Questioning the Role of Patriotism in American Politics

A collectivist sense of nationalism permeates much of American identity, especially among those running for high office


Reuters/Jim Young

Almost all Americans profess pride in being American, by way of expressing their patriotism. We are indeed a patriotic bunch, although (except for the naturalized citizens among us) we are also a deceptively aristocratic one, taking credit for accidents of birth. Sometimes our patriotism seems rather un-American, encouraging the derivation of individual identity from birthright and membership. It's not easily reconciled with ideals of individual autonomy. That, at least, is patriotism in its most shallow form, which is usually on display in presidential campaigns.

Presidential candidates are particularly proudly, vociferously, and thoughtlessly patriotic. Like Mitt Romney, they all profess to "believe in America," pledge commitment to its greatness, treat the flag as a talisman (requiring that we do the same) request and expect God to bless us, and posthumously congratulate the young men and women sent to die for their country, right or wrong. Patriotism is "the spirit that says, send me, no matter the mission ... no matter the risk ... no matter how great the sacrifice I am called to make," President Obama declared in his 2011 Memorial Day speech.

It is considered unpatriotic, insensitive, and grievously insulting to the families of the killed and wounded to question the value and purposes of these sacrifices. But with the nation embroiled in three wars, perhaps embarking on a fourth, and, despite the increased use of mercenaries, still dependent on volunteer warriors, we might question the virtues of such patriotism.

"Young men die for old men's mistakes," my late uncle, a World War II vet, used to say. A German-speaking Jew, he survived a German POW camp by passing as a German-American. He kept his medals mounted on the wall, wrote a searing play about his experiences as a POW, and voted only once or twice in 60 years, having learned, he explained, that he could only depend on himself to survive, a lesson that cost him greatly: "I saw too much too young," he said.

I'm not suggesting that his experiences or perspectives were typical, but they do illustrate the tension between the collectivist spirit of patriotism that Americans expect of each other and the individualism in which they also take pride. We're capable of entertaining contradictory ideals and self-images simultaneously, professing loyalty to a country and community without being entirely defined or directed by it. The tension is not generally overwhelming or even overt -- until your community fails you, or when you recognize a choice between conscience and country. In essence, patriotic individualism is an oxymoron.

The dissonance it generates partly explains the inconsistencies and incoherence of our debates about entitlements, health care, taxes, and disaster relief. When the president addressed the devastated residents of Joplin, Missouri he assured them that "this is not just [their] tragedy," that "we" would not forget them and "we" would help them recover. Will "we" also continue funding Medicaid, Head Start, and public education, among other social welfare programs?

"Who's we?" I imagine some red-state recipients of disaster relief and advocates of limited government responding. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has questioned the Republican commitment to American exceptionalism, by which she meant a commitment to economic policies that benefit working and middle class families. It's a fundamental question about the peaceful uses of patriotism and the question I'd pose in the next presidential debate: "Who's we?"