Essay Series on Patriotism: First Essay, Is Patriotism Worth Preserving?

This is the first in a series of several essays by different authors on the issue of patriotism. This series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom.

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.  In a country increasingly divided by geography, ethnicity, education, culture, and even our understanding of “facts,” what is the source of national unity?

The idea that we share a common history held together by a collective memory is at the source of the disposition we call patriotism.  Patriotism is an old, even an ancient, disposition.  The word goes back to the Greek patris (place of one’s ancestors) and the Latin patria (fatherland).  Broadly associated with “love of country,” the idea of patriotism raises many questions.  Like every form of love, patriotism is partly determined by the object of its affection.  Is love of country unconditional – my country right or wrong – or is it dependent on its meeting certain standards? 

Today, patriotism finds itself in a double bind.  In my book, I examine patriotism on a continuum of political sensibilities from the left to the right. On the right, patriotism must be distinguished from nationalism.  Nationalism and patriotism initially grow out of a legitimate desire for self-determination, but over time nationalism has morphed into an ideology of grievance and resentment.  It has become a weapon for determining who is in and who is out, who is a real American and who is not.  Nationalist stories are typically narratives of treason and betrayal by unscrupulous elites, in which listeners are encouraged to feel contempt for fellow citizens who fall outside the dominant ethnic group.  Nationalists seek the warmth of community but always at the expense of an out-group, who are deemed un-American, traitors, and enemies of the people. 

On the left, the critique of patriotism is undertaken by multiculturalism and “identity politics.”  Multiculturalism was originally an academic theory that sought to give voice to previously under-represented minorities — women, African-Americans, gays — but over time has morphed into a race for victim status.  The 1619 Project promoted by the New York Times dates the American founding from the time when twenty African slaves were sold to the Jamestown Colony in Virginia.  On this account American history – even the American revolution – is presented as based upon persistent racial oppression and hierarchy. One reason I cannot accept this view is that it denies the efforts of generations of Americans – black and white – in their struggle to achieve a more perfect union.  Slavery is an irreparable stain on America but it is not the essence of America.

So how does patriotism differ?

Patriotism is, above all, a form of loyalty.  We admire loyalty to family, friends, sports teams, even institutions – up to a point.  Yet loyalty also sits uneasily with other qualities that we equally admire, qualities such as fairness, justice, mercy, equality, and open-mindedness.  These do not always sit easily together.   There seems something primitive, almost primordial, about loyalty, almost like the Mafia code of omertà

Loyalty – to parody the political philosopher John Rawls – is the first virtue of social institutions.  Without it, our collective life could not last a single day.  Loyalty is an affirmation of what we care about.  Our cares are not momentary whims or desires but more like a structure of loyalties.  We are loyal to the things we care about and care about those to which we remain loyal.  Our cares make our lives more than a series of discrete and disconnected events in time, but provide a sense of wholeness and meaning.  What we care about defines the kind of persons we are or wish to be.

Patriotism is ultimately a form of constitutional loyalty.  It is not simply loyalty to the people of the United States but loyalty to a particular constitutional order, what we call a liberal democracy or a constitutional democracy.  A change of constitution – not just a change of administrations – would require a change of loyalty.  A fascist or communist America would no longer be the regime established by the Constitution and therefore would no longer serve as the basis of citizen loyalty. It would be the same country but it would be a different America.

Loyalty to a constitutional order is a matter of both of head and heart.  It is an ethos or what Tocqueville called a “habit of the heart.”  An ethos is not just a manner of thinking but of feeling.  The idea that patriotism is not just a matter of the head but the heart suggests that it is deeply ingrained in our moral sentiments and dispositions.  Tocqueville’s appeal to the heart was clearly drawing on the work of an earlier French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who believed that knowing is a matter of both reason and faith.  “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know,” Pascal wrote in his Penseés.

The ethos of a society embodies those traits of character that are looked up to as normative for the community.  Those human beings who best embody the admired traits and characteristics are those deemed best fit to occupy positions of public trust.  Regarding certain character traits as admirable or worthy of emulation, every regime implicitly admits the superiority of some specific human type whether this be the aristocrat, the priest, the warrior, the entrepreneur, or the common man.  Theethos describes the character or tone of a regime, what it finds most worthy of admiration, what it looks up to.  This is not to say that any community will be composed of identical human types but that they will possess distinct features that form their national character. 

The idea of ethos patriotism runs into an evident difficulty.  Doesn’t loyalty to one country or way of life stand in contradiction with the principles of equality and moral inclusiveness that are equally part of American patriotism?  How can I regard all persons as equal if my loyalties are to my country alone?  Where is the line drawn between what we owe to fellow citizens and what we owe to fellow human beings who may be experiencing pain and suffering?  Some version of this question is at the core of our current debates about border security and immigration.  Are we at bottom a nation of immigrants who welcome the stranger — “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” in Emma Lazarus’ deathless phrase — or do we require a border wall as a way of protecting our national sovereignty?  How broadly or narrowly do we draw the line?  In defining ourselves too broadly we risk losing our ethos; in defining ourselves too narrowly we risk losing our humanity. 

The fear is that ethos patriotism leads to an insular vision of fortress America, an embattled island in a sea of moral and political chaos.  This is not an irrational fear.  Nevertheless, loyalty to country does not require me to be indifferent, much less hostile, to the needs of others.  Loyalty to country is something like family loyalty.  This does not require me to think that my family is better than all others.  I may love my only family best but this does not require to despise others.  It does, however, require me to give some moral preference to my family over all others.  My preference for my child, my wish to see him get into a good school, have a satisfying career, to prosper and succeed, is not some immoral desire to see him win at all costs, much less a wish that all others should fail.  I would rather be failing in my duty as a parent if I were to regard his interests behind some kind of artificially imposed veil of ignorance.  At the same time, I would equally fail if I did not try to instill some conception of fair play and justice. 

What is true about loyalty to family holds true for loyalty to larger units like states.  Partiality for my own country need not lead to indifference or hostility to others.  Except for times of war, rarely do we find ourselves locked in a zero-sum game where what’s good for one is bad for the other.  There is nothing shameful in attending to our own interests first, the interests of American workers and farmers.  We look after others better when we first look out for ourselves.  This is not a recipe for isolationism or economic protectionism.  The well-being of our own country, just like our neighborhood, is dependent on the well-being of the people around us. Hillel’s famous dictum, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” is not simply a statement of individual responsibility but of social obligation that puts fellow citizens at the top of our list of priorities.

Patriotism requires us not only to take justified 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 the guilty secret that dare not speak its name, but this is no reason to bury our past in opprobrium.  One reason I cannot accept this simple, one-sided moralism is that it denies or diminishes the efforts of 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.

The theme of patriotism is invariably connected with the problem of conflicting loyalties.  Our loyalties are never simple and one-dimensional.  As creatures with multiple identities, we are bound to have multiple allegiances.  Does love of country trump all other loyalties?  As any reader of Sophocles’s Antigone will instantly recognize, the conflict between loyalty to family and loyalty to country is as old as Western literature.

This problem of conflicting loyalties was addressed by Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War when he met with Eliza P. Gurney in the White House in September 1862 about the dilemma faced by the Quakers who supported emancipation but were opposed to war. In a moving letter written almost two years after their meeting, Lincoln expressed sympathy with their dilemma:  “Your people – the Friends – have had, and are having, a very great trial.  On principle and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war.  In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn and some the other.”

Lincoln here recognized that there was no simple answer to the problem of conflicting loyalties.  Perhaps most revealingly, he refrained from interjecting himself in this dilemma.  “For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds,” he wrote, “I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law.”  Even Lincoln, our most philosophically-minded commander-in-chief, could not entirely find a way out of this dilemma.

Like much else in our public lives, patriotism has become deeply politicized.  It would be easy, as we witness the rise of ethno-nationalism in various parts of the world to reject patriotism as tainted with xenophobia, racism, and other forms of ethnic and religious bigotry.  But things are not so simple.  These are not expressions of patriotism but perversions of it.  If patriotism misused can be harsh and punitive, at its best it can be elevating and ennobling.  When rightly expressed, patriotism supports the virtues of civility, respect for law, tolerance, honor, responsibility, courage, and sacrifice – all virtues worth having and cultivating.  Like every form of virtue, patriotism must be taught.  The only question is, who will be its teachers.  Will it be harsh and punitive or humane and enlightened?  There is no third option.  

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