Patriotism Isn’t Contingent

Love of country must not depend on partisan politics.

As always on July 4, I’ve been thinking a lot about how truly lucky I am to have been born in the greatest country on Earth. I have a deep and abiding love for this place and cannot imagine it any other way. I have great admiration for and interest in other countries – I do write about foreign policy and European history, after all – but nothing compares to America in my heart. Patriotism matters to me and always will. But this seems not to be the case among a growing proportion of our citizenry.

Increasing partisan rancor over the past 15 years has made basic love of country a tricky thing, on both sides of the political divide. Since 2013, polling on patriotism has shown a consistently downward trajectory, with the percentage of respondents saying that they are “extremely” or “very” proud of being American decreasing by 20 points over the decade. The meager 38% of people expressing extreme pride is the lowest in Gallup’s polling history by four points. The partisan split on patriotic feeling – polling shows that Republicans are, on average, prouder of being American than are Democrats – remains, but both sets of voters have seen their patriotism decline markedly. (Similar trends have held true for independents.) These shifts in patriotic feeling tend to correlate with the party in power in Washington. Democrats saw their extreme pride rise under Obama to a peak of 56% in 2013, hit rock bottom under Trump at 22% in 2019, and increase mildly to 26% under Biden in 2022. Over the same period, Republican extreme pride stood at 78% in 2009 to start Obama’s term, dropped to a low of 68% at the end of his stint in office, shot up to 76% in 2019 under Trump, and totally collapsed under Biden to a trough of 58% in 2022. Note the vast differences in similar years, especially 2019 and 2022.

Why this stunning general decline in patriotism? It varies by partisan affiliation, but events and ideology have both played important roles.

For Democrats writ large, the Trump years showed that “It Could Happen Here” © and that a significant proportion of their fellow countrymen supported – in their minds – literal fascism. The policies and personal affect of the president repulsed liberals and progressives, radicalizing many in the process. The increasing identitarian politics of the Democratic bloc – partly a response to Trumpism and partly a longer-term trend – led to an alienation from America as a country. The US was cast as a foundationally racist, sexist, homophobic, backward nation with a destructive history of imperialism, settler colonialism, genocide, and bigotry. This growing distaste for the American idea on the left was exemplified by the 1619 Project and the racial psychosis of 2020. Still, despite the defenestration of Donald Trump, this sentiment has stubbornly remained. It has been promoted under the Biden administration by a Democratic party and media that echo these messages. American history is evil; the US role abroad is bad and should be smaller; racism is systemic and can only be overcome by the destruction of American institutions. Various contrary Supreme Court decisions on contentious topics like abortion, affirmative action, and religious liberty have exacerbated these negative feelings on the left.

Increasingly, the political right has shared some of these adverse moods about the country. The Trump era, with its focus on restoring American greatness, ran down the country’s present state in the process. The talk of “American carnage,” rapacious immigrants, and a persistent, persecutory Deep State harmed patriotic feelings among many on the right. The MAGA populist wing of the party, which has grown significantly since it burst onto the scene in 2015, sees America as being in terminal decline unless their personal savior – one Donald J. Trump – is in charge. His humiliating loss in 2020 was impossible to take for these supporters, and the shadowy cabal which conspired to steal the election from him is now in charge. The progressive policies and cultural ideas which the Biden team endorses, alongside the administration’s supposed “harassment” of the former president, has turned America into a communist hellhole in the eyes these voters. America’s position at home and abroad is viewed as undeniably evil; some even go so far as to compare China and Russia favorably to the United States.

The patriotism of these people, on left and right, is contingent. It does not rest on a bedrock of principle, but on the shifting sands of partisan politics. This is wrong. Love of country, properly grounded, is not contingent. It is undying, everlasting, and consistent. And that proper grounding must rest in the timeless and nonpartisan values which constitute this nation. The principles behind America, embodied in its founding, are unique, yet universal. Our history is similarly exceptional. We are the sole nation to be founded purely on an idea: that of ordered liberty and individual right. This makes our patriotism special as well.

The words of our Declaration of Independence, officially signed and sealed on this day 247 years ago, resound through the ages. They are the greatest national statement of ideals ever to be written down. In two sentences, Thomas Jefferson summed up the ideological basis of the American experiment better than anyone has before or since.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These 55 words form the backbone to everything which has come in the centuries afterward: the glories and the failures, the booms and the busts, the immense tragedies and the epochal victories. The ideals laid out in that first true statement of the nation are perfect and, as such, we are still seeking to live up their challenge. For the contingent patriots, this is a knock against us. But, in reality, it is the opposite. The fact that we Americans, nearly two and a half centuries later, are still striving towards a more perfect union is what matters. It matters that we remain dedicated to fulfilling the promissory note our forefathers signed on a hot Philadelphia day in 1776, ever following the light of progress towards liberty and equality. Rank partisanship can never get in the way of that noble quest, one grounded firmly in the principles which define our nation.

Our 30th president, the painfully underappreciated Calvin Coolidge, knew this well. Silent Cal, as he was called, was outspoken when it came to the values which undergird this great nation. Almost a century ago, on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, he delivered perhaps the most profound speech ever made on this topic. To commemorate the sesquicentennial on July 4, 1926, Coolidge spoke about the timeless principles embodied in the Declaration, their fulfillment in the Constitution, and the need to ground our patriotism in their permanence and perfection. Coolidge’s explanation for why the Declaration itself is so critical to America’s greatness is a beautiful ode to the ideas that form the rock on which the whole national edifice was built:

“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

These crucial ideals, the basis of any true American patriotism, must be held close through the ups and downs of partisanship and petty politics. Coolidge continued:

“It is not so much, then, for the purpose of undertaking to proclaim new theories and principles that this annual celebration is maintained, but rather to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound. Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.”

These principles – liberty, equality, individual right, rule of the people – are the epitome of perfection in government. They remain the same, even for centuries, even as we sometimes fail to achieve them. They are constant, not contingent. And they are the firm foundation of patriotism that holds steadfast through any storm – domestic or foreign, partisan or political.

True patriots aren’t fairweather fans; they’re the die hards. The ones who get season tickets even when the team sucks. Who cheer for their squad even when they get shut out. They don’t abandon the team during a losing streak, only to hop on the bandwagon when they make the playoffs. I, for one, love my country no matter who is running it, what the Supreme Court decides, or how we operate abroad. My patriotism is based on the permanent values embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, our history of seeking liberty and a more perfect union, and the ideas that made our nation great. America is worth loving, regardless of the volatile, ephemeral news cycle.

On this Independence Day, we should all take the time to inquire about our own patriotism. Is it contingent, relying on who sits in the White House? Or is it constant, grounded in the rich soil of our national values, as exemplified by the document our forebears put their pens to 247 years ago? Since contingent patriotism is no patriotism at all, I know where any right-minded Americans stand.

Happy Independence Day and God Bless America.

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