When critics challenge Barack Obama's patriotism, his supporters have a ready reply: True patriotism has nothing to do with little flags on politicians' lapels. It's not about symbols; it's about actions. It's not about odes to American greatness; it's about taking on your government when it goes astray.
But there Obama is, in his first TV advertisement of the general-election campaign, talking about his "deep and abiding faith in the country I love." And there, perched below his left shoulder, is a subtle, but not too subtle reminder: a tiny American flag.
Obama's no fool. He may not believe that things like flag pins should matter politically, but he knows the difference between should and does. Since Vietnam, the ability to associate oneself with patriotic symbols has often been the difference between Democrats who win and Democrats who lose. Why couldn't George McGovern buy a white working-class vote in 1972? Partly, as the great campaign chronicler Theodore White noted, because virtually every member of Richard Nixon's Cabinet wore a flag lapel button, and no one in McGovern's entourage did. Michael Dukakis lost in 1988 because as governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill requiring teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance, a veto the Republicans never let him forget.
Obama is trying to follow a different path, blazed by Robert F. Kennedy, who in 1967--just as he was coming out against the Vietnam War--co-sponsored legislation raising penalties for protesters who desecrate the flag. For his part, John McCain is a walking American flag, his heroic biography at the root of his entire campaign. What both campaigns understand is that American patriotism wears two faces: a patriotism of affirmation, which appeals more to conservatives, and a patriotism of dissent, particularly cherished by liberals. Both brands are precious, and both are dangerous. And in this campaign, the candidate who embodies the best of both will probably win.
Preserving the Past
On the surface, defining patriotism is simple. It is love and devotion to country. The questions are why we love it and how we express our devotion. That's where the arguments begin.
The conservative answer is implicit in the title of John McCain's 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers. Why should we love America? In part, at least, because our forefathers did. Think about the lyrics to America ("My Country, 'Tis of Thee"): "Land where my fathers died,/ Land of the Pilgrims' pride." Most liberals don't consider those the best lines of the song. What about the Americans whose fathers died somewhere else? What about all the nasty stuff the Pilgrims did? But conservatives generally want to conserve, and that requires a reverence for the past. What McCain's title implies is that patriotism isn't a choice; it's an inheritance. Being born into a nation is like being born into a religion or a family. You may be called on to reaffirm the commitment as you reach adulthood--as McCain did by joining the military--but it is impressed upon you early on, by those who have come before.
That's why conservatives tend to believe that loving America today requires loving its past. Conservatives often fret about "politically correct" education, which forces America's students to dwell on its past sins. They're forever writing books like America: The Last Best Hope (by William J. Bennett) and America: A Patriotic Primer (by Lynne Cheney), which teach children that historically the U.S. was a pretty nifty place. These books are based on the belief that our national forefathers are a bit like our actual mothers and fathers: if we dishonor them, we dishonor ourselves. That's why conservatives got so upset when Michelle Obama said that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" (a comment she says was misinterpreted). In the eyes of conservatives, those comments suggested a lack of gratitude toward the nation that--as they saw it--has given her and the rest of us so much.
Conservatives know America isn't perfect, of course. But they grade on a curve. Partly that's because they generally take a dimmer view of human nature than do their counterparts on the left. When evaluating America, they're more likely to remember that for most of human history, tyranny has been the norm. By that standard, America looks pretty good. Conservatives worry that if Americans don't appreciate--and celebrate--their nation's past accomplishments, they'll assume the country can be easily and dramatically improved. And they'll end up making things worse. But if conservatives believe that America is, comparatively, a great country, they also believe that comparing America with other countries is beside the point. It's like your family: it doesn't matter whether it's objectively better than someone else's. You love it because it is yours.
The President who best summoned this brand of patriotism was Ronald Reagan. After the humiliation of Vietnam, stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan--the nation's oldest President--served as a living link to a stronger, prouder, earlier America. "I would like to be President because I would like to see this country become once again a country where a little 6-year-old girl can grow up knowing the same freedom that I knew when I was 6 years old, growing up in America," he once declared. As a matter of historical fact, that statement was downright bizarre. When Reagan was 6, in 1917, women and most blacks couldn't vote, and America's entry into World War I was whipping up an anti-German frenzy so vicious that some towns in Reagan's native Midwest banned the playing of Beethoven and Brahms. But for Reagan, who sometimes confused movies with real life, history usually meant myth. In his mind, American history was the saga of brave, good-hearted men and women battling daunting odds but forever trying to do the right thing. His favorite TV show was Little House on the Prairie.
As President, Reagan convinced many Americans that they were living in that mythic land once again. He was a master at associating himself with America's cherished symbols. The images in his 1984 "Morning in America" ad--the fresh-faced lad on his paper route, the proud mother in the simple church watching her daughter walk down the aisle, the burly man gently hoisting an American flag--moistened even many liberal eyes. In fact, Reagan practically became one of those symbols himself: the cowboy President, sitting astride his horse, framed by a rugged Western terrain.