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.
The idea of a ‘national divorce’ – a parting of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states into separate national agglomerations – has been floating around the conservative ecosystem recently, especially on the fringes of the too-online far-right. This idea has bubbled up several times over the past decades on both sides of the aisle – usually when a preferred presidential candidate loses an election. From the 2004 election spawning ‘Jesusland’ versus ‘United States of Canada’ maps, to the radical right-wingers pushing secession after the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, to the talk of ‘Calexit’ just days after the shock 2016 victory of Donald Trump, secession memes have been rife in 21st century American politics.
The idea of ‘unity’ in politics is a utopian pipedream, and not something which we should strive for.
It’s been less than a week of the new Biden administration and already we have a new political buzzword that is being used by both right and left: unity. In his inaugural address (and much of his messaging post-election), President Biden stressed his intention to unite the country behind his administration, saying phrases including: “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”; “To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”; “With unity we can do great things. Important things.”; “History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity.”; “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.” I could go on, as the speech was chock-full of messaging around the theme of unity. Republicans have seized on this theme and have made a stink about how the Biden administration’s early actions have been the opposite of uniting, instead delivering wins for Democrats and progressives on many contentious issues. Both parties are wrong in their focus on political unity and what that means.