Let’s Not Cede Patriotism

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism (University of Virginia Press and available online as a free download), addresses the question of how to advance civic nationalism. His newest video, Patriotism is Love of Country, can be found here.

Originally, my book was called In Defense of Patriotism. My editor said he loved the manuscript, but allowed that the title gave him much grief. My liberal, supportive wife felt that I should reconsider the title, and my lefty Yalie granddaughter stated flatly that she would not read “such a right-wing book.” They sighed with relief when the book was renamed: Reclaiming Patriotism. This title communicates that I do not favor embracing nationalism, but seek to rekindle love of country—one definition of patriotism—in order to curb the divisiveness that is paralyzing the government and tearing apart society.

As I see it, many good people recently did to patriotism what many liberals did to family in the Sixties; they wrote it off as an obsolete institution that had to be undone, with the other elements of the old, patriarchal order. The mood of that time is well-captured in a movie, Kramer vs. Kramer, in which a mother abandons her young child, leaving him with his father so that she can fulfill herself. The implication was that she could not do so within the context of a family. The conservative reaction to liberalism, which set in during the late Sixties and has not ceased yet, has made much political hay, especially among working-class people, by wrapping itself around the family. Eventually, liberals came around to recapture the family, pointing out that they favor an egalitarian family—and one that could be between two persons of the same gender—but were not anti-family.

These days, too many on the left equate patriotism with nationalism, which they in turn believe to be jingoistic, involving an aggressive foreign policy combined with authoritarianism at home. They have ample reason for concern, given the way nationalism has fueled Brexit and is leading half a dozen other E.U. members to retreat from the post-nationalism community. Hungary, Poland, and Italy are among the nations that are reestablishing their national borders, increasingly rejecting policies advanced by the E.U. community, turning away asylum seekers, and developing authoritarian traits. The rise of right-wing national parties in France, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and even Germany is threatening the democratic foundations of these nations. No wonder progressive people seek “globalist” policies, such as promoting human rights, havens for asylum seekers, and the free flow of goods across national borders.

Moreover, one can readily show that the world would be much better-served if we could move to a post-nationalist world, given that many of the problems nations face require global treatments. Avoiding wars, controlling climate change, stopping epidemics, curbing human trafficking, and enhancing economic growth all would benefit greatly if one could significantly enhance global governance. However, the sociological fact is that the loyalty of most people, their sense of identity and community, continues to be greatly invested in their nations—and that no one has been able to come up with ways to transfer this loyalty to even a regional community like the E.U., let alone a community at the global level.

As a result, public leaders who ignore or downplay nationalism end up inflaming it. A much more realistic approach is to tame it by promoting what some call civic nationalism or patriotism. One can express love of country while rejecting the idea that our nation is superior to other nations and hence we ought to force our values on other people—just as we can love our spouse but not insist that everybody else admire her or him too. Americans can appreciate that the nation’s history is bending toward justice, that one group after another has gained rights, without denying that none have received their due. Americans can acknowledge that there is racism, chauvinism, and homophobia in the country that must be addressed, without agreeing that the nation is consumed by white supremacy or dominated by bigotry. Love of country does not mean ignoring flaws but does mean that we refuse to allow it to be defined by them. It calls for major reforms, but also for rejecting the rhetoric of revolution that entails tearing down the prevailing institutions and forming radically different ones.

I faced the difference between rejecting aggressive nationalism and embracing “good” nationalism in a minor but telling incident: the publisher of my book, a highly respected university press, adamantly refused to put the image of the flag on the cover of Reclaiming Patriotism. The publisher held that the flag would signal that it was a jingoistic book. I felt that the flag symbolized that which unites us a nation and that we should not cede it to nationalists. I pointed out that President Obama was wearing it on his lapel. Megan Rapinoe—openly gay, fiercely critical of Trump and his policies—wrapped herself in the flag during her victory lap in France when her team won the 2019 Women’s World Cup. However, I failed to carry the day.

We had best recall that we are members of the great national family of the United States and that we face a shared future, which calls on us to curb our differences and relearn how to work together. We should make it clear that because we are critical of the U.S., because we seek a more perfect union, does not mean we love it less, and hence we should not let anybody deny our patriotism. We can vigorously protect our right to burn the flag—but fly it high.


Article by Amitai Etzioni

This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2019 – 2020. Click here to go back to the contents.