The State of American Patriotism

Recently, a student government council at the University of California, Irvine voted to remove all flags, including and especially the American flag, from a student lounge. The flag ban was meant to create a more inclusive space, but the American flag was also targeted for specific reasons. According to the six students who made the decision, the flag symbolizes “colonialism” and “imperialism,” and therefore is not appropriate in a public space for students of all nationalities, political philosophies and creeds. The ban quickly met backlash from the university, the media, and the general student government at UC Irvine, which quickly overturned the decision. Even so, the controversy at Irvine is not over; a meeting planned to discuss the flag ban was cancelled due to the threats of violence. Such a vitriolic response to a trivial decision to remove flags from an “obscure campus lobby” is a telling one. Calls from conservatives to make these six students, responsible for a decision that affected almost no one, “famous” is indicative of how contentious debate surrounded patriotic symbols, like the flag, can be.

The firestorm at Irvine is not an anomaly, though, when it comes to controversies surrounding American patriotism. With the 2016 presidential contest looming, Republicans have resurrected a question they’ve entertained since the 2008 election: whether President Obama loves America or not. Rudy Giuliani, once one of the most popular political figures in the country, recently accused the president of inciting violence towards police officers and decried his lack of patriotism. And Giuliani’s rhetoric isn’t an outlier, by any means. GOP presidential contenders from Mike Huckabee to Jeb Bush have all weighed in on Obama’s lack of loyalty and pride for his country.

The controversy surrounding the flag and what it means to love your country bring to light three of the current prevailing ideas surrounding American patriotism and its current state in political dialogue. There are the UC Irvine council students and their supporters, who claim the flag, and by extension American patriotism, is symbolic of racist, systematic oppression. And there are Republicans like Giuliani who believe that to love your country means to absolutely defend it and insist on its superiority, accepting American ideals of exceptionalism without question. Finally, there is, what seems to be the president’s view. For Obama, and many of his ideological allies, to love one’s country does not mean to support it blindly or ignore its failings, but to believe in its core values and the opportunities those core values can realize.

The idea that American patriotism is a noxious phenomenon, capable of stirring “nationalistic” sentiment and disseminating dangerous ideals is not a new one, and certainly not unique to UC Irvine’s campus. This notion that the flag stands for hatred and violence was prevalent throughout the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam protests, many of which occurred on college campuses. Today, even at southern schools like Louisiana State University, where there was recently a controversy over a graduate student insistent on burning the flag in public, there are college students who view American patriotism, and the flag, in a similarly negative light. Furthermore, this criticism of excessive patriotism is not only an attitude of idealistic youth and college students. In fact, numerous professors at UC Irvine came out defending the instituted flag ban. This view that patriotism in all its forms is exclusionary and inherently lifts up the bigotry and violence characteristic of some of America’s history is largely out of step with the general American public. After all, 80 percent of Americans in 2010 believed that the United States was the greatest country in the world.

Giuliani and other prominent conservatives offer a differing, and perhaps more popular, view of patriotism. Their definition can be gleaned from their critiques on the president’s patriotism or lack thereof. Mike Huckabee claims that Obama hopes to see America weaken, while Jeb Bush claims that he doesn’t believe “American power is a force for good.” So to Huckabee and Bush, and many other influential Republicans, being patriotic means asserting and supporting American strength. Giuliani adds an addendum to this definition, claiming that Obama doesn’t love America because he “wasn’t brought up” the way many “we” were. This idea that being raised the American way means having two clean-cut conservative white parents is not only wrong but also hypocritical, given that Giuliani’s own father was heavily involved in organized crime. To some conservatives like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and now Rudy Giuliani, being raised in Hawaii by a single mother and two white grandparents, one of whom was a war veteran, with an African and absent father disqualifies you from legitimately loving the United States.

A more recent and most interesting addition to the ultra-conservative definition of love for this country is a love for “colonialism.” In Dinesh D’Souza’s massively successful 2012 documentary, “2016: Obama’s America,” one of the major themes was how Obama’s alleged anti-colonial sentiment contributed to his lack of patriotism. Colonialism is not usually attributed to patriotism but to D’Souza there is a direct correlation. D’Souza, Newt Gingrich and now Rudy Giuliani believe an admiration for colonialism is a precondition to loving America. And apparently, in that department, the president is lacking.

This confusing conception of patriotism is the version that often overreacts to the shallowest displays of disrespect. Forgetting to wear an American flag lapel pin, for example, or to place a hand over your heart during the national anthem become tantamount to treason. Failure to embrace America’s past and present wholeheartedly is condemned as an attack on the country and its ideals. This superficial patriotism, the kind that focuses on flag code rather than supporting American peace efforts, as Republicans failed to do recently in the Senate, sending a letter to Iran denouncing ongoing and intense peace negotiations regarding nuclear weapons, undermines the patriotism Obama speaks of, that is, pride in the core values that most Americans hold true.

During last week’s speech on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the bridge where fifty years prior African-Americans marching for voting rights had been brutally attacked, President Obama articulated his version of patriotism:

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” 

A “self-critical” patriotism is certainly harder to articulate and accept than that espoused by the UC Irvine student council or Giuliani, but it seems to be the most edifying because it allows Americans to support and love their country without forcing them to support and love all of its actions. President Obama views patriotism as nuanced; being patriotic, to him, does not force an awkward pride for America’s wrongs—mass incarceration, slavery, segregation, Iraq and Vietnam, gender inequality, imperialism and bigotry. Rather, it means being proud of our “highest ideals.” These are the ideals that Americans are taught in elementary school, chief among them that the American government ought to guarantee, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” History proves that America has constantly betrayed these ideals for economic benefit or to assert its preeminence on the world stage. Still, if the arc of American history leans towards these values, and if there are Americans who everyday are fighting for them, at least to President Obama, America is worthy of pride.

The 2016 presidential election will bring with it the quadrennial competition to be the most patriotic presidential candidate. While the Democratic nominee, presumably Hillary Clinton, will tout her decades of service to her country, her opponent will claim she worked all her life for her own advancement and never for the advancement of America. And in the end, patriotism probably won’t play a huge role in determining the outcome. It didn’t in 2008. John McCain, a man whose patriotism was proven by physical scars, tried to define his opponent as an apologist and subversive, but in the end, Obama won a decisive victory. The candidate in 2016, too, probably won’t win because they seemed the most patriotic. But, the American public will continue having this debate. As students at UC Irvine, conservative pundits, and President Obama define their forms of patriotism, the public will continue to as well. Rather than directly affecting just one political contest, the winning definition will surely affect the trajectory of American domestic and foreign policy for generations to come.