Why Many Americans Are Averse to Unironic Expressions of Patriotism

Cynical leaders use flag-waving as a way to manipulate.

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Pat Sajak, longtime host of Wheel of Fortune, recently taped an episode featuring contestants drawn from active-duty members of the United States military. Observing their dedication, patriotism, and willingness to serve and sacrifice, he was moved to voice his concerns about a divide he perceives in the America.

"I’m not talking about a political divide or a racial divide, but a divide based on — how to best phrase it? — an emotional investment in our nation," he wrote. "The two Americas I see are the one populated by those who truly think of this nation as exceptional and who are comfortable with patriotic themes and moved by the majesty of the founding documents, and the one populated by those who find all that rather uncomfortable or, perhaps worse, don’t ever think about those things at all. Is it just our cynical Twitter age? Is it our political class? Our educational system? Is it our modern media? Is it an all-volunteer military? Is it a populace drowning in mind-numbing digital playthings?  Why do so many people seem detached from our nation and all it stands for?"

Similar worries are widespread among a subset of Americans, many of them political conservatives. As the comments beneath Sajak's post illustrate, their earnest concern hasn't helped them to see the subject clearly, or to identify why some Americans are put off by displays of patriotism that other Americans venerate. The most significant explanation is simple. Confronted with displays of patriotism, many Americans react with ironic distance as a defense mechanism. They are wary that cynical actors are exploiting patriotic impulses and symbols as tools of manipulation because cynical actors frequently do just that.

Ironic detachment isn't high on my list of worrisome problems the United States faces. But those who worry about such things ought to identify the real culprits. They shouldn't blame the zeitgeist, or the education system, or the modern media. 

They ought to blame patriotism-baiters, or those who try to gain an illegitimate advantage in political debates, electoral campaigns, and legislative fights by acting as though the side one takes indicates how much one loves the United States. In recent history, the most glaring example of this dishonorable tactic was the governing majority's decision to label controversial changes in national security policy passed after the September 11 terrorist attacks "the USA Patriot Act." Lots of people who love the United States regard the Patriot Act as an abomination. I regard certain of its provisions as a stark betrayal of America's founding ideals. (I think Thomas Jefferson would sooner burn an American flag than endorse it.) As the word "patriot" came to be associated with the Patriot Act, the word's connotation changed, yet conservatives aren't upset with the patriotism-baiters who are responsible. They favored the legislation, so they were happy to exploit the concept of patriotism to pass it and benefit politically from doing so.

The passage of the Patriot Act is hardly the only instance justifying cynicism about those who irrationally invoke patriotism in political debates. Longtime readers of National Review will recall an infamous column by a prominent Iraq War supporter that charged opponents of an invasion of acting from unpatriotic motives. Nor are conservatives alone in patriotism-baiting. Here's a Daily Kos contributor arguing that conservatives are unpatriotic in part because some of them opposed federalizing airport security. Stepping back, American and world history is rife with examples of bad actors distorting and exploiting the patriotic impulses of the masses. Unthinking patriotism has contributed to millions of horrific deaths. The impulse to temper it with skepticism is a healthy one, and going too far in that direction has never resulted in any calamity. 

A final reason for the backlash against uncritical patriotism is the tendency of those who invoke American exceptionalism to blind themselves to U.S. misdeeds. It is one thing to believe that America's history and founding principles are exceptional, and another thing — deluded and profoundly unconservative — to believe that the U.S. is inoculated against acting badly, or is justified in doing things that Americans would condemn if anyone else did them. 

Throughout its history, millions of Americans have betrayed the ideals of the Declaration in various ways. Almost always, those bad actors did so while waving the flag, posing as patriots, or viciously impugning the patriotism of their critics. Most Americans are perfectly willing to concede that description applies to champions of slavery, advocates of genocide against Native Americans, the shameful internment of Japanese Americans, Jim Crow defenders, and McCarthyists. They cannot and do not deny unsavory parts of U.S. history, and even celebrate contemporaneous critics of those policies as patriots. As they see it, Martin Luther King, to take one example, was a great American patriot.

But humans are typically better able to see the need for radical critiques of past injustices, and less willing to countenance critiques aimed at contemporary injustices, in part because they believe we're more morally enlighetend than folks in the past. America has experienced moral progress in various areas, but the need for dissent is not behind us. Human nature has not changed and today's Americans are not immune to bad acts. We must always worry about being blind to them or corrupted by power or fear. Yet the majority of Americans can hardly conceive of a future where staunch critics of today's policies are regarded as forward-thinking patriots, even knowing how many times it has happened before. 

At present, I am critical of many U.S. policies, and aware of a correlation between people who are less critical and people who invoke patriotic symbols and rhetoric as if it is the same as championing American principles. In the long term, I believe America will continue to improve itself. My faith in that proposition is inseparable from my love of country and my belief that, a quarter century hence, a majority will look back on the post-9/11 years with deep misgivings, celebrating as patriots the people who offered values-based dissents against water-boarding, indefinite detention, secret kill lists, and massive spying on innocents. Today, insofar as supporters of those policies act as if patriotism explains their positions, they continue to stoke cynicism about its trappings and to prompt ironic distance among those who love their country but want to make clear that much of what it's doing is not being done with their consent or blessing. In this view, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have both carried out un-American policies while wearing their American-flag lapel pins, and their critics will be damned if they're going to wave the same exploited, co-opted symbol.

Says Sajak, "Why do so many seem blissfully unaware of the opportunities America has provided to countless millions?" In fact, there is widespread awareness of those opportunities, but celebrating them in no way requires draping oneself in politicized patriotic symbols, nor does it imply that Americans ought to be blind to the country's flaws or unwary of invocations of patriotism. In my opinion, America does more good than bad in the world, but the proportions, whatever they are, don't change the fact that we have many specific things of which to be proud and many of which to be outraged and ashamed.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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