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.