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Salvo 01.20.2022 15 minutes

Post-Patriotic America Will Be Worse Than You Think

Man in front of American flag pulls a face

Saving America means saving more than just America.

As a high school and university civics teacher for 24 years, I am rarely at a loss for words. But today, some of the things my students utter leave me more than a little intrigued.

“I just don’t want to live in a country with a health care system like this one.” 

“I’m not sure the compromises in Philadelphia two hundred years ago were worth it.” 

“I don’t think patriotism makes any sense. I didn’t choose to be born here. Why be proud of it?” 

Ten or twenty years ago—when classrooms functioned more as arenas for intellectual engagement than citadels of emotional support—I would have pushed back a bit against such youthful drivel. These days I just nod and gently ask why they feel that way. 

The lack of patriotism in young Americans has been well documented. Surveys and polls consistently reveal the same trends: for many young people America is just meh. Last year, a youth survey by Harvard Public Opinion Project revealed that only 33 percent of respondents viewed themselves as “patriots.” The results were worse among those who identify as Democrats. When asked what they associated with the word “patriot,” they listed words like “racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and ignorance.”

Which brings us to the drama from last summer. 

Virtually every pundit and member of the commentariat felt compelled to say something substantive about the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory. Predictably, most people fell into their partisan camps, with progressives making the case that modern inequality is intimately tied to transgressions from the past and conservatives responding that blanket condemnations of the men and women who built the nation are not only bad history but, as Helen Andrews of The American Conservative has noted, “nothing could be more toxic to our ongoing effort to build a multiracial democracy than to cast any race as perennial hero or villain.”

The modern American left often argues that social progress is impeded because too many Americans don’t want to “face our history” or give a “full account” of “white supremacy.” They believe the horrors of deep prejudice and discrimination are still omnipresent, albeit camouflaged in the trappings of clandestine persecution—racism is not legal, it’s “systematic.” Bias is not overt, it’s “implicit.”     

Talk like this worries those of us who believe in our founding principles. And yet, for all the bombast and hysteria, what occurred last summer was actually a healthy national debate because it highlighted a fundamental tension in the American regime: how does a pluralistic society teach a deeply flawed national history that is not so riven with self-loathing that it undermines the renewal of the American Experiment itself?

A nation based on “a proposition,” to use Lincoln’s formulation, is uniquely vulnerable to being corrupted from within. If American citizenship is a matter of broad acquiescence to the liberal principles of natural law, inalienable rights, equality of opportunity, and limited government, then teaching a particular narrative of American history that indicts these same principles—suggesting racism is deeply imbedded in the national “DNA”—will result in a deep and lasting indictment of the nation for young people taking these falsehoods to heart.

This is the real danger of declining patriotism.

As we are embroiled in a debate over 1776 and 1619 over how we should educate our youth about America, my contention is that this is not the most important debate about the health of the American polity. My worry about the death of patriotism is more relational than epistemological or educational.

I worry less about young people hating America and more about their inability to understand and appreciate a basic tenet of American patriotism: how ought the citizens of a nation defined by geographic, economic, and racial diversity engage one another? We keep asking the question, “what should young Americans know about their country” when the more pressing question is “how do citizens treat those with whom they disagree?”   

As to the debate about history, let’s agree everyone should know that George Washington led the Continental Army, defeated the British, chaired the Constitutional Convention, became the first president—and that he had slaves. We should embrace nuance and complexity about all of our extraordinary but flawed leaders.

The more troublesome trend in our national soul, what truly imperils our future, is ignorance about what healthy patriotism looks like for today’s multiracial nation. Much of being an American is wedded to an understanding of how to treat one another, how to hold discussions and reach accords of agreement, what it means to engage and renew our public and civic institutions from generation to generation.

On this score our nation is in real danger.

If we don’t learn how to leave our political bubbles and social media silos and meaningfully engage those with whom we disagree, then a post-patriotic America will be exclusively populated by what I am witnessing in my classroom: cool kids and contrarians. Cool kids who parrot the ephemeral zig and zag of social media algorithms rife with snark and anti-American outrage, and contrarians who respond by bolting to the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, ethno-nationalism, and paranoia without end.

But neither self-loathing nor mindless tautologies are any way to govern a great nation. Cool kids and contrarians do not co-exist peacefully. In fact, they don’t even really want to talk to one another. Denizens of a post-patriotic nation are quick to see “the other,” reflexively clinging to both regionalism and a proud parochialism that is more one-upmanship than it is genuine pride in one’s home and hearth. This is why robust civic education that highlights patriotic values and behaviors rocks the cradle of a healthy democratic society.

Being an American and exercising genuine patriotism requires not just knowledge of the mind (knowing about our national history and constitution), but habits of the heart. This is not where we are headed. Many worry that a post-patriotic America will be a place where citizens won’t stand for the national anthem and children unapologetically don Che Guevara t-shirts in public. But the broader, more long-term, implication of civic ignorance is how such a nation will view political power. A representative democracy is only as wise and just as the leaders it elects. Once leadership descends into a form of balkanized rage, accountable only to one’s supporters or donors, then political discourse becomes gladiatorial in nature, rewarding the sharpest elbows and most vituperative tongues. Our public institutions will bear more resemblance to the Roman Coliseum than the Roman Rostrum.

When cool kids and contrarians decide to elect their representatives who will we get? Not Cicero, but Caesar. Not parliamentarians, but preening partisans. Not statesmen, but clowns. The aim will no longer be the writing and passage of just laws aiming to solve problems in a wise and prudent manner, but “representation” of each aggrieved fault line present in the body politic of today. Instead of electing sensible legislators we will select provocateurs whose function will be to annoy and disrupt instead of facilitate deliberation on the common good. Candidates who win will become functionaries of payback and retribution rather than legislative agents entrusted with the public good. 

Statecraft will prove to be impossible when power is used in such a reactionary and reductive manner. True patriots don’t just “love America.” They love the republic and the republican traditions that renew it.    

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