A Gallup poll released just before the Fourth of July found that the share of participants who felt “extremely proud” to be American was the lowest in the poll’s 18-year history—just 47%, down from 70% in 2003. And according to a recent WSJ/NBC poll, the younger you are, the less likely you are to say that patriotism is a “very important” value. Among Americans older than 55, nearly 80% of respondents agreed with that statement; among those under 38, only 42% did so.
Perhaps the shift has to do with the fact that, in a time of bitter political division, people often bring up patriotism only to suggest that their opponents lack it. President Trump, who during the 2016 campaign made a habit of literally hugging American flags, has accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of treason. Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris said that former Vice President Joe Biden, her fellow Democratic presidential candidate, has “more patriotism in his pinkie finger” than President Trump “will ever have.” Members of both parties seem to see the other side as proof of Samuel Johnson’s famous definition of patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Johnson, the English man of letters, coined that phrase in 1775, suggesting that the use of patriotism as a political football is hardly a new phenomenon. What does seem to be new in our time is the growing sense, on both sides of the aisle, that American patriotism as traditionally conceived is unworthy of support. At just the moment when the U.S. is most in need of common values and aspirations, we seem to be in danger of losing them. How to restore American patriotism? The first task is to understand what makes it unique—and so vulnerable.
American patriotism, like America itself, is a continuing experiment in the power of ideas to bring human beings together. Other nations form their identities around shared ethnic origins or ancestral experiences—things that are themselves often imaginary, based more on myth than history. But the word “fatherland,” so powerful in other languages, is alien to American usage, because our forefathers all came from different lands. Instead, the classic formulas of American patriotism are about moral and political ideas: “all men are created equal”; “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; “liberty and justice for all.”
By casting our national identity in terms of democratic aspirations, the Founders ensured that American patriotism would be self-critical. We are constantly measuring ourselves against the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and since Americans are no more inherently moral than anyone else, we frequently find ourselves wanting.
This gives rise to the two threats that face our politics today. On the populist right, there is a temptation to see the nation merely as an impediment to the interests of one’s own tribe, whether that is defined in terms of race, region, religion or class. On the left, there is a complementary temptation to believe that American ideals have never been anything more than window-dressing for racial or class self-interest, so that achieving social justice means repudiating the nation and its claims.
Both of these lines of attack lead to a rejection of American patriotism as the demanding ideal it has been and should be again. A society as large and diverse as our own requires that ideal: Americans may not always be able to love or understand each other, but as long as we all love our country we can enjoy a certain level of political trust. When that trust evaporates, political opponents turn into enemies, and norms and laws become irritating constraints on the pursuit of power.
Traditionally, the case against patriotism in American politics has come from the left, which has been suspicious of it as an accessory to militarism and an excuse for oppression. The classic statement of this case was made by the radical thinker Randolph Bourne in his 1918 essay “The State.” Ordinarily, Bourne believed, love of country was a peaceful emotion: “There is no more feeling of rivalry with other peoples than there is in our feeling for our family.” But patriotism becomes dangerous when it suppresses individual conscience in favor of blind obedience to the government: “In responding to the appeal of the flag, we are responding to the appeal of the State, to the symbol of the herd organized as an offensive and defensive body, conscious of its prowess and its mystical herd strength,” Bourne wrote. He was responding, in part, to the Wilson administration’s persecution of critics of World War I, like the socialist politician Eugene V. Debs, whose antiwar speeches led to his imprisonment under the Sedition Act of 1918.
In our time, however, we are seeing the beginnings of a turn away from American patriotism in certain parts of the right as well. It is significant that the “national conservative” movement, which gained attention with a conference of intellectuals and politicians in Washington, D.C., this summer, prefers the language of nationalism rather than patriotism. The word conjures up European nationalisms based on language and ethnicity, and indeed one of the key arguments of national-conservative thinkers like Yoram Hazony is that nations must possess an integral, exclusive identity to thrive. “National cohesion is the secret ingredient that allows free institutions to exist, the bedrock on which a functioning democracy is built,” Mr. Hazony wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year.
Patriotism is open to skepticism from both sides of the political spectrum because loyalty to a country is, in fact, a fragile principle. Emotionally and biologically, our strongest loyalties belong to our actual relatives—our family, clan or tribe. From a religious point of view, on the other hand, we are united with everyone who shares our faith, regardless of nationality. As St. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Certainly, being loyal to a few people you know personally or to all your fellow-believers are much older modes of identity that being loyal to a group of intermediate size—tens or hundreds of millions of people with whom you are supposed to have something deeply in common because you happen to speak the same language or share the same passport. It was to overcome these objections that classic European nationalism tried to invest the nation with the qualities of both a family and a faith: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny,” wrote the historian Benedict Anderson in his 1983 book “Imagined Communities.”
But this kind of nationalism is manifestly unsuited to the American experience, since Americans have never been all of one kind either ethnically or spiritually. On the contrary, our history shows a steadily increasing diversity along both dimensions. With each new immigrant wave, voices have been heard to insist that this latest arrival—from Irish Catholics in the mid-19th century, to southern Europeans and Jews in the early 20th century, to Muslims today—cannot be Americanized; and so far they have all been proven wrong.
In this way, American history has vindicated the Founders’ faith that all human beings share the same basic desire for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This universalism makes it a perpetual challenge, however, to draw the circle of mutual loyalty among citizens in the way that most nations do. If anyone in the world is a potential American, then why should we be more loyal to our fellow citizens than to humanity at large?
This problem is thrown into sharp relief by the issue of immigration, which is so polarizing precisely because it reminds us of the contingent nature of Americanness. Ethnic nationalism depends on the myth of primeval unity, but what separates today’s American from today’s immigrant is merely priority in time, a morally insignificant fact.
The idea that Americanness is defined by values rather than by birth is one of the noblest definitions of citizenship any country has established—and for that very reason, one of the most difficult to live up to. That is why, like the biblical prophets, America’s prophetic moralists have often served the country by pointing out its failures—which are nowhere clearer than in its history of slavery, segregation and racism. When Fredrick Douglass poured scorn on expressions of American patriotism in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” he was reminding his white audience that the American promise stood in glaring contradiction to the American reality. “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” Douglass said. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”
Abraham Lincoln returned to this image of the slavedriver’s whip in his Second Inaugural Address: “Yet, if God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
It might seem strange to call this an expression of American patriotism, but in the deepest sense it was: In accepting punishment, Lincoln affirmed that America should be judged by its own highest principles. After all, it is only those principles that make the country what he said it was in a message to Congress in advance of the Emancipation Proclamation—“the last best hope of earth.” Even Douglass concluded his oration by saying that he believed America’s future would be better than its past, in part because he drew “encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains and the genius of American Institutions.”
Of course, American principles have always been interpreted in different ways—in particular, depending on whether you think the greatest threat to liberty comes from the state or the market, the point on which conservatives and liberals traditionally divided. But that political division, bitter as it could become, has been constrained by both parties’ allegiance to the American vocabulary of liberty and self-determination. Both sides could claim to be acting in the tradition of the Declaration and the Constitution.
If today’s politics seems more dangerous—more reminiscent of the 1850s, the most polarized period in American history—it is partly because this kind of principled patriotism is losing its value as a shared moral vocabulary. When it thrives, American patriotism brings the particular and the universal into a new synthesis—a way of pursuing our own interest by pursuing justice. When it fails, those elements come apart, as they did for the North and South before the Civil War and as they seem to be doing in our red-and-blue America today. Americans increasingly feel that the nation is an obstacle to the achievement of what they value most, whether that means the empowerment of their tribe or the fulfillment of their moral ideals.
“A nation’s existence is…a daily plebiscite,” said the French historian Ernest Renan in his 1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?” Nationhood “presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.” Today, when so many Americans are disillusioned with our common life and wish, secretly or openly, that there was a way to separate from those they consider enemies, people who retain their faith in American ideals have a duty to voice their patriotism. Like so many important things, we may not realize how much we need it until it’s about to disappear.
On nurturing children, we “should well study their natures and aptitudes and see, by often trials, what turn they easily take and what becomes them, observe what their native stock is, how it may be improved, and what it is fit for.” This attitude could have been expressed by the renowned educator and Poetic Justice Warrior Maria Montessori, but it is not hers. However, it is a radical shift away from the Renaissance emphasis on Classical Greek philosophy, and toward the Enlightenment view of human beings as unique individuals.
For insight on personal liberty and self-reliance,
If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power?
This sentiment might easily be attributed to Poetic Justice Warriors Booker T. Washington or Ayn Rand, but it is not theirs. It was however a radical shift away from the notion of the divine right of kings. And it was the precursor for the Great Upheaval of the late 18th century, the one that resulted in a brief experiment with enlightened despotism in Russia, a brutal and failed revolution in France, and according to President John Adams, the successful revolution of the mind to supplant British hegemony in America.
The source of the first quote is Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693; and the second is from Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689. Both were achievements of Poetic Justice Warrior John Locke. These were truly radical ideas at the time, and they furthered the course of human history toward human flourishing.
All the King’s Men
In 17th century Europe, the feudal system had largely replaced slavery. While serfs had a few basic rights such as access to the legal system, some freedom of movement and church sanctuary, they lived lives of servitude. In England, there was a great deal of political pressure, particularly from the Whig movement, to replace the absolute monarchy of King Charles II with a constitutional monarchy that would limit the authority of the sovereign. Locke had a long and close relationship with a founder of the Whigs, Lord Ashley, for whom Locke and his team of doctors had saved from liver disease by performing surgery.
Because of Locke’s implication in a plot to assissinate King Charles II (there is little evidence that Locke was involved), he exiled himself to the Netherlands for five years in 1683 (or be hung, drawn and quartered). It was during this time in Amsterdam that Locke surrounded himself with the intellectual heirs to the rationalist philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, and in particular Spinoza’s philosophical treatise titled Ethics. While there was conflict between Locke’s empiricism and Spinoza’s rationalism, Locke was impressed with Spinoza’s arguments regarding political and religious tolerance, and the separation of church and state. This period also gave him time to complete his signature achievements – Two Treatises of Government, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and A Letter Concerning Toleration.
Back in England, there was increasing resentment against a Catholic monarch wielding absolute authority justified by the divine right of kings. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution led by English parliamentarians and an invading Dutch fleet and army organized by the Prince of Orange, installed a constitutional monarchy led by William III and his wife Mary II. It was then that Locke, accompanied by Mary II, returned to England. The following year the English Bill of Rights was passed by parliament and Locke finally published his Treatises, Essay, and Letter. While Locke was associated with the Whig party that controlled parliament, his conception of natural rights (rights not derived from any law or government) were still considered radical at the time.
The Road from Serfdom
Locke’s Two Treatises of Government contain powerful arguments for limited government, separation of powers, and the consent of the governed. But he is not the first to espouse these ideas. According to historian Peter Berkowitz, they can be found in much earlier work. For example, the Bible talks about equality, but it is not based on natural rights. And in classical Greek philosophy, political structures should accommodate human virtues, not personal liberty. It was John Locke who combined seemingly unrelated ideas into a cohesive framework that coalesced into America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution nearly a century later.
It starts with Locke’s theory of knowledge, known as Tabula Rasa in Latin, meaning that all human beings are born without innate ideas. He asserts that all people acquire knowledge through perception, experience, and introspection. This idea can be traced back to the 11th century Persian philosopher Avicenna, and before that to Aristotle. His theories on education consider the mind and body to be one integrated system, that children should be considered rational beings, and that virtue is taught by delaying gratification. Locke adds to this his theory of every person’s sense of self, or individualism:
Thus, from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth, that there is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not!
This naturally leads to the right of each human being to ownership of their life and property. As Berkowitz explains about Locke’s achievement, political power is rooted in freedom and equality by and for all. For political systems to be legitimate, they must protect natural rights, and it must be by the consent of the governed. Locke proved that no one is born to rule others, and no one is born to serve rulers. But freedom and equality are not absolute, political structures should only protect their citizens from the threat of force imposed by others.
As poetic justice would have it, Locke’s Two Treatises laid dormant in western political thought until the American resistance against British taxation resurrected it. Personal liberty became the subject of debates in both America and Britain, and in 1773, Two Treatises of Government was finally published in America. Consequently, it had profound influence on Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and the other great American political philosophers that triggered Adams’ revolution of the mind, and fostered the soul of America.
STAY IN THE KNOW
Fill out the form below to get the CFI Newsletter delivered to your inbox.
Leave us your contact information below to recieve a free copy of CFI's 10-Point Manifesto for Individualism
Join the CFI Mailing List using the form below to recieve a free Sample Chapter of Hunter Hastings' The Interconnected Individualism
Leave us your contact information below to recieve a free copy of Poetic Justice Warrior Society: Freedom's Radicals
The Center for Individualism is a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Organization with a mission to promote Individualism in America. All work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except for material where copyright is reserved by a party other than CFI. Learn More…