Sunday, July 5, 2020

Should Liberals Embrace Patriotism?

At Slate, M. Steven Fish, Neil A. Abrams, and Laila M. Aghaie argue that one reason authoritarian governments are succeeding around the world is that liberals have abandoned patriotism. In the US, the big liberal reformers – Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Lyndon Johnson – all talked nationalism nonstop and defended all of their measures as being more American than the alternative. Sometimes they were lying, but they got results. The surrender of nationalism to the right, these authors think, accounts for much of the right's popularity around the world. Here is FDR defending the New Deal:
First, we gave a credit to earned income. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do? Secondly, we decreased the tax rates on small corporations. Wasn’t that the American thing to do? And third, we increased the taxes paid by individuals in the higher brackets. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do? Fourth, we increased still further, more steeply, the taxes paid by individuals in the highest bracket. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do?
Martin Luther King made it a part of his standard rhetoric to praise America:
My beloved nation … can well lead the way in a revolution of values. . . . The day has passed for superficial patriotism. I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.
By contrast the liberal news sites I follow run stories every year arguing that American independence was a bad idea because it did not immediately end slavery, and they have been full this weekend of riffs on Frederick Douglass' "What is the Fourth of July to the Slave?" 

I do understand why liberals do this, but as King and FDR showed it is perfectly possible to agitate for  rejecting the way America has been without trashing the idea of the nation. 

To me, anti-American rhetoric is a perfectly example of why the left in America never really wins: because they would rather be on the moral high ground than win elections. Republicans understand this; remember Steve Bannon saying, "If Democrats talk race, and Republicans talk nationalism, Republicans win."

If you want, like Bernie Sander et al., to make the US more like the Nordic countries, then you might consider the rhetoric they used to advance their own Democratic Socialism. It was all about the nation; the Swedes who introduced socialism to Sweden called their program Folkhemmet, the People's Home, and said that for all Swedes to take care of each other like a big family was the most Swedish possible thing.

If liberals really wanted to run up big electoral majorities, they would use patriotism as FDR and JFK did, arguing that police brutality and inequality are un-American, and calling on the spirit of the Declaration to advance freedom and equality. So long as they would rather be moral hipsters loudly taking the side of the oppressed, they will not get what they claim to want. 

People are tribal; the sense of belonging to a group is as fundamental to our make-up as anything else. People hate to be told that groups they identify with are bad. Telling Americans that the United States is a bad thing is a flat-out losing proposition. It doesn't matter how strongly you believe this to be true; in a democracy, you have to get the votes before you can do anything else, and insulting people is a bad way to get votes.

Don't rail against the world; change it.


David said...

I think in a matter like this you have to distinguish between liberals and the left. They're really two very different groups. Obama is a liberal; Sanders is a leftist. Obama's campaign had fair amount of patriotism--perhaps it could have used more, but my memory is there was talk about "the American thing to do."

The NYT has taken to using liberal and left as synonyms. They describe abolishing the police as a "liberal" idea, and so forth. I find this both frustrating and inaccurate.

Conservative and rightist are also not the same thing. David Brooks and Ross Douthat are conservatives; Q and white militias are rightist. And, on the matter of right-wing patriotism, it's well to remember that they seem to think the Confederate and American flags are some equivalent symbols somehow saying the same thing.

On the main point, I do wish liberals would resort more to patriotic themes, especially against this president.

John said...

That's all true; I suppose what bugs me is that lately what used to be liberal organs and institutions, like the Times and the Democratic National Committee, have been embracing anti-American rhetoric that used to be confined to people farther left.

David said...

I would agree. Something that bugs me--and I admit others may not feel the same way--is the supine national reaction to Russian political interference. My feelings have nothing to do with whether the Russians can actually sway elections or whether there was any collusion between Russian agents and the Trump campaign. I'm just shocked more Americans aren't enraged by the idea that a foreign power would presume to even try to manipulate us like this and get away with it. I'm especially amazed that the Republicans, supposedly the patriot party, have been so complacent about it, and right from the start.

I'm aware we've been doing this to other countries for years. But patriotism isn't about consistency, and inconsistency has never stopped our patriots in the past. Not to mention that part of the Republican Party's core identity is, or used to be, that they despised the very act of caring about moral inconsistency in American history. Republicans are all about not accepting comeuppance.

I think it's an alarming indication that our factional hostility to each other has become more powerful that our feelings of common destiny.

JustPeachy said...

Yes! I normally vote Republican, but have voted other parties. This presidential election, back at the beginning of the candidate sorting process, I was fervently hoping the Democrats would finally run someone decent, and even though I disagreed with her on a lot of things, I really liked Gabbard. Because she was the only one on the stage who didn't seem mortified to be an American. I'd have voted for her, too.

Jennie said...

Well said, John. I wish that everyone with a Biden sign in their front yard would also fly the American flag.