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These should be the end times for American patriotism
Patriotism is the organising passion of modern political life in the United States yet its vitality defies obvious explanation. The country has no national education system. There’s neither compulsory military nor civil service. No government agency distributes the ubiquitous US flags, nor enforces observance of the rituals to country performed at schools and sporting and political events throughout the country. Despite lacking the classic machinery for inculcating patriotism and spreading it among the people, American patriotism is a norm in the true sense: at least within the US itself, it exists in a place without question.
One of the conceits of American patriotism – that it is a salubrious version of the pernicious nationalism that other countries have – has helped to protect it from critical questioning of almost any type. The kinds of 20th-century Leftist political movements that in principle opposed nationalism fared poorly in the US, and this might be why popular justifications for the country’s patriotism tend to be shallow. They are often based on appeals to treasured details of family or community life: patriotism is Little League baseball on a warm summer day, the courtesy of the small-town merchant, a neighbourhood rebuilding together after a destructive storm. All nationalisms make sentimental appeal to intimate but generic experience, and the effects can help to raise armies and start wars. They carry, in other words, formidable political force. But they are not any kind of serious moral or intellectual case for patriotism.
American patriotism is in some ways old. It is notable for being perhaps the first nationalism in the fully modern sense of the concept, ie the loyalty to nation of a kingless people. Some of its defining qualities have changed very little, including the distinctive cult of the ‘founding fathers’, which began while they were still living. The strength of the preoccupation with the founders is that it is an open way to demonstrate national belonging. Talking about ‘the founders’, declaring loyalty to them and their texts, has been second only to military service as an effective way for immigrants and descendants of slaves to assimilate, and to become, at least in one sense, American. The great weakness of this preoccupation with the founders is that it’s a convoluted, limiting device through which to think about the world today – much like the country’s overestimation of its constitution – yet it plays an outsized role in American political debate and thought.
Most patriotisms enlist territorial rivals in the required role of the enemy: France has Germany; India has China; Britain has France. But America’s particular historical experience in the New World reshaped this need. The US colonised a very rich continent without ever facing a real geopolitical rival. Lacking a serious competitor for land and other resources, American patriotism turned to the task of conjuring ideological enemies, drawing on an Anglo, especially Puritan, propensity for recasting outsiders as fearsome maleficents. The Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) gave this impulse a paradigmatic expression when he speculated that the devil resembled either an Indian sagamore or a French dragoon.
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American patriotism has always depended on conjuring alleged conspiracies from migrants or outsiders bearing existential threats: foreign devils all. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, it was Catholicism. The Anglo establishment held Catholics to be unreasoning and beholden to priestly power, unfit for the obligations of citizenship. That’s why people who take the oath to become citizens must renounce allegiance to any foreign ‘potentate’, that is, the Pope. Then the Cold War made it communism: like Catholicism, a nebulous and formidable global power, yet also moving invisibly in the hearts and minds of immigrants, to undermine the country from within. Now rival camps differ as to whether the existential threat is sharia or Russia.
The split among Americans as to whether imams or Russian bots present a greater threat to the country is indicative of political polarisation. At a deeper level, it also indicates a certain turmoil within US patriotism, a result of its increasing incoherence. Quite simply, exceptionalism has always been core to American patriotism, and American exceptionalism is no longer tenable. Exceptionalism is the idea that the country bears some special lesson for the rest of the world, some vital role in world history. But if the US represents something invaluable to the rest of the world, what is that? In the 18th century, an experiment in republican government filled the bill of exceptionalist pretensions. In the long 19th century, the availability of land for settlers, combined with political democracy and capitalism, compared favourably with Europe’s aristocratic regimes. After the Second World War, the shared prosperity of postwar economic boom helped to revitalise US exceptionalism. Now? There’s no good answer.
This core component of American patriotism – the popular conviction in a world-historical role for the US – is unlikely to continue. First, it is increasingly difficult not to notice that in many basic matters of government and society, including healthcare, public education, gender equity, social mobility and prosperity, economic fairness, childcare, environment and more, the US has fallen behind most of the developed world. The US’s world-historical ambitions have simply not kept pace with world history. Secondly, the wars. Wars are nation-making events, but they can also be unmaking ones. If your patriotism is linked to pretensions of a world-historical role, what do you do when the world chooses not to emulate you, or when it (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) doesn’t want your Americanisation project? Mere military supremacy, especially when it proves ineffective at achieving its goals, is unlikely to be enough to sustain the exceptionalist heart of American patriotism.
Killing or dying for a principle might be just. But principles are universal, not confined to the good of a particular nation; and patriotism by definition is concerned only with the good of the nation. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) uses the word ‘universal’ five times, and further specifies that the rights apply to all peoples and all nations, and all children. The universality of the Declaration is just a recent instance of an ethics of reciprocity put forward, in some form, by almost all religions and moral systems – but not by patriotism. Nearly two decades into the 21st century, the premise that all people deserve the same basic recognition and protections should be a conservative principle. Patriotism, however, elevates to its highest expression killing and dying for the nation. This might be an aspiration, if you care for such ideals, but it cannot be a principle.
The sacred status of American patriotism in the US indicates only an ideological strength, not moral or intellectual soundness. The Right-wing nationalism resurgent in many places, including the US, has convinced many Americans that reasserting patriotism is necessary, or at least politically strategic. But questioning American patriotism is a greater opportunity, and might also be a more pragmatic course, since some of its historical foundations are unravelling. It is time to start treating American patriotism – the most deadly form of identity politics – as a question, not an answer.
is a historian and a Senior Editor at Aeon. A Columbia PhD, he was a postdoc at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a faculty member at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. His The Origins of American Religious Nationalism came out in paperback in 2016 and has been widely reviewed.