On Patriotism, Social Criticism, and the Quest for a Just American Democracy

This is the sixth 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.

Elizabeth Beaumont is Associate Professor and Director of Legal Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. Beaumont is the author of The Civic Constitution, and a co-author of two books on civic education and engagement, Educating Citizens, and Educating for Democracy. She is currently working on a book on the role of white nationalism in American political and constitutional development.

“We, the people”—not we, the white people—not we, the citizens, or the legal voters—not we, the privileged class, and excluding all other classes, but we, the people; not we, the horses and cattle, but we, the people—the men and women, the human inhabitants of the United States, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

– Frederick Douglass, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, 1857

These are soul-trying times, marked by crises of polarization, racism, violence, economic inequality, a pandemic. Steven Smith’s new book asks Americans to consider “whether patriotism is worth preserving,” and he develops a thoughtful case for a type of general, “Lincolnian” constitutional patriotism.  This is a crucible moment for people across the political spectrum to consider the question of patriotism, and in doing so, to grapple with what American patriotism has been and has meant to different people, what types of actions it has inspired at different times, and what it might yet be. 

In theories of political change, crucible moments are also considered critical junctures, periods when, as David Collier has written, crucial choices and their legacies establish certain directions of change while foreclosing others in ways that can shape politics for years. What possibilities do we see for the future of patriotism and democracy in the United States as we confront this tumultuous period? As Smith acknowledges, “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 can we choose forms of patriotism that can support and contribute to the development of a just, inclusive, multi-racial American democracy?  Though still insufficiently recognized, some forms of constitutional patriotism have created bridges from the national past to the national future by fueling crucial struggles for justice, freedom, and equality — from the first efforts to end slavery, to every movement to expand voting rights, to the modern African American Civil Rights Movements and subsequent civil rights movements, up to the present Movement for Black Lives. These are forms of critical and creative constitutional patriotism that have been formative to our national development. As called forth by Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and many others, they operate not only by criticizing the failure to live up to constitutional promises — free and equal citizenship, representative, accountable institutions — but by elevating the vision of a more just constitutional democracy, and by creating the pressure for national change and the local community work needed to support it. These are forms of patriotism we need to recognize and sustain. But they differ from a model of broad, Lincolnian, constitutional patriotism.

  1. The Problem of Bad Patriotism

Calling for patriotism at this moment in American history is particularly fraught when much of the country is reeling from a crisis of racial injustice and excesses of violent and white supremacist strains of American patriotism. The culminating political demonstration of this was the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol January 6th, carried out by people who proclaimed themselves loyal patriots. They carried American flags along with Confederate flags, white supremacist insignias, and Trump 2020 banners, and as the video footage and court documents reveal, they turned the American flag into a literal weapon. As they breached the Capitol and invaded the Senate in an attempt to prevent legislators from carrying out their constitutional role in confirming the electoral vote, some rioters posted social media messages  “Patriots are in the Capitol building now,” others cried out “Hold the line, Patriots.” Many participants were members of white supremacist groups and or militia groups that identify themselves with American Revolutionaries and adopt names such as “American Patriots.” Some were members of the U.S. military or police forces. And those who circulated plans for a second insurrection on January 16 entitled it a “Patriotic Action for America 2021.”

Here we see a searing problem with patriotism in America today.  The insurrectionists — along with many right-wing extremists more generally — considered themselves proud patriots.  It seems imperative that this malignant variant patriotism must not be met by silence, indifference, or fatalism (let alone defense or praise).  Many people consider the recent insurrection a reflection of “bad” or “false” patriotism.  We must ask ourselves why this view exists. And, if the persistence of pernicious patriotism is a problem, what is the solution? 

It is difficult to defend patriotism when so much violence and injustice has been done, continues to be done, in its name.  One can easily understand Tolstoy’s view that the “bad patriotism” of jingoism or chauvinism is “a cause of a great part of the ills from which mankind is suffering,” and therefore we should be more concerned with eradicating patriotism than encouraging it. Any consideration of patriotism must wrestle with its problematic manifestations.  In national surveys, some Americans associate patriotism with positive elements of loyalty and pride, while others associate it with negative elements of racism and xenophobia.  Polls show that a majority of young Americans reject identifying as patriots, regardless of whether they identify as Republican or Democratic, perhaps because the mantle of patriotism has been seized by white nationalists, and it has not been wrestled away from them.  

Although patriotic “love of country” need not involve aggressive, chauvinistic nationalism in theory, in practice the feelings and forces of patriotism and nationalism have been deeply entangled too often in the U.S. and elsewhere. Patriotism seems continually (if not inherently) prone to abuse and misuse, guilty of enabling nationalist war-mongering, and aiding and abetting prejudices and inequities toward disfavored groups and perceived internal and external enemies.  

But can bad patriotism be prevented or dissolved or transformed into something harmless? Or at least combatted or countered? In chemistry and medicine, we have formulas for neutralizing caustic and corrosive substances.  In physics, we see formulas for analyzing how forces operate, calculating their magnitudes and directions, and seeing how several forces moving in the same direction have additive power, and can outweigh opposing forces to move an object or shift its trajectory. There are no neat or sure calculations for political forces. But it does seem that if Americans want to confront pernicious forms of patriotism, to do so in ways that could establish durable changes in national culture and institutions, they need to summon opposing forces that include other, better forms of patriotism.

Smith believes that what we need now is a moderate, reasonable form of constitutional patriotism, one that could draw Americans in toward a common ground of shared values and identity.  To continue our metaphor, Smith thinks a centrifugal force of unifying patriotic values could help offset the centripetal, polarizing pulls of ideological extremism.  But what Smith does not discuss, and what many people do not realize, is that many American white supremacists, right-wing militia groups, and other right-wing extremists consider themselves loyal defenders of the Constitution, as they see it. As reading their manifestos indicates, and the FBI reports, many militia extremists “view themselves as protecting the U.S. Constitution” and “They believe that the Constitution grants citizens the power to take back the federal government by force or violence if they feel it’s necessary.”

Poignantly, from its founding in the 1860s to its series of modern surges and successors, the Ku Klux Klan has proclaimed itself a “patriotic” organization committed both to the Constitution and to white supremacy.  The Klan has never seen any contradiction in embracing both sets of values because it is attached to what it sees as the “original,” unreconstructed, Founders’ Constitution. The Klan’s view of the original U.S. Constitution has always been deeply contested, but it did not spring from nowhere. It lays claim to roots in American history.  These include the constitutional interpretation pronounced by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, in the infamous Dred Scott case (1857), According to Taney, the Constitution had been created by and for the citizenship of white men only. As Dred Scott contested his enslavement, Taney not only held that he was not a U.S. citizen, but that no African-American could be. The Framers, he wrote, believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Moreover, Chief Justice Taney interpreted the principle that “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence as not applying to African Americans; he thought it “too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.” There were opposing constitutional interpretations offered — by Taney’s fellow Justice Benjamin Curtis, by Radical Republican political leaders, by Frederick Douglass and many outspoken abolitionists and African American community leaders — but Taney’s stood as law of the land.

We have to wrestle with the fact that some of the most malignant forms of patriotism that exist in the U.S. wrap themselves in a mantle of avowed constitutional loyalty and see themselves as the heirs and successors of American Revolutionaries and founders. It is unclear whether the rather broad idea of constitutional patriotism that remains only loosely sketched by Smith is sufficient for confronting this force, nor the other significant national challenges before us.  

  1. The Role of Critical and Creative Constitutional Patriotism

Yet it is also arguable that being able to address these challenges in a sustained and systematic way does require a widespread, broadly shared commitment to upholding fundamental principles of a just, inclusive, multi-racial American constitutional democracy.  This includes on-going work to implement the most important and most demanding promises, foremost among them equal citizenship, equal representation, equal justice, equal protection of the law, together with free and fair elections and responsive, non-discriminatory, and accountable institutions.  These promises are now considered fundamental to American constitutional democracy, and to modern constitutional democracy more generally. What is less acknowledged is that, as I alluded to earlier, much of the work to elevate and elaborate and redeem these constitutional principles has been done by activists and movements who expose and resist injustice, who have held a faith in the future of our national experiment needed to advocate for change in our culture and communities and institutions.

There are many examples of this type of critical and creative constitutional patriotism. I have explored some examples in my work on the “civic constitution,” though there are many more. Among the most visionary is Frederick Douglass, a stinging Socratic gadfly to the nation, and champion of an inclusive and multi-racial democracy.  As Douglass described his life-long mission in 1888, it was to plead the cause of “millions of our countrymen against injustice, oppression, meanness, and cruelty,” and

to hasten the day when the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States shall be the law and practice of every section, and of all the people of this great country without regard to race, sex, color or religion.

Douglass encouraged Americans to see movements for abolition, for civil rights, for women’s rights and suffrage — all of which were often seen as dangerous and disloyal extremism at the time — as heirs to the revolutionary ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

Smith’s primary focus is on the positive model of patriotism offered by Abraham Lincoln, with only passing mention of Douglass.  But while Smith delves into valuable expressions of Lincoln’s thought, including his criticism of the Dred Scott decision, and his rejection of the anti-immigrant xenophobia of the “Know Nothing” movement of that era, he misses the opportunity to take his exploration deeper by reckoning with the darker aspects of Lincoln’s views, which contrast with Douglass’s.  These include Lincoln’s willingness to support the Corwin Amendment in 1861 (which could have become the 13th Amendment, and would have given further constitutional protection to the practice of slavery by preventing Congress from ever abolishing it), his support for colonizing African Americans, and his stance on miscegenation and social equality. Smith also misses the opportunity to consider the evolution of Lincoln’s views on America and the Constitution, and the dialectic operating among Lincoln, the ideas and forces of pro-slavery, and the emancipatory vision of Douglass and others.  To some extent, by seeking to hold the union, Lincoln was trying to hold the center between these opposing forces, the ideological extremes of that era.  But many of Lincoln’s acts that deserve praise as contributions to the republic — his eventual support for abolishing slavery, his  issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, his enlistment of African American soldiers in the Civil War, and his public endorsement of suffrage for intelligent African American veterans and citizens on the cusp of his assassination — were long prefigured, demanded, and struggled for by Douglass and hundreds and thousands of other black and white abolitionists and early equal rights and civil rights groups. 

Together with the model of Frederick Douglass, we could consider many others, such as Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, suffragists and women’s rights activists, and African-American rights activists. Some of these social critics helped create the American Equal Rights Association and subsequent suffrage associations and women’s organizations, the most visionary of which carried forward the then-shocking constitutional ideal proclaimed by the first National Women’s Rights Convention of 1850, ‘Equality before the law without distinction of sex or color,’ supporting rights and suffrage for white and black women.

Another historical model of critical and creative constitutional patriotism to remember now is Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  Among her political projects, Barnett launched a major lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of racial segregation in railway cars — a decade before the more famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  She was a suffragist and a contributor to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but much of her life was dedicated to a campaign to expose and end lynching as a force of racial repression and national crime.  

Rejecting insistence from Southern political leaders that any congressional action against lynching would violate state’s rights, Wells-Barnett continued arguing that patriotic citizens must use not only education and agitation, but seek national legislation to end lynching and protect black lives.

“With malice toward none but with charity for all” let us undertake the work of making the “law of the land” effective and supreme upon every foot of American soil.

As she indicated in one of her investigative reports, Lynch Law in Georgia, Wells-Barnett appealed to her fellow citizens’ sense of justice.  She wrote that her goal was “to give the public the facts, in the belief that there is still a sense of justice in the American people, and that it will yet assert itself in condemnation of outlawry and in defense of oppressed and persecuted humanity.”  Modern movements for racial justice, including Black Lives Matter, are still calling upon the sense of justice in the American people to shift our culture and our institutions. 

  1. The Limits of Moderate Constitutional Patriotism and the Path Forward

In many ways, it is admirable and appealing to point to a moderate constitutional patriotism as a goal and balm for our times, and to Lincoln as a deeply important exemplar of American patriotism.  There are many reasons for reverence and attachment to this leader and his unparalleled contributions as a President, without which it is unclear what version of America would now exist.  It would be nice if rallying around the idea of constitutional patriotism and a Lincolnian model were sufficient for charting a path forward from here, because Lincoln’s profound love of country,  his tremendous work and sacrifice to save the nation and hold it together, and the actions he took toward ending slavery and expanding freedom strike a deep chord across party lines and among Americans from many backgrounds.

But as these reflections suggest, a moderate, Lincolnian constitutional patriotism did not fully address the fault lines of Lincoln’s own times. Nor is Lincoln’s model adequate to address challenges of our own time. Many of these challenges relate to older fault lines of racial and gender injustice that were left unresolved in that era. This includes current problems of rights-wing white nationalism demonstrated by the insurrection and groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. These new racists have a link to prior eras, harkening back to problematic views and practices of the American past, including the ideas of the Confederacy, the Klan, “separate but equal,” Jim Crow, and others.  Their bad constitutional patriotism is a remnant of fealty to an unjust constitutional order that was never fully disassembled, and that a general, moderate constitutional patriotism is not sufficient to address.  While Lincoln led the country forward in many important respects, he left a tremendous amount yet to be done, problems identified and taken up by Douglass, Stone, Wells-Barnett.  Smith’s turn to the model of Lincoln offers important ideas, but it is neither historically contextualized enough nor substantial enough to help us chart a further path forward toward the idea of a just, inclusive, multi-racial constitutional democracy.  We need more.  

Those I am terming critical and creative constitutional patriots do the difficult work of sustaining loyalty to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution while building a bridge forward by showing us how these principles can be blueprints and touchstones for a just democracy.  This is not based on a naive view of the nation, but a reflective, complex, and hopeful one. These types of patriotic social critics recognize that our constitutional principles have too often been narrowly interpreted and withheld  — from poor and working class peoples; from indigenous peoples, African Americans, Asians, and many immigrant groups; from Jews, Catholics, Muslims and many religious minorities; from women and people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. But they move beyond a moderate constitutional patriotism by refusing to allow these flawed practices to define our national principles or their own horizons. We need to recognize this work as a vital form of patriotism.

This is a crucible moment for considering what American patriotism means, and moving forward from a series of significant national crises.  The notion of a crucible moment comes from the idea of the “crucible,” the cauldrons in which metallurgists separated base metals from noble and created precious metals — copper, bronze, and the strongest steel — and in which alchemists sought to transform metal to gold.  Crucibles signify a process of undertaking a trial of scathing heat and tension, and find in this the capacity to create a positive transformation, to forge a new condition with greater value.  This crucible moment presents us with a fierce trial by fire. It forces a questioning of values and practices and institutions, and the hope, and possibility, that we can forge from this a stronger and more valuable state of the nation, one in which democracy and justice can coincide.

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