Multiple Patriotisms: Is it Possible For Americans To Unify Behind One Leader?

As we get into the fall season, in addition to the normal rhythms of autumn — back to school, back from vacation, buckling down for the winter — we pass another anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, and get to witness the spectacle of Congress "getting back to work" and the 2008 Presidential race kicking into high gear. 

Frankly, Americans on both sides of the aisle have reasons to dread the latter two events.  With respect to the politically motivated among Americans (however large that population truly is), neither side will actually get anything they want, and much noise and ink will be deployed in trying to convince us otherwise.  One side will not see the US signal a willing end to the Iraq War and an admission that the policy was a mistake, whether deliberate or not — because as is apparent, this is what the "anti-war left" wants.  And the other side will not see a country that "sees the light" and finally agrees unanimously that everything in the last six years is more than justified by the gravity of the threat we face — again, as everybody in the country knows, this is what the "conservative" and traditionalists in this country want.  I leave aside the less salient but still significant aspects of political opposition in this country because, honestly, these are the big issues of the day.  As with Vietnam, the nation today is split over different models of what "patriotism" requires of citizens in our current situation.

I use the term "requires" deliberately, because I believe that we’re not talking enough about what patriotism is, and thus what might be required
of citizens who think of themselves as "patriotic Americans."  Each
side seems to think the other is unpatriotic (or worse).  Either
because one group seems to blindly support a President and his policies
despite the evidence of bad decision-making, outright lying,
power-hunger, and downright incompetence, or because the other side
appears to value abstract arguments more than "standing with your
people," "unity in time of war," and "looking after our own." 

Given how long it took me to finish this post I lost the reference, but
in the LA Times recently a veteran was interviewed who stated flat out
that opposition in war time was unpatriotic — his point was that this is not the time for discussion and opposition.  I think this sums up one model of patriotism quite nicely:  we line up behind our leaders and stand united.
From the perspective of a serving soldier or a veteran of war, this
makes sense.  It makes even more sense after watching Ken Burns’s
masterful documentary The War this past week, for loyalty is
precisely what is important to those serving in war.  Key to this view
is loyalty to country, the loyalty of one’s peers, and the idea that
loyalty exists at home to the cause for which one is fighting.

But there is another patriotism, equally strong. A loyalty to principles, foremost among them the principles along which our country was founded.
And regardless of what fear-mongering TV and radio pundits want us to
think, those principles do not include blind loyalty, whether in time
of war or not.  Democracy virtually requires an exchange of
views, not a lining-up behind a powerful personality.  Think about how
our country was founded:  in opposition to monarchy, in opposition to
royal power, in opposition to the personal rule of one man or rule by a
small aristocracy.  And yet we are told that questioning those trends
in our own country is "disloyal" and "unpatriotic."  Along with many on
the left today, I prefer to think that patriotism requires me
to question, to draw attention to the lessons of history, to be loyal
to principles (among which are the Declaration of Independence with its
strong opposition to monarchy and executive power, and the
Constitution, with its separation of powers and limited Executive

To some extent, these models of patriotism are also different models of
democracy.  I’ll try to make more of this pair of oppositions in a
future post, but one model of democracy and patriotism is majoritarian,
the other anti-majoritarian.  In one model, the majority elects
leaders, and then the whole country is supposed to follow those leaders
until it’s time to elect a different set.  The majority, and those
leaders, get to "have their way" while in power or in the majority.  In
the second model, democracy is designed to represent all views
simultaneously, and through an adverserial process of negotiation and
legislation, our elected representatives come to compromises which
please many, and displease the rest as little as possible.  It’s fairly
clear that the right, and much of the non-political public, views
democracy through the majoritarian lens.  And it’s clear that the left,
out of power, wants to view democracy as the anti-majoritarian,
adverserial and Madisonian process of balancing viewpoints. 

It’s getting harder and harder for folks who subscribe to each of these
views to talk civilly about our country’s problems.  To remain one
country and one constitutional democracy, we need to find common
ground.  I have no problem putting my support behind leaders who lead
within the rules, who lead without lying and manipulation.  In short, I
have no problem lining up behind a leader who deserves to lead.  A
couple of days ago I got invited to a fundraiser and meeting with
Senator Clinton, a fairly pricey affair.  I’m hesitant to go, because
the price of admission is declaring my support through my checkbook.
I’m not sure which of the Presidential candidates on either side are
really suited to lead this country and I’m certainly not yet willing to
pay ahead of time for the privilege of being convinced in person.  Their job, over the next year, is to convince us that one or more candidates has what it takes to unify and lead, while working within the laws and principles we hold dear.  Not that one or more candidates looks
Presidential, or has the right gravitas, or folksiness, or does the
best impression of Reagan, or talks the toughest about 9/11, or
energizes the crowd the most at rallies, or is the natural heir of JFK,
or any of the other silliness one hears constantly in political

The multiple patriotisms in this country can and should find common ground in demanding just one thing:  whether
you believe in unity behind a leader or fidelity to principle, let’s
demand more of the people to whom we hand power and authority
In return for our unified support, in return for putting aside our
differences, we require you, the prospective leader of the free world,
to cease being a partisan politician while you’re sitting in the Oval Office, and be instead the leader of all Americans.
This is a tall order, but it’s one that was ably accomplished by all of
America’s greatest Presidents, from George Washington to Lincoln to


One Comment so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Anne,

    I’m curious to know what you think of