Why Many Americans Are Averse to Unironic Expressions of Patriotism

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

Mike Baird/Flickr

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. 

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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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