There are two good reasons why every American progressive should be a patriot. One is emotional, the other practical—and they reinforce one another.
I love my country. I love our passionate and endlessly inventive culture of music, sports, literature, and film, which has thrilled and influenced people all over the world. I cherish our civic ideals of social equality, individual freedom, and populist democracy—as well as the unending struggle to put their laudable, if often contradictory, claims into practice.
But you need not share my emotion to recognize a political reality: One cannot engage effectively in the democratic process without being part of a community of feeling. And for most Americans, their nation, with all its flaws, is a community they are willing to defend.
Iconic figures on the left have always understood this. They have demonstrated that American patriotism could serve tolerant, egalitarian ends as well as racist, authoritarian, and imperialist ones. Tom Paine praised his adopted homeland as an “asylum for mankind,” which gave him a forum to denounce regressive taxes and landed aristocracies. Frederick Douglass based his hopes for the abolition of slavery on “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions” as well as an interracial movement for freedom. Eugene Debs described socialism, in the American idiom, as “the equal rights of all to manage and control” society; while Mother Jones, the great labor organizer, accused coal mine operators of crushing the self-respect of their workers. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed during the Montgomery bus boycott that “if we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong” and “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
Most of these figures, in their own ways, also engaged in a transnational effort to advance equality and tolerance. But each also depended on the power and legitimacy of American ideals to gain mass support for the changes they desired.
Back in the days when the US military was scorching Indochina and killing its people, I abandoned the conviction that one could be both a patriot and a moral person. I didn’t burn any flags, but neither did I condemn those who did. However, I grew increasingly worried about the contradiction between the utter transformation we New Leftists sought to bring about and our increasing alienation from the mass of our fellow citizens we would need to join us in fighting for that better USA. When I read, in 1970, the Black leftist Julius Lester’s reflection that “American radicals are perhaps the first radicals anywhere who have sought to make a revolution in a country which they hate,” it seemed both profound and painful.
Patriotism will continue to flourish, whether or not progressives embrace it. When left intellectuals and activists abandoned speaking in terms of American ideals in the late 1960s and after, they lost the ability to speak convincingly to their fellow citizens. Although left intellectuals can take credit for spearheading a multicultural, gender-aware revision of the humanities and social sciences, their record outside the academy has been far less impressive. The right has long set the political agenda, in part because its partisans spoke forcefully in the name of American principles that knit together such disparate groups as anti-union businessmen, white evangelicals, Jewish neoconservatives, and traditionalist Catholics.
We should take the brutal treatment of Uyghurs in China as seriously as we regard the police killings of Black people at home. And climate change obviously cannot be stopped or reversed within national borders. But political power still resides with nation-states and their governments—and will for a very long time to come. No planetary government is on the horizon.
Leftists don’t need to chant patriotic slogans or affix flag pins to their lapels or handbags. But to rail against patriotism and its symbols is to wage a losing battle—one that marginalizes us and sets us against the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Past progressives have bequeathed a rich storehouse of statements about how to join activism to Americanist ends. Langston Hughes, for instance, expressed his vision during the Great Depression:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above….
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Throughout history, and still today, the most effective way to love our country is to fight like hell to change it.
This past January, an Indian family died during their attempt to illegally cross into the US from Canada. Canadian police found their frozen bodies in a field—father, mother, and two children—just 12 yards from the border. They may have thought that the blizzard and poor visibility would work in their favor, keeping them hidden from the eyes of the US Border Patrol.
I recount this story because it depicts the hypocrisy of liberal patriotism. Belief in the equality of human beings and a commitment to the welfare of less fortunate others, this example shows, are readily abandoned when it comes to the rights of those who are deemed “others” by accidents of inheritance and geography. A country with a border regime that has made instant detention normal even for asylum seekers is not one that values dignity for all humans. Commentators like British author George Monbiot have likened patriotism to racism. In his essay “The New Chauvinism,” Monbiot points out that patriotism produces a proclivity to attack other countries and that national allegiance does nothing to reduce human suffering. The United States and its “patriotic” wars are examples of this phenomenon. Monbiot asks rhetorically, “If patriotism were not such a powerful force in the US, could Bush have invaded Iraq?”
As right-wing populism gains strength, some have called for the US left to embrace patriotic sentiments and not leave “love of the flag” to white supremacists. This is misguided, because the result would be to eviscerate the left’s already limited commitments to supranational humanitarianism and ending the catastrophes caused by the United States’ patriotic wars. One example is the relative silence of liberals in the face of President Biden’s decision to seize Afghan currency reserves and distribute half the funds to the victims of 9/11. The terms of this plan demonstrate that compensating Americans for an attack that occurred over 20 years ago (and in which no Afghan was directly involved) is valued more than helping the millions of people in Afghanistan on the brink of starvation. Biden’s plan invokes patriotism to cover up the administration’s outrageous cruelty and indifference to mass death. The American invasion, the botched withdrawal, and the theft of Afghan money have left Afghanistan with a famine that could kill hundreds of thousands—but those who carry out diktats in the name of patriotism seem entirely comfortable with this.
Nationalism, from which patriotism is drawn, is deeply invested in maintaining different duties of care and then justifying that difference by attributing a greater sense of “deservedness” to citizens than to interloping others. Those “others” may be the migrants who perish just yards from the US border. They may also be among the millions of Afghans who had to endure a US invasion and occupation and must now watch as money that could provide humanitarian assistance is distributed to victims of a terrorist attack in which they had no hand. Patriotism not only gives unearned entitlement to those waging war but also places collective blame on those against whom the war is waged. If you dally with patriotism, then its mother, nationalism, will come along and tell you that noncitizens deserve their misfortune.
The left must be committed to devising a better balance between a state’s responsibilities to its citizens and its responsibilities to the world community. In the past, the social welfare state has been an argument in favor of left patriotism in that it pursues a just, redistributive agenda. This premise must be rethought and its claims to justice questioned as long as the criteria for citizenship remain limited to parental lineage and geography of birth. One possibility would be a thicker concept of citizenship that deemphasizes arbitrary factors and creates new pathways to citizenship. In its absence, the US must at least make more allowances for asylum seekers, refugees, and economic and climate migrants. The argument for this is not patriotism but an internationalism that values human beings no matter where they are or who their parents are.
The increasing primacy of the virtual realm in shaping our lives already points to a future in which the world will not be as bound by geographical borders. This truth, even aside from any substantive commitment to equality and justice, proves how foolish it would be to slide back into the xenophobia that patriotism implies. If we can work with, talk to, befriend, and love others who do not share our geography, then why should our ideas of community or belonging be based on territory and lineage? The nationalisms of the moment—racist, rabid, and loud as they may be—are vestiges of a past when the nation-state was supreme.
We do not inhabit that world any longer, and our efforts to force its constructs on our evolving world can only result in tragedies like the one that befell the Indian family trying to make it to America. Patriotism is an unjust, dated concept that values tribalism over equality and human dignity.