Essay Series on Patriotism: Second Essay, “A Friendly Quarrel between Two Patriotic Smiths”

This is the second 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.

Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of That is Not Who We Are! Populism and Peoplehood.

Steven B. Smith’s conception of patriotism and his defense of it are both reasonable and valuable in an era when, as he observes, critics and champions of patriotism alike all too often equate it with ethno-nationalism. Nonetheless, my view of patriotism differs in ways that may be useful to delineate, even though our conceptions converge on many, probably most, practical questions. In brief, S. Smith sees patriotism as most akin to family loyalty. R. Smith sees patriotism as most akin to partisan loyalty. S. Smith views patriotism as fundamentally loyalty to an ethos that expresses what a society regards as admirable. R. Smith sees patriotism fundamentally as loyalty to a project to achieve what a society regards as admirable. As a result, I think R. Smith’s view of patriotism more naturally fosters both civic service and civic criticism, which are both desirable. I acknowledge, however, that S. Smith’s view of patriotism may capture better what most people feel their patriotism involves.

S. Smith observes correctly that the word “patriotism” derives from the Greek term for the place of one’s ancestors, linking it etymologically to family. He holds, however, that this only identifies patriotism as a form of loyalty, not necessarily to one’s ancestors; and he argues that in America, at least, the loyalty of patriotism is “loyalty to a particular constitutional order.” He nonetheless returns to the contention that patriotic loyalty “is something like family loyalty,” because he wants to insist that one can love one’s country, like one’s family, wholeheartedly without being chauvinistic, without thinking that it is “better than all others.” He maintains, very sensibly, that this quasi-familial patriotic loyalty justifies giving priority to the interests of one’s country, but it does not dictate “indifference or hostility to others” or policies of “isolationism or economic protectionism.”

Yet S. Smith’s turn, or return, to familial loyalty as a metaphor for patriotism raises a question. If patriotic loyalty is “loyalty to a particular constitutional order,” how should we think about that constitutional order? “We the people” who created the Constitution might perhaps resemble a family, but the constitutional order itself is surely something different. It also is something more than the “ethos,” the “character or tone of a regime” which Smith invokes, though it may both embody and foster that ethos. If the constitutional order that is the object of patriotic loyalty is not family or ethos, what is it?

It may seem natural to think of that order as akin to an ancestral home that the family of patriots inhabits. Our homes are, after all, among our most valuable possessions, in both material and emotional terms. They give us shelter and spaces for cherished forms of shared living, so that family homes are often objects of deep attachments as matters of both “head and heart.” Families generally see their homes as things they wish to care for and maintain, and at times to enhance; and often they hope to pass them on to their descendants. It is therefore not surprising that Abraham Lincoln, the American statesman most admired by both Smiths, spoke of America’s constitutional order as “a house divided” in one of his greatest speeches. 

Lincoln, however, also described that order using a different and, I suggest, a more apt metaphor. He called it the “frame” for America’s “apple of gold,” the Declaration of Independence. He viewed the Declaration of Independence  as calling on Americans to do more with their constitutional order than faithful home maintenance. In a famous passage that Lincoln often repeated, but that is still not as famous as it should be, he said the Declaration set a “maxim” for the American people’s “future use” that should be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated,” thereby “constantly spreading and deepening its influence” and “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” The Constitution itself, while establishing goals we might associate with family homes, such as “domestic tranquility,” the “general Welfare,” and even “common defence,” also states aims to “establish justice” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty”—that go well beyond what most realtors promise in housing listings.

That is because a constitutional order is not simply a home for a people. In its creation, operation, and development, it is inescapably a political project. It constitutes structures of political power that, to be legitimate, must be used to secure not only tranquility and welfare but also justice and liberty, or at least, so both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution maintain. Patriotism in America is therefore loyalty not just to a particular constitutional order, but to a political project, and one that is distinct from the political projects established by the constitutional orders of other countries, though it shares many goals and principles with a large (but, I fear, now declining) number of them. 

That is why I have previously suggested that particular patriotic communities, viewed from the perspective of humanity as a whole, are less like families than they are like distinct political parties. They are ineradicably political creations that seek to wield power in ways they promise will be just and beneficial for certain shared goals. They do so in a world that inevitably includes rivals for power with which they compete for popular support and for control of governing institutions. Like political parties within modern regimes, political communities and their constitutional orders are both indispensable for advancing human well-being and at the same time potential sources of terrible abuses and tyrannies. 

Candidly, my claim that the world’s constitutional orders and their members are more analogous to political parties than they are to families has not been too well received. Especially in modern America, where many millions feel no great zeal for any political party, and those who do often seem more dangerous than desirable, to equate patriotism with party loyalty can seem not only unconvincing but actually demeaning toward the emotional love of country that many still feel strongly. It is more comfortable to think of American patriotism as reverence for the admirable Father Abraham than it is to see it as a partisan endeavor seeking to advance America’s constitutional republicanism amidst the contrasting orders and aims of other lands. 

Realistically, however, precisely because they put the interests of their own members first, constitutional orders are undeniably partisan enterprises, saved from unadulterated collective selfishness, if at all, because they do accept, far more than families, responsibilities to advance justice. It would in fact be wrong to venerate Lincoln without grasping that he saw his career as dedicated to redeeming “our republican example” to the whole world, and to extending the national project by bringing forth a new birth of freedom. Moreover, if we think of patriotism and the constitutional order as akin to a loving family with a treasured home, rather than as like a political party with principles and purposes, we make ourselves less conscious of the responsibilities of patriotic citizenship. It is perfectly fine for a person to love her family, warts and all, without seeking to change it, and to love her family home, while only getting the plumbing fixed and brushing up the paint from time to time. A member of a political party that seeks to capture and exercise governing power, however, shares responsibility not just for being loyal to the party, but for judging whether it really is acting in just and beneficial ways. If she thinks it is, she has a responsibility to vote for it and, to some degree, to advocate and work for its success. If she thinks it is not, she has a responsibility to criticize it and try to change it, perhaps even to leave it. 

Similarly, a patriotic citizen ought not simply to love her country as she does her family.  She must judge critically whether its political project really merits her support. If it does not, she should support change; if it does, she should accept a reasonable share of responsibility for helping it succeed. To be sure, since the project of America’s constitutional order is to secure rights for many sorts of pursuits of happiness, patriotism here need not mean undertaking a life of constant political activism. Priorities for faith, work, family, and exploration and enjoyment of the world are all perfectly legitimate. However, patriots cannot rightly have such uncritical love for their constitutional order or their country as most of us have for our families. In caring for that constitutional order, they also have greater responsibilities to engage not just in home maintenance but home improvement. 

Again, on many practical issues, the views of patriotism of Smith and Smith are (shockingly) not too different. One perhaps places more stress on the feelings of loyalty, the other on the objects of loyalty. We may hope that both views can help patriotism to be the best that it can be. 

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