The Fourth of July used to be a happy occasion. It smelled like chlorine and tasted like rocket pops. For a time, it looked like Barack and Michelle, dancing together for the first time as president and first lady as Beyoncé sang “At Last” by Etta James. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, it sounded like a roar of triumph that echoed from coast to coast. That year, the fireworks, and our future, never seemed so brilliant.
When Barack Obama was president, there was a growing sense among us young progressives that the arc of the moral universe was indeed starting to bend toward justice. It was slow and it was imperfect, but our fitful progress along it endowed many of us with a sense of pride. The flag looked a little different. It looked like something that could be ours.
This year, the holiday weekend finds many of us in a darker mood. It is our first Fourth of July with President Trump. The refugee ban is back on. And somewhere in America, Paul Ryan is cracking another cold one while 22 million Americans are at risk of losing their health insurance. The arc isn’t bending as fast as we thought.
In light of so much injustice, how should we observe Independence Day? Should we dismiss the holiday all together — roll up our flags and boycott the barbecues? Like Los Angeles considering scrapping Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day, we could scrub the Fourth of July and give it a makeover. Instead of red, white and blue, we could don black.
Such a response would be in line with recent trends. Over the last year, patriotism has been dropping sharply among Democrats. According to a Gallup poll from March, 67% of Democrats said they are “very proud” to be an American, compared with 92% of Republicans.
While denouncing the Fourth may be emotionally satisfying, cognitive science suggests it would be politically unwise. As UC Berkeley’s George Lakoff preaches, people are drawn to positive messages far more than negative ones, even when the negative ones are backed up with facts. According to Lakoff, this is why Trump won the election.
It is also why we can’t afford to be downers on the Fourth.
If Lakoff is right, we should salute the flag instead of burning it. Instead of railing against Trump, we should talk about why we care so much about the Constitution. If our uncle shows up wearing a “This is what a REAL patriot looks like!” shirt, we should put one on, too. The point is not mimicry, but reframing.
For too long, progressives have relinquished the word “patriot” to conservatives and freedom-fry hawkers. In doing so we concede defeat. If we say we aren’t proud of our country, then we are letting someone else define what our country is. America is far bigger than Donald Trump. In fact, it is 2.8 million voters bigger.
If the left can learn to make the stars and stripes its own, it will appeal to some Trump voters, too. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in his book “The Righteous Mind,” conservatives vote based on certain moral values that liberals do not typically articulate. Among these are loyalty, sanctity and authority — all of which Trump played to with his “Make America Great Again” message. The standard liberal response — America was never great — was correct from a civil rights perspective, but also continued to portray liberals as fundamentally irreverent. If Democrats want to win another election, this is an image they must change.
This Fourth, let’s show we’ve learned our lessons, and are ready for 2018. Fly the flag. Take back the power.
We, too, are America.
Cassady Rosenblum is an intern in The Times’ Opinion section.