Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He is the author of Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes.
On the evening that Joe Biden claimed his presidential victory over Donald Trump, he reprised a trope that Barack Obama made famous at the Democratic national convention in 2004. “There are no red states, no blue states,” Biden told an adoring crowd, “just the United States.” The idea that we are all one people – going back to the Constitution’s promise “to form a more perfect Union” – has always been more of an aspiration than a reality.
President Biden’s plea for national unity is – or should be – a call to embrace patriotism. But in a country increasingly divided by geography, ethnicity, education, culture, and even our understanding of “facts,” what is the source of unity? Patriotism is today, as it has always been, a contested political virtue. Those on the right are eager to embrace it by setting themselves in opposition to multiculturalism and identity politics; those on the left renounce it as tainted by racism and xenophobia.
So far Biden has governed from the left wing of this party but to show himself a true unifier, he needs to take a cue from Bill Clinton. He needs a Sister Souljah moment.
Sister Souljah (née Lisa Williamson) was a rap artist whose song “The Final Solution: Slavery’s Back in Effect” – the title itself carries deeply anti-Semitic overtones – defended black on white violence in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton denounced her rhetoric as racist not different in kind from that of KKK leader David Duke. Clinton was roundly criticized by the left wing of his party but since that time Clinton’s act has come to symbolize someone willing to call out extremist elements within one’s own political party.
Since that time, left wing extremism has only gained ground within the Democratic Party. The most recent example of this extremism has been the “cancel culture” movement that has become a leading objective of the progressive wing of the party. This began with the demand to remove monuments to Confederate war heroes from public spaces and even from the names of U.S. military bases. At Yale University where I teach, one of the undergraduate residential colleges formerly named for John C. Calhoun was renamed amid a great public flurry.
What began by dismantling the legacy of the rebellion has turned into an all-out assault on the very union the rebels sought to overturn. This has been promoted by the 1619 Project promoted by the New York Times that attempts to find slavery and incurable racism as the foundation of American society. Previous icons of American history – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson, to name just the most prominent – have all been targeted for erasure from public life. In New Haven, a statue of Christopher Columbus that stood in Wooster Square in the heart of the old Italian neighborhood was removed last year at the behest of the mayor.
A recent example of this public erasure was the 6-1 decision by the San Francisco school board to remove the names of Washington, Lincoln, and even Senator Diane Feinstein from city schools for a variety of perceived sins. This hostility to American leaders and institutions is the result of a highly selective and one-sided reading of our national past that is only gaining in public strength.
Biden does not have the right to overturn the decisions of area school boards however egregious they might be, but he does have the authority to call out these extremist tendencies that can only lead to a further breakdown of public trust in our governing institutions. “What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. In obliterating our past, we only impoverish our future.
Biden’s strength as a leader has always been his capacity for empathy, but he needs to show that both his sentiments and his policies not only respond to the needs of the moment but are rooted in a larger historical vision of America. Ronald Reagan did this by successfully appropriating John Winthrop’s biblical image of America as a “city on a hill.” Biden should appropriate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and its image of America as a land “dedicated to the proposition” of human equality. By using the words dedicate and dedicated – six times in a speech of only 272 words – Lincoln emphasized that our national goals could only be achieved through commitment, struggle, and sacrifice.
The President needs to push back against the counter-narrative that America is founded on and marked by persistent racism. He should begin by vigorously calling out those voices demanding the erasure of historical figures from our national landscape, censoring a beloved children’s book by Dr. Seuss, and the summary termination of a Georgetown law professor for remarks deemed racially insensitive, to name just a few examples. Ironically, the racialist narrative is embraced both by the left that sees it as a reason to erase the past and the right that sees it as a defense of whiteness. Racism is, to be sure, an irreparable stain on American national character but it is not the essence of America.
To be sure, patriotism requires us not only to take moral pride in our national accomplishments but also to feel moral shame for our failures. Pride and shame are the two sides of patriotism and it is inconceivable without them. There has never been a true moral reckoning with the legacy of slavery. For too long it has remained a guilty secret that dare not speak its name, but this is no reason to bury our past in opprobrium. For one reason, this simple, one-sided moralism denies or diminishes the generations of Americans – black and white – to broaden the conception of the American family.
But most of all, any true and effective patriotism has its foundations in a people’s collective memory, what it looks up to, what it aspires to be. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” are the last words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton. True patriotism exists in the recollection of our shared history—the triumphs and the setbacks that make for one united people.