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What Does It Really Mean to Be Patriotic?

Lee H. Hamilton | 11/27/2018, noon
Patriotism has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. French President Emanuel Macron recently criticized President Trump and other ...

Patriotism has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. French President Emanuel Macron recently criticized President Trump and other world leaders for their “us versus them” view of patriotism. “By putting our own interests first,” he said, “with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”

Meanwhile, just ahead of the midterm elections, The New York Times noted that two clashing visions of patriotism were heading to the polls. President Trump and Republicans saw patriotism as “conspicuous displays of respect for the traditional expressions of America — the flag, the military, the Pledge of Allegiance.” Democrats, by contrast, saw it as protecting the norms and institutions of our democracy.

I don’t entirely buy this distinction, at least when it comes to partisan labels. I’ve known plenty of Democrats who consider it patriotic to honor the flag, the military, and the Pledge. And I’ve known a lot of Republicans who value our democratic traditions.

The vast majority of Americans consider themselves patriots — even if, as Gallup found in June, less than half of poll respondents considered themselves “extremely proud” to be American. This was the first time this has happened in almost two decades of polling on the question.

The two broad strands outlined by The Times inarguably exist. We all remember the naval hero Stephen Decatur's famous toast in 1816, "Our country, right or wrong." And Senator Carl Schurz’s amendment a half-century later: "My country, right or wrong — if right, to be kept right, if wrong, to be set right." We may criticize our country, in other words, but this is not motivated by malice. It’s motivated by special affection and a belief that a great country can be made greater.

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” President Clinton argued, laying out a vision of patriotism that is not about symbols, but about building on a nation’s intangible strengths.

I buy that. I believe that patriotism means getting on with the serious business of improving our country. It means that we strive to ensure that we live up to our pledge of liberty and justice for all. In this formulation, patriotism is best expressed not in parades or speeches or exhortations or conspicuous displays, but in what we do.

Perhaps the most persuasive description I’ve heard on this score was Adlai Stevenson’s. “True patriotism is not manifested in short, frenzied bursts of emotion,” he said. “It is the tranquil, steady dedication of a lifetime.”

Stevenson hit the nail square on the head. So much of our national discussion of patriotism is about military heroes. This is important, but it’s an incomplete view of love of country. I’d argue that we encounter patriotism at all levels of American life. The teacher in the classroom, the parents who raise their children to be good citizens, the clerk who keeps town records and helps people vote, the ordinary working person who goes about her tasks with dedication and proficiency — patriotism can be found everywhere in our communities, among all kinds of people who pursue their lives with the good of the country at heart.

We have inherited a magnificent political legacy, a set of customs and traditions and, yes, moral values that give ordinary people the tools and power to improve life for themselves and succeeding generations.

Patriotism lies in our efforts to enlarge that legacy so that it applies to all citizens. It means we defend civil liberties, the right to dissent, and the equality before the law of all Americans. And it means that upholding our core values — tolerance, mutual respect, the right of everyone to be heard, the belief that in pursuing our own lives and interests we all are capable of contributing

to the vibrancy of our democracy — is every bit as patriotic as placing our hand over our heart while reciting the Pledge.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.