What’s the Question to which Patriotism is supposed to be the Answer?

This is the seventh 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.

Jan-Werner Müller is Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Science at Princeton. Democracy Rules is forthcoming in July.   

As a defender of constitutional patriotism, I do not fundamentally disagree with Steven B. Smith’s eloquent praise of “constitutional loyalty.”  I wonder, though, what exactly the contemporary problem is to which a discussion of patriotism on a learned blog is supposed to be the answer.  I can think of two.  One is the long-standing concern that, if good people do not advocate for patriotism, demagogues will seduce the masses with nasty ethno-nationalism.  The other is the thought – alluded to by Smith – that patriotism can help overcome polarization, partly on the assumption that both right-wing authoritarian populism and left-wing identity politics need to be transcended in favor of what unites us all.  Both notions, I want to suggest, deserve closer scrutiny and are ultimately implausible.

Let me, for the record, point out some quibbles with Smith’s impassioned defense of patriotism, before getting to my main argument about the limits of patriotism talk as a response to contemporary political challenges.  Democracies do indeed need a language to articulate what the polity is ultimately about and what citizens share.  Contrary to sceptics, patriotism, qua a form of particularity, is not automatically a moral mistake and there is nothing inherently dangerous about invoking “the people” (in the way some anti-populist liberals might think).  In fact, one would find it rather peculiar if a politician, when asked about her vision of the people, were to respond that she had no idea, but could talk about some great solutions to the latest local sewage problems.    

But all of that need not involve love or, for that matter, pride.  It’s enough if citizens are attached to principles of freedom and equality and aim to perfect their realization in a particular context.  Of course, it is fine if they feel proud of what their polity has achieved already, as long as such sentiments are tempered by a sense of the cruelties that have also been perpetrated, sometimes in the name of the very ideals which claim the loyalty of constitutional patriots.  Put differently, loyalty always has to remain critical loyalty; pride must be paired with remorse for a polity’s failings (resulting in a commitment to try again, fail again, fail better).

Principles do come first, unlike with love of family; these constitute what Mary Wollstonecraft called “the bond of all social unity and order.” For, otherwise, there is no real distinction between patriotism and nationalism, in the way Smith also seeks to maintain.  That does not mean that the realization of such universal principles cannot be culturally specific; universal principles do not present themselves to us in some immaculate way, waiting to be realized in pristine practices of implementing universals.  This is the irreducibly particular side of patriotism, along the legitimate priority accorded, in a Kantian spirit, to fellow citizens engaged in maintaining a democratic polity.  But this does not imply that talk about particular constitutional cultures erases the distinction between constitutional patriotism, animated by principles, and a liberal nationalism for which culture comes first.

The usual worry has been that such an approach is all too “abstract” or even – a particularly inappropriate term — “bloodless.”  Yet patriotism, as a form of what Madison called “fervent attachment” to a republic, can make room not just for emotions like pride, but also righteous anger or passions that drive political activism.  In general, the strict division between a nationalism that supposedly drives feelings and a constitutional patriotism that appeals purely to reason is based on a mistake (one that can be avoided at least since Aristotle): emotions are also based on cognitive antecedents.  For instance, one is not simply angry just like that, but for a reason, such as a judgement that one is being treated unfairly.  Of course, that means that the emotions invoked by cultural nationalists also draw on reasons; the question is always how one evaluates those reasons.

This brings me to the first main worry: is it plausible to think that unless one pushes patriotism in order to make a sense of belonging safe for liberal democracy, chauvinists (or worse) will fill what is habitually described as a resulting “vacuum” or “void”?  The thought appears to assume a moral psychology according to which there’ll always be a more or less fixed moral-psychological space reserved for feelings of belonging, collective meaning, etc. (assumptions like this are also behind crudely anti-modern narratives according to which secularization left a void which then was filled by nationalism, and after nationalism, by totalitarian ideologies in the twentieth century, etc. etc.).  But this image –and the resulting imperative that politicians and intellectuals capable of soulcraft must fill the vacuum with appropriate content – is a little crude, to say the least.  The claim “if we don’t talk about this stuff in our language, they’ll prevail with theirs” assumes that everyone always wants to talk collective belonging.  But not every political argument needs to be couched in the language of collective belonging, let alone collective pride.  One of the peculiarities of American politics that baffles outside observers is Democrats’ compulsion to combine even the most self-evidently beneficial policy initiatives with kitschy rhetoric about “the greatest country on earth.”  As plenty of people have noted, it makes it harder to discuss citizens’ real problems – be it decaying infrastructure, shortening life spans, or unaffordable health care – if you keep ritualistically affirming that we all live in the best of all possible countries.  It’s also empirically wrong to think that you’ll be considered un-American if you refuse talk of US supremacy: according to a Pew survey, only a minority of citizens actually think that US “stands above” all other nations; while a clear majority considers it “one of the greatest countries, along with some others.”  

That leaves the other problem to which one might think patriotism is the answer today: polarization, deep divisions in the country, etc.  To be sure, there’s no harm in affirming that there are not red and blue states, but only a United States of America.  But there is harm in glossing over the differences between what are said to be challenges to unity.  On the one side, there is what Larry Bartels has rather politely called “ethnic antagonism”: the attitude that the country is being “taken away from us” by people who are undeserving and who, above all, don’t really belong here in the first place.  As Bartels has shown empirically, such a stance of defending white Christian America – the one and only “real America” – explains a shocking willingness among self-declared Republicans to take the law into their own hands and use violence if necessary.  On the other hand, there is the much-maligned “identity politics” which supposedly also divides the country, instead of allowing us all to come together, as we surely would, if only these narcissistic, annoying minorities with their ever more scurrilous and illiberal demands would simply shut up.  This compulsion to make the phenomena seem symmetrical (as Jürgen Habermas has put it) betrays a failure of political judgment.  One does not uncritically have to agree with everything that today can plausibly be called identity politics – but one surely has to recognize that the impulses behind it are connected to basic principles of freedom and equality.  Movements such as BLM and #MeToo have been about claiming the proper realization of universal rights (not to be dominated, not to be harassed, not to be raped, and ultimately: not to be killed) — not some supposed multicultural separatism. 

It is one thing to affirm in the abstract that patriotism has to mean critical loyalty; it’s another to face people who are actually critical and remind us how far we are from realizing basic principles.  The resulting task is not to assert patriotism as some form of communitarian kitsch; the task is to confront the actual shortcomings in an evidently unfinished democratic project, and accept that conflicts about the constitutional project are legitimate and, if we’re lucky, even productive — as long as partners to conflicts can still roughly agree on first principles.  And that they should do as good constitutional patriots.

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