Pledge Issue Reveals Rift in America’s View of Itself

<i> Charles R. Kesler is an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and associate director of its Henry Salvatori Center. </i>

No issue in this election has generated so much heat and so little light as the controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance. In last Sunday’s presidential debate, Vice President George Bush reiterated his charge that Gov. Michael Dukakis was wrong to veto a bill requiring Massachusetts’ public school teachers to lead their classes in the pledge. Dukakis objected to this as a slur on his patriotism and claimed that while he was foursquare in favor of the pledge, he was foursquare against requiring anyone to recite it.

This debate over the pledge is not the most important issue in this election, but it is the most telling. It is a reminder that politics is more than a dispute over the McKinney bill (one of the arcane points raised Sunday night). Even more graphically than the candidates’ disagreements over the American Civil Liberties Union and abortion, it raises questions that threaten to reopen the old wounds of the 1960s and to revive a debate that transformed American politics: the clash between middle-class conservatism and the liberal counterculture over the basic goodness of the American way of life.

All serious political disputes involve matters of patriotism because they force a people to ask why they exist as a people. The pledge issue is no exception. But it does so civilly, after the manner of most disagreements in most American elections. Thus Dukakis said he resented the “implication of disloyalty,” and Bush was at pains to let it remain only an implication. What Bush questioned was Dukakis’ “judgment,” meaning not that his veto of the pledge bill in Massachusetts was a lapse in judgment, but that it was the kind of misjudgment that one ought to expect from a “liberal,” someone whose patriotism is, well, a little pale. But what was the governor himself implying, if not that Bush’s questioning of his patriotism was suspiciously un-American--i.e., McCarthyite?

And that is the point. What we have here is a dispute over the meaning of American patriotism. Bush has raised a symbolic question that resonates very deeply with the American people, even if the media do not want to take it seriously. The fact is that Dukakis’ decision to veto the pledge bill can be explained only by his liberalism. Everyone knows that, but no one (not even Bush) will quite come out and say it. Dukakis’ own explanation is that he had been advised that the measure was unconstitutional, based on a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But that begs too many questions. Why did he ask for an advisory opinion from the Massachusetts court in the first place? Why did he adhere to a split decision that admitted that the controlling 1943 case, West Virginia vs. Barnette, was ambiguous on the disputed point?


Such considerations force us to raise a more fundamental question: Why, exactly, would a liberal object to the pledge?

Many liberals object to the phrase, “under God.” It has been a goal of ideological liberalism for many generations to restrict the role of religion in American public life. But not just religion. Liberalism has assailed traditional morality as a whole, any attempt to anchor right and wrong in “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” In liberalism’s view, no moral or political principles can be orthodox except for the principle that nothing can be orthodox. Therefore, patriotism ought to be a purely formal commitment to the openness of the American mind and the American future.

Then there is “liberty and justice for all.” Liberals do not think that America offers or has ever offered “liberty and justice for all.” Rather, our history is scarred by racism, sexism, jingoism and exploitation. There is some truth to this, as conservatives would admit, but they see America’s imperfections in the light of its perfect or at least excellent principles, and they take seriously America’s efforts to live up to those precepts. For many liberals, however, America’s principles offer no such redemption. As Justice Thurgood Marshall, among others, has emphasized, America’s principles were flawed from the beginning: “Liberty and justice for all” will have to be made good by income and wealth redistribution and quotas--in short, by new principles for a new age.

Finally, there is the flag itself--to most Americans a proud symbol of nationalism and of American exceptionalism, but to the hard left a militant symbol of American imperialism (as in Nicaragua). In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the opponents of the Vietnam War sat on the flag, spat on it and even burned it. Is it any wonder now that they don’t want to pledge their allegiance to it?

What the American people will decide in 1988 is which of these radically conflicting views of patriotism, and of America, they accept. In raising the issue, Bush has helped to clarify the continuing differences in principles and purposes between the parties, and has made the voters’ choice a more significant one.