Essay Series on Patriotism: Fifth Essay, “What Does My Government Ask of Me?”

This is the fifth 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.

Emily Pears is Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.

Patriotism has always been a contested concept in American political life. Even early efforts at inculcating patriotism in American classrooms were met with debate and skepticism. The problem has always been that American patriotism seems to require a commitment that no one can quite define, and a loyalty that leaves us uneasy. For many of us, those inherent contradictions were laid bare on January 6th, 2021 when American citizens ransacked the US Capitol and attempted to overturn a lawful election in the name of patriotism. If those are patriots, many of us wondered, who am I?

The good news is, the patriotism our nation demands turns out to require the opposite of rebellion. Instead, America’s survival requires that we are attached to the Constitution and the institutions that undergird it. Citizenship is not an easy job, but so long as we are willing to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law even when they seem to work against our personal interests, we have fulfilled our democratic obligations.

Steven Smith points to the central problem that has always plagued American patriotism – that “patriotism is, above all, a form of loyalty” and “loyalty…sits uneasily with other qualities that we equally admire”. Weighing whether patriotism is worth preserving is far easier if we first adopt the perspective of the regime, rather than that of the citizen.  From the regime’s point of view, patriotism, or what the Founders often called “attachment” is absolutely required.  Without it, nothing adheres the people to their institutions, their foundations, or, in a regime as large as America, one another. For any democracy to survive, people must not merely feel a sense of owed loyalty to their country – they must hold deep affection for it.

In 1789, the regime’s greatest competition for its citizens’ affections came from the states themselves. Hamilton lamented in Federalist 17 that “upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large, the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter.” Outside of rare and fledgling secession movements, modern American statesmen rarely worry that citizens’ stronger attachments to their state governments will lead them to defy national institutions. But the basic principle remains true – that the nation is a distant, diffuse, and difficult object of our affections while myriad closer, more pressing, and better administered institutions compete for our loyalty.

What ultimately does the regime’s requirement for patriotism entail? As a loyal citizen do I need to fly an American flag at my home? Or shout in the faces of America’s detractors? Should I love my country more than my family? Or God? Or my state? From the Founders’ perspective, what the regime requires of its citizens is a commitment to grapple with the fundamental questions of our co-existence through, rather than against, our constitutional system. We need at the very least a strong desire to maintain and uphold the constitutional decision-making processes that form the core of our national contract. The American regime would be strengthened, certainly, if its citizens held deep, natural, permanent affection for their motherland, its founding principles, and its institutions. But one of the Founders’ many innovations was a recognition that attachments to institutions might be enough to uphold America’s democracy in the unfortunate absence of a deeper public faith. The regime depends on patriotism to survive, and ultimately has to require that citizens’ patriotic loyalties supersede their loyalties to other things. People face a harder choice – even if the regime requires patriotism, an individual’s moral or personal commitments might require protest, reform, or even revolution.

If patriotism is worth preserving, how shall we proceed? By what means can we ensure that American citizens maintain their constitutional fidelity, without inculcating the kind of blind loyalty that might lead some to ultimately, violently, betray that sacred trust? The Founders, again, left us with some sense of how attachments might be encouraged. Citizens who see their government as useful certainly are more loyal. When government serves people’s needs, defends their property, and protects, rather than infringing on, their rights, citizens are more easily compelled to see it as worthy of their affection. Participation of the deep and robust kinds similarly breeds loyalty. Tocqueville wrote that when patriotism has waned, “the most powerful means, and perhaps the only one that remains to us, of interesting men in the fate of their native country is to make them participate in its government.” From James Wilson to Martin Van Buren, America’s early political leaders highlighted the ways that giving citizens a real and active role in shaping their government resulted in a fatherly affection for the Constitution and the nation. And of course, the “common history” and “collective memory” that Smith identifies as central to the patriotic disposition have long been cultivated through storytelling, orations, celebrations, monuments, and myriad other tools of narrative identity formation. There are, in other words, things the nation can do to encourage the kind of patriotic attachments that democracy requires.

For the individual, a commitment to patriotism and to serving the nation first can still be a tough pill to swallow. As humans our reason, morality, faith, and desires, are constantly in conflict. The well-ordered soul is incredibly hard to achieve, even after a year of sitting on our couches listening to our meditation apps. As Smith rightly points out, a citizen can’t possibly, in good conscience, maintain a blind loyalty to country above his love of justice or equality. It is true that patriotism, viewed as an unquestioning loyalty to the policies produced by one’s government, might not only be a very tough pill to swallow, but might actually compel a citizen to act immorally.

This concern is lessened however, when we honor Smith’s call to remember the object of patriotism’s affection. If patriotism, or attachment, ultimately has the regime, and not merely the administration, or even the Constitution, as its object, it requires loyalty to America’s foundational principles and values, not merely or simply its procedures and policies. Lincoln reminded us that the Constitution is weak without the Declaration’s foundational commitments. If we trust that the Declaration’s commitments are good ones, or, as many have argued, the best ones, then by committing ourselves to them we are improved. Patriotism becomes a tool that elevates the individual soul rather than a justification for the blind defense of a potentially misguided policy.

The regime, in its blind quest for self-preservation, might require absolute loyalty from its citizens, and a willingness to put country above all else. As patriotic citizens, we can adopt a broader perspective – one that recognizes our responsibility to reconcile the nation’s foundational, philosophical commitments with its institutional practices. When the country strays from the Declaration’s central tenets, we can commit to pursuing reform by institutional, constitutional means rather than through revolution. We might remain uneasy with the loyalty our regime requests of us, but those lesser commitments should be good enough for government work.

Smith closes with the most important question – who will teach this patriotic virtue and what form will it take? Prospects seem dim if we look to the nation’s elected officeholders, thought-leaders, or local school boards. Formal civic education in America’s classrooms has been largely stripped of its patriotism-inculcating features, and our political leaders seem uninterested in the task. Fortunately, statesmen in the early history of our republic showed that attachments could be constructed through myriad tools, from utilitarian policies and practices to increased citizen participation, to the development of common language and cultural practices. With all those tools at our disposal I am far more optimistic that the patriotism America requires can be inculcated.

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