If Barack Obama really wants to rise above the “old politics of division,” he might want to start by putting that American flag pin back on his lapel and retracting his all too earnest explanation as to why he took it off in the first place.
No, not because he should seek to appease his conservative critics who are absurdly questioning his loyalty to the country. But because it could help heal the festering division over the meaning of patriotism in America while also beginning to make up for the Democratic Party’s self-imposed patriotism deficit.
Last October, when responding to questions as to why he stopped wearing an American flag on his lapel, Obama argued that such symbols “became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism,” and added that he had decided not to wear the pin because he was “going to try to tell the American people what I believe, what will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to patriotism.”
But must symbols be inherently at odds with the articulation of national ideals? Would a President Obama also argue for the dismantling of the Statue of Liberty so that we can meditate on the true significance of freedom? Of course not.
Then why are he and so many other Democrats so uncomfortable with the simple symbolic expressions of love of country?
For one, the Vietnam War made many liberals understandably wary of the connection between zealous patriotism and an aggressive foreign policy. Also, they may have seen the GOP manipulate patriotism -- and the threat of being called disloyal -- one too many times.
But ceding old-fashioned patriotic symbolism to the GOP is neither smart politics nor good for the social reform agendas that liberals like Obama tend to advocate.
According to polls, most Americans do consider themselves pretty patriotic, and presumably, not more than a small cadre of professors and their grad students would register any significant protest to a politician wearing a lapel pin. Worse yet, by eschewing the use of patriotic symbolism, Obama and Democrats like him only hand the Republicans the stick with which to beat them.
Just close your eyes and remember what the GOP did to John Kerry in 2004. The “Swift Boat” campaign, which effectively questioned his patriotism, torpedoed his candidacy. However high-minded, the Democrats’ uneasiness with patriotic symbolism does them no good in elections.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Common sense tells you that love and loyalty to country do not have to be extreme. Nor do they have to be reflexive or blind. Ten years ago, the late philosopher Richard Rorty warned liberals of what he called the “spectatorial” approach to national politics. He counseled them to favor affection over theory.
“National pride,” he wrote in his important book “Achieving Our Country,” “is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.” Sure, you can have too much. But you can also have too little. “If political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive,” he wrote, citizens must be emotionally involved with their country. And the distilled and easily grasped significance of symbols are one important way citizens tend to connect with their nation’s identity and mission.
Think about it: Until the late 1960s, liberals had no problem wrapping themselves and their agenda in the flag. New Dealers in particular sought to identify liberal reform with patriotism. In the mid-1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt identified his struggle to change America with the struggle of the founding fathers to free themselves from Britain. In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led his march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The symbolism of the place only enhanced the grandeur of the rhetoric.
Historically, the meaning of patriotism has been fluid and open to debate. In the U.S., the primary tension has been between those who think it means unquestioning loyalty to one’s country, and those who use it to refer to devotion to the nation’s political ideals.
Clearly, Obama leans toward the latter approach. But there’s no reason why he, like FDR and King before him, couldn’t also appropriate the symbols of American patriotism in his campaign to convince Americans that our national future is bright.
“Patriotism can be hard to disentangle from a sense of us-versus-them,” said Gary Gerstle, a historian at Vanderbilt University. “But it can also enlarge the sense of the ‘we’ and build a social solidarity that can lead to positive social change.”
If Obama wins the Democratic nomination, the lapel pin incident will only hurt him in the fall. But by sporting the flag and redefining the meaning of patriotism, he could very possibly help himself, his party and us all.