Do me a favor and take a moment to close your eyes and imagine this scenario: a massive parade or protest with people waving the American flag, chanting USA!, and claiming they are patriots…. What do you see?
If you are like me, that image has been heavily influenced by what I have seen when scrolling through social media posts or watching and reading the news these past several years, especially during this election cycle. It has become increasingly difficult to separate the American flag and the concept of being a patriot from being at a Trump rally or at a demonstration led by members of various white nationalist or supremacist movements.
When did this image become the norm, and how can it be reimagined? As someone who identifies as a Filipino American, a liberal, and a veteran, I think that to re-define what it means to be a patriot is important not only for my own identity but also for the Democratic Party, of which I am a member.
I can already hear an objection from my fellow liberals and those who belong to the more leftist side of the Democratic Party: How can one have a love for and pride in a nation with so many flaws and such a checkered past? They could cite slavery, the massacring of Native Americans and the acquisition of their lands, police brutality, our role in countless conflicts overseas, our increasing income gap, the continuation of hate crimes, and so much more.
I believe the first step in reimagining patriotism is to take a moment to define a couple of terms: patriotism and nationalism. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, patriotism, or to be a patriot, is to have a love for or devotion to one’s country; nationalism is taking that devotion and placing your nation and its interests above all others. I believe that clearly defining these terms is the crucial first step because it provides an immediate separation between the two, and permits us to embrace patriotism for what it truly stands for instead of viewing the co-opted rendition that has been espoused by various nationalistic movements.
“National Pride [patriotism] is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement,” philosopher Richard Rorty said. “Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism [and nationalism], just as excessive pride can produce arrogance.”
At this hour, we find our nation, and many within the Democratic Party, holding the opposite point of view. We have little to no national pride and no confidence that those we elect have our best interests in mind.
The second step is to acknowledge the history of the damage we have done as a nation, as well as the areas within our system that continue to oppress many members of our society. I believe, however, that instead of calling for the demolition of the system, we have to double down on the progress we have made. We need to have the faith and courage to endure and face the challenges that will allow us to grow from here. While a total transformation of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the police, our prison system, our education system, or even how we address climate change are lofty and worthy end goals to have in mind, the realistic way in which they have to be implemented to make effective and long lasting change takes time and requires patriotism of our citizenry.
I draw my understanding of patriotism from the words of Sociologist Roberto Mangabeira Unger:
“To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as it is, however, is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in which it shows what it might become. America—this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes—needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”
We liberals need to learn how to effectively sustain a reasonable form of patriotism, one which increases the level of civic participation, enhances the trust of the American people in their shared polity, and promotes the continuous reimagination of the type of nation we aspire to be, without blindly supporting America when it does heinous things.
This form of patriotism allows us to acknowledge the progress we have made. It permits us to criticize our past and present imperfections so that we can continue to make the changes needed to improve the lives of all our citizens. And it allows us to transform the way the average citizen can be a patriot. As we have grinded our way through the 2020 Elections, citizens across the country have been willing to stand in line for hours, sometimes in the pouring rain. This year, an unprecedented number of voters have participated in the political process to elect our nation’s president. This type of patriotism isn’t easy. It calls for vast amounts of dedication and the realization that effective change takes time and that the goals we strive for will most likely not be reached within a single president’s term in office or even our own lifetimes. However, this is the type of patriotism that we need.
Now, please close your eyes again and imagine the same scenario I sketched at the beginning of the article: A parade or protest of people waving the American flag, chanting USA!, and claiming they are patriots…along with placards, flags, and banners supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community, and the working class. The crowd now includes individuals representing multiple ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, socioeconomic classes, and political opinions. These are people who not only love the nation they call home but are also willing to reimagine, and fight for, what it might become.
Jordan Agricula can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.