The patriot gap
‘Unity is the great need of the hour. ... Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country. I’m not talking about a budget deficit. ... I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
So quoth Barack Obama in Atlanta on Jan. 20, but it might as well have been last week, so central is unity to his presidential campaign. And then there’s Michelle Obama. “We have lost the understanding that, in a democracy, we have a mutual obligation to one another,” the would-be first lady told a rally last month. “That we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done.”
What is fascinating here is not the sentiment, but what’s missing from it. The P-word.
To invoke patriotism seriously is to brand yourself either an old fogy or a right-wing bully. If Obama spoke about patriotism with the sort of passion he expends on unity, many would take him for some sort of demagogue.
But what on Earth could he mean by unity other than a kind of patriotic esprit de corps for the good of his country? Indeed, patriotism is far, far preferable to mere unity. (Mafia syndicates and terrorist cells are unified, after all.) Patriotism is a species of unity that has some moral and philosophical substance to it. In America, patriotism -- as opposed to, say, nationalism -- is a love for a creed, a dedication to what is best about the “American way.” Nationalism, a romantic sensibility, says “my country is always right.” Patriots hope that their nation will make the right choice.
If you read the speeches of leading Democrats before the Vietnam War, it’s amazing how comfortable they were with patriotic rhetoric. “Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country,” stands foursquare against so much of our entitlement culture.
Vietnam, of course, changed that. “The tragedy of the left,” wrote Todd Gitlin in his 2006 book, “Intellectuals and the Flag,” “is that, having achieved an unprecedented victory in helping stop an appalling war, it then proceeded to commit suicide.”
Suicide might be strong, but the left certainly amputated itself from full-throated patriotic sentiment. Most Democrats speak mellifluously about unity but get tongue-tied or sound as if they’re just delivering words plucked from a political consultant’s memo when they turn to patriotism. (Virginia Sen. Jim Webb being a major exception.) Sen. John Kerry, who made his name vilifying the Vietnam War, suddenly wanted patriotic credit for the same service when he ran for president in 2004. His line at the Democratic convention -- “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty” -- was cringe-inducing. The words came out as ironic, almost kitschy. The message seemed to be, “I can play this game better than that chickenhawk, George W. Bush.”
When Democrats do speak of patriotism, it is usually as a means of finding fault with Republicans, corporations or America itself. Hence the irony that questioning the patriotism of liberals is a grievous sin, but doing likewise to conservatives is fine. That’s how then-candidate Howard Dean could with a straight face insist that then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft “is no patriot. He’s a direct descendant of Joseph McCarthy.”
Indeed, the one area in which Obama explicitly invokes patriotism is in the realm of economics. He proposes a Patriot Corporation Act that would punish corporations that legally avoid U.S. taxes. (“Now here is a Patriot Act everyone can get behind,” gushed the Nation’s William Greider.)
Meanwhile, Michelle Obama famously declared last month that her husband’s candidacy elicited pride in her country for the first time in her adult life. I like to think that’s not really what she meant, but it’s a sign of how ill-equipped she and so many others are on the left when it comes to discussing such issues.
And it’s a crying shame, despite the fact that the Democrats’ rhetorical disadvantage is a huge boon for the Republicans. One cannot credibly talk of love of country while simultaneously dodging the word and concept of patriotism. And, I would argue, one cannot sufficiently love one’s country if you are afraid to say so out loud. Better that our politics be an argument about why and how we should love our country, not about whether some do and some don’t.