The stitches we sew into patriotism in America
It is a sweltering July fourth anywhere in America. Families, friends, and people of all ages and ethnicities gather across picnic blankets, wearing the colors of the American flag, and listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as they wait for the start of the fireworks. They sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and applaud at the end of the ceremony.
January 6th, 2021: a raucous crowd surrounds the Capitol, stomping its feet and waving banners and flags of red white, and blue. Except that the atmosphere is not carefree. Anger pervades, and red baseball caps featuring the slogan “Make America Great Again” can be seen on every corner. Soon, a riot will begin, shattering the foundations of American democracy to its core.
People gathered in these crowds all see themselves as American patriots. And yet, their idea of patriotism could not be more different. The July 4th patriotism is inclusive, friendly, and not especially political. The second is angry, violent, and aligned with a particular political agenda. With America’s growing political divisions, patriotism morphs into nationalism. Rather than national unity as a common principle, these American citizens view themselves as the sole proprietors of the national spirit.
We are caught in a storm with no clear end. When will calmer winds prevail and the country find unity again? And what can young Americans do to bring about a less angry, but still patriotic America?
As a country forged in rebellion against the British empire, patriotism has always been an essential element of the American spirit. Rightly or wrongly, most Americans believe their country sets an example for other nations around the world, as it represents the promise of safety, political freedom, individual rights, and a chance to pursue happiness without reference to rigid categories of caste and status. Indeed, in a recent survey, 41% of respondents agreed that “my country is the best country in the world,” while 32% asserted that the US is “better than most countries.” It is extraordinary that these patriotic feelings happily coexist with the welcoming of a large number of immigrants. In fact, immigrant citizens are often vocal in expressing their love for their country of adoption. Maria Duaime Robinson, who served as a member of the Massachusetts State House between 2019 to 2022 was born in South Korea but adopted by American parents. She shared with me what patriotism means to her: listening to others, being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and having a focus on serving the broader community.
I think everybody in politics has strong opinions, one of the things that are really important is figuring out how to sway people to think a little bit differently and that goes back to this idea of listening to your constituents, listening to others, being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, I think some folks have a really strong idea of what Patriotism means to them… I would say that it is a focus on serving others… I was a girl scout for many years and did a lot of volunteer work through my church and through my school so my vision is more service-oriented and making sure they were always serving the broader community”.
Throughout our history, a shadow of nationalism has also been present, flaring up repeatedly with serious consequences. As political scientist William Galston argues, “Nationalism, with which patriotism is often confused, stands for a very different phenomenon—the fusion […] between shared ethnicity and state sovereignty.” Examples of nationalistic episodes in our history include the rise of nativist sentiment in the 1920s which led to the closing of US borders to immigrants from “undesirable countries”; the “red scare” of the McCarthy era when citizens were put on trial for their unpopular political opinions; and the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, where domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh caused 168 deaths out of hatred for the “liberal” Federal government.
In light of history, it may sound needlessly alarmist to claim that the United States is in danger of being overtaken by nationalists. And yet, the events of January 6th, 2021 stand out as a uniquely dangerous moment—a physical assault on the seat of the US government. In spite of its ludicrous elements, the attempted coup was instigated by the defeated US President. It had the support of a militant minority who did not abandon the belief that the 2020 election had been rigged. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 60% of Republican voters believe Donald Trump’s claim that the presidential election “was stolen” from him due to widespread voter fraud. And many others who do not believe these claims have passively failed to challenge them, allowing them to become entrenched and an ongoing source of resentment. Beyond unfounded claims of electoral fraud, the insurrectionists saw themselves as patriots and borrowed heavily from traditional patriotic imagery such as the Gadsden flag which was a rallying symbol during the American revolution. Unfortunately, they also embraced the white nationalist narrative that those who do not agree with them are unauthentic Americans but instead “globalists” intent on destroying the country. Even more worrying, these beliefs persist because they are fueled by delusions created by several media outlets: 21st-century US nationalists are often convinced that the majority of the country agrees with their extreme point of view, even though this is far from the case.
To make matters worse, observing the MAGA crowd dressing in the American flag has made many young people like me suspicious of patriotic displays unless they are misinterpreted as agreeing with nationalist views. Indeed, a recent Pew Research survey indicates that 42% of Americans between the age of 18 and 29 view their own country in a more negative light than other countries. In contrast, only 10% of seniors and 14% of leaders in this generation express similar sentiments. Throughout political events, a Gallup poll states that “U.S. national pride peaked in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with at least nine in 10 Americans between 2002 and 2004 saying they were extremely or very proud”. In addition to the combined 69% of U.S. adults who are extremely or very proud, 20% say they are “moderately proud,” 6% are “only a little proud,” and 5% are “not at all proud.” The combined 11% only a little or not at all proud is down from 21% last year.” American Pride Ticks Up From Last Year’s Record Low Such a generational divide can only be observed because, for the first time in recent memory, many young Americans question whether they are safe in their own country. The survival of American democracy cannot be taken for granted anymore. I find this mood very concerning since I believe that young leaders must find a way to renew the traditions of American patriotism in the 21st century.
I am represented in congress by Jake Auchincloss, one of the youngest members of the US House of representatives. In response to my inquiries about the meaning of patriotism, he wrote back: “The great and enduring idea of America is that the circumstances of your birth should not determine the condition of your life. My patriotism is wedded to this universal principle.” I completely share this view. The flaws of our country are real, but so are the extraordinary human achievements of Americans in science, sports, and the arts. I am not ready to relinquish the flag to the MAGA crowd. I declare that this is my flag too. It stands for unity and justice for all. This should be the message of the Michelle Obama generation.