On patriotism

Loving our country requires perseverance and devotion to our founding creed of liberty and equality – and more.

Picture a patriot. What comes to you? Maybe your mind’s eye reflexively summons those who fought for the cause of liberty: a Minuteman halting the British at the Old North Bridge; a Union soldier holding the line at Gettysburg; Marines lifting Old Glory on a craggy Pacific island.
Or maybe you conjure other varieties of freedom fighters: conductors on the Underground Railroad; Freedom Riders busing along perilous Southern roadways; a King whose dream still resonates across our land.
Reflecting further, maybe you see presidents lifting up the nation during crisis; triumphant athletes in red, white, and blue; motorcyclists flanking grieving military families; protestors on the public square; or even, simply, a neighbor lowering and folding her front-porch flag at sundown.
Each of these images is valid. Each conveys a distinct contour of patriotism, popular or otherwise, that is ingrained in our American consciousness. It’s appropriate, too, that our descriptions and definitions of American patriotism are robust, plentiful as well as diverse: Compared with the rest of the world, we Americans spend lots of time thinking about and debating what is patriotic. The World Values Survey, for instance, always finds that Americans are at or near the top in expressing pride in our nationality. 
It might be surprising to hear, then, that polls taken at the same time have consistently found that patriotism is on the decline in the United States. An annual Gallup survey on the topic, for instance, found that 70 percent of us were “extremely proud” to be Americans in 2003. By 2019, the number had skidded to a mere 47 percent.
Perhaps some of the decline is due to our increasingly polarized politics. In a time of extreme partisanship, it’s almost reflexive to conflate the country with its leaders, for good or for bad. An American whose patriotism is contingent on whether their party is in power, though, is a partisan, not a patriot.
Second, as we are well aware, patriotism can be twisted to fit all sorts of partisan frames – but, as we also are well aware, obedience to an ideology or its actors is not the same as loving our country.
Third, part of the decline is certainly from some citizens’ reticence to embrace the overt, populist brand of star-spangled adulation, a love-it-or-leave-it fervor that forces one on one side of an arbitrary, yet very bright line. And finally, some point to the cosmopolitan nature of our increasingly interconnected world as proof that national loyalty is steadily becoming obsolete. 
It must not. Patriotism, regardless of our politics, is an indispensable ingredient that strengthens our social bonds, solidifies our mutuality, and shapes our common purpose. Patriotism is absolutely necessary as we carry our democratic experiment forward. It also is not simple: Unlike most other nations, which forge their origins and ethos in a common language, culture, and ethnicity, the United States was created from a moral ideal.
Naturally, then, this is the most durable strand of our patriotism – America-as-idea. This aspirational patriotism drives us, unceasingly, toward that often-mentioned, never-attained “more perfect union.” America-as-idea flows immaculately from our national spirit: the United States, and her people, champion liberty and justice for all, above all.
This is remarkable, especially since in the course of more than two centuries our country has gone from 13 eastern states to a continent-spanning 50 (plus territories). History is full of nations that were irreparably damaged by expansion, ambition, and growth. Yet equality and democracy have not become more abstract in America as we have advanced. Our founding principles persist. They still form the core of our patriotism.
Yet, we know there has to be more. It can’t just be a set of intangibles, can it?
That is why we also find patriotism in other ways. We find it in our singular traditions. We find it our distinct (and also unwieldy) culture. We find it in the very spaces across this continent on which we live. And, above all, we find it in our shared story: In the nearly 250 years since the Revolution, we have assembled a historical account to complement and challenge the abstract values given to us by the Founders.
We’ve all been shaped by this history: the sacrifices of war; the shame of slavery; the suffering of the Great Depression; the triumph of modern innovation; the daring that took us to the moon.
This story is fundamental to our American identity. It is America-as-foundation. It matters. With such racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse citizens, these two concepts of patriotism can be unanimous in many ways and at the same time fragmented by region, station, and culture. It can be both local and national. It can stretch across time and space and continue to blend our modern culture with our founding creed. 
Through it all, American patriotism can be incredibly hard to define, which is probably why we spend so much time talking about it. But this much is clear: An America that swings wildly between a puffed-up vision of an infallible, righteous power at one extreme to an ill-natured, self-loathing union at the other is not an America that is long for this world. 
Our patriotism, at its best, is both aspirational and inspirational, inclusive and exceptional. American patriotism – a clear-headed, sincere patriotism – reckons with and reflects on our national ideals and foundations. It is an acknowledgment that America is an imperfect, yet consequential nation. And it tells us that, as patriots, it is our responsibility to sustain it.

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