Primary season is fully upon us, and now the Fourth of July is here. Seasoned political observers know what to expect from the candidates—a dozen or so very ambitious people, flag-pinned and furrow-browed, speaking earnestly about their love for America. Patriotic sentiment is a sine qua non for successful presidential bids, especially on the right—recall the overblown election-year dustup over candidate Obama’s inconsistent wearing of his lapel flag pin.
The fact that it was the liberal candidate whose patriotism was under question is significant. It is widely assumed, at least among conservatives, that those on the right are more patriotic than those on the left. This narrative contrasts rooted, rural, America-loving conservatives with cosmopolitan urban liberals who look down their sophisticated noses at flag-waving sentimentality. Like many stereotypes, these bear an element of truth. The cultural habits of so-called liberal elites can tend to be more European than distinctively American—one suspects that the average Yale professor would feel more at home in Paris, France than Paris, Texas. More importantly, anti-flyover-country snobbishhness is not a mere figment of the conservative imagination. During two years of study at Yale, my head was not-infrequently sent spinning by the ignorant dismissal of all things non-coastal by supposedly urbane Ivy Leaguers.
Granting all of this, the left-right patriotism gap is still not so clear-cut as it is often assumed to be, in part because the relationship between tribalism in general, and patriotism in particular, is a complicated one. Particularly in America. Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British statesman, critic of the French Revolution, and philosophical father of modern conservatism, defended tribalism in general by arguing that loyalty to our “little platoons”—things like family, region, religion, class—is in fact the “germ” of wider public affections, which ought gradually to grow to embrace our entire nation, and then all of mankind. According to Burke, these smaller loyalties come relatively easily. Love for things like nation and humanity do not. They must be cultivated over time.
If this was true of Burke’s England, it is true of our America, a nation that is dizzyingly vast and scattered. Americans sometimes speak of September 12, 2001 with a hint of nostalgia. For a little while we felt like a single, unified nation. But lacking an immediate, existential threat, what do we have to tie us together? What common thread connects a New York stock trader, a Montana cattle rancher, a California migrant farmworker, a Beacon Hill Brahmin? Put more generally, what constitutes our shared American identity, the thing that we love when we love America?
The traditional markers of national identity struggle to find purchase in America. A common history? That’s a bit of a stretch. America is a nation of immigrants, constituted by waves upon waves of new arrivals from multiple, far-flung points of origin. If anything, we share an adopted history, which is considerably less powerful than a biological one. A common language? Perhaps, but English is not only borrowed from the British Isles, it is increasingly the lingua franca of the entire global economy. Speaking English is not much of an identity marker these days. A common geography? Unlikely. The American landscape contains craggy coastline, verdant hill country, deserts, plains and everglades. The bayou is a very long way from the badlands.
But if things like blood, soil, language and history cannot bind Americans together, perhaps we can point to a shared philosophy. It has been suggested that American-ness is a uniquely abstract identity, one built on a set of common values like liberty, equality and fraternity. There is some significant truth to this. But of course, there is wide divergence in the manner and degree to which Americans embrace these values. And even further, the rather American-sounding trio of liberty, fraternity and equality was the rallying cry of the French revolution. Our “American” values, with minor variations, are now very widely shared. All things considered, many honest Americans struggle to understand who, precisely, we are.
None of this means that a thoroughgoing American patriotism is impossible. But it can be particularly difficult. Most of us are more animated by our local loyalties, our affections for the people, places and customs that we know best, whether we are liberal Bostonians, conservative Oklahomans, or something else entirely. And that’s fine. Edmund Burke, for one—ever modest about the human potential for change—would probably nod forgivingly.
And yet, if all this is correct, the question still remains: have conservatives in general outstripped liberals along the long path to American patriotism? Let’s say perhaps. But perhaps not so much as the politicians suggest. If one listens closely enough to some of the throatiest patriotic rhetoric on the right, it can come to seem that the actual object of affection is not America, but a very particular, idealized version of it – what’s referred to as “the real America.” So we hear that America is fundamentally a religious nation, or a land of small towns, or a land of innovation, opportunity, optimism, individual liberty, hard work, or whatever.
In fact, America is all of these things, and a great deal more. And while there’s nothing wrong with preferring certain parts of American culture over others, to pretend that one’s favorite parts constitute the real America—in contrast, say, to Manhattan or Berkeley—allows for a facile, dishonest patriotism. America is, among other things, a deeply western—that is to say, European—satellite. Brie, chablis and Flaubert are a part of our American patrimony, and to love them is not to scorn America. It is to love a different, if less central, part of it. A really comprehensive, authentic patriotism would need to embrace America as it actually is, including the portions that make each of us uncomfortable. That, Edmund Burke would tell us, is precisely why patriotism is so difficult.
So, then, in the humble spirit of an 18th century European writer, statesman, orator and intellectual, let’s all raise our glasses, flutes, bottles and cans to America the vexing, vast and, still, somehow, beautiful.