Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thoughts on patriotism

Lorie Byrd, who is also guest blogging at Right Wing News, has a post today about the problem some liberals have with patriotism, as if they feel that any expression of patriotism will be interpreted as support for President Bush and the war in Iraq. Almost any day, you can find posts on Daily Kos rejecting any displays of overt patriotism such as wearing a flag lapel pin or singing "God Bless the USA." Little Green Footballs has links to a couple such musings from Daily Kos. Last month, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told a British newspaper that she just didn't get the whole deal about patriotism.
"The entire country may disagree with me, but I don't understand the necessity for patriotism," Maines resumes, through gritted teeth. "Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life, but as for loving the whole country… I don't see why people care about patriotism."
Many Americans and most conservatives find her remarks incomprehensible. But the question of patriotism seems to be a sore spot among liberals. You don't find conservatives worrying about whether they come across as patriotic or not. But we know that Democratic politicians are very sensitive to being pigeonholed as being less patriotic since any time that a Democrat is criticized, they immediately start whining that the Republican is impugning their patriotism.

Lorie cautions liberals who are concerned about a show of patriotism being interpreted as support for Bush to just lighten up. As she says, and I bet most conservatives would agree, Republicans had no trouble flying the flag or displaying patriotism during Clinton's presidency. We didn't worry that, if we showed the flag, people would think that was an endorsement of Bill Clinton.

That has gotten me to thinking about why overt displays of patriotism are associated more with conservatives than with liberals. This isn't just some construct created by conservative bloggers. Check out these results and the analysis from a 2004 Pew poll that asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement "I am very patriotic." Since they started asking the question in 1987, there has been a divergence between how Republicans and Democrats answered that question.

Nearly every American agrees with the statement "I am very patriotic," but there is a large and growing division in the intensity with which Republicans and Democrats express this sentiment. Currently, 71% of Republicans and just 48% of Democrats say they completely agree with that statement.

The percentage of Republicans strongly voicing feelings of patriotism has risen sharply in the past year, from 63% to 71%. By comparison, Democratic opinion on this value has changed little in recent years. Since 1999, about half of Democrats have said they completely agree with the statement "I am very patriotic." The events of the past two years have had little impact on those attitudes.

You can see the upswings in 1991 for the First Gulf War and after 2001, but the divergence remains. In 2004, there was a 23 point difference between how Republicans and Democrats responded to that poll item. But at the time of the 1996 reelection campaign for Bill Clinton, there was still what looks like a 16 point difference.

What accounts for this difference? I think it goes back to intrinsic differences between how liberals and conservatives view the world. I am reminded of the division that Thomas Sowell discusses in his masterful work, A Conflict of Visions. A conservative (or as Sowell terms it - the constrained vision) accepts that man is imperfect and that the choices we have are often between two rotten alternatives. A liberal (or in Sowell's term - the unconstrained vision) is more likely to focus on the faults and not accept that the ideal was not possible.
At the extremes, the constrained vision says, "My country, right or wrong," while the unconstrained vision casts its exponent in the role
of a citizen of the world, ready to oppose his own country, in words or actions, whenever he sees fit. Patriotism and treason thus become a meaningless distinction at the extremes of the unconstrained vision, while this distinction is one of the most central and most powerful distinctions in the constrained vision. (p. 81)
Witness the attitudes towards the Founding Fathers. Some people are likely to look at how our Founders allowed our nation to form with the original sin of slavery accepted right there in the Constitution and condemn them and the Constitution. Others look at the alternative of not being able to come to an agreement on the Constitution and having the country collapse under the weight of all the defects in the government in that critical period and are able to honor the result of those negotiations at the Constitutional Convention despite the obvious faults present.

If you have the mindset that, until we achieve the ideal, you cannot love the country, you will not answer that Pew poll question positively that you consider yourself very patriotic. You may love the possibility of what this country can become, but your reservations will outweigh whatever it is that you honor about this country. And, I would maintain, that people holding that position are more likely to have a liberal viewpoint on a whole host of issues.

Conversely, if you see the faults of this country, but still are willing to love it because you recognize that it is the best of the possible alternatives, you will be able to answer that question in the positive. You will love this country, faults and all, and waving the flag doesn't reflect your support for a particular president or policy, but for the whole idea of this country. And, I believe, that conservatives are more likely to look at the country and love it despite its faults.

We see this division in the approach to teaching American history. Liberals want to focus on the warts of our past. Focus on which groups were oppressed and denied rights. I see so much of that in the materials presented in textbooks and standardized tests. These topics become like the blemish on a friend's face. You can't see anything but that blemish and whatever beauty there is on your friend's countenance becomes invisible because you keep staring at that fault. I'm not advocating ignoring those blemishes of our past, but keep an eye out for the bigger picture also. And recognize that no society has a perfect past, because man is not perfect.

At this time of the year when we are remembering the Founders, I like to go back to what Abraham Lincoln had to say about the founding. He firmly believed that the Declaration of Independence was the crucial founding document of our nation because it established the ideals of what our country could be, not what it was, but the ideal that all free men should strive for. In a speech in June, 1857 in response to the Dred Scott decision, he laid this out so clearly.
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that "all men are created equal" was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack. (emphasis added)
And that is enough for me. I love the ideal of this country and that it was founded on those principles and even though I know we fall short every day, I still love being part of a country that, unlike any other country, had that ideal as its foundation.