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McCain is a little rougher around the edges. Unlike Reagan, who during the Second World War only played soldiers on the big screen, McCain has actually seen combat. And as it did Bob Dole, the experience has made him a little more ironic and a little less sappy. (Dole tried to play the Reagan role in 1996, asking Americans in his convention acceptance speech to "let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth," but he couldn't pull it off.) But if McCain isn't Reagan, he still exemplifies many of conservative patriotism's key themes. He followed in his forefathers' footsteps; he put aside his hell-raising youth and learned to obey. He served his country in Vietnam, an unpopular war whose veterans we honor not because their service necessarily made the world a better place but simply because they are ours.
On one key issue, though--immigration--McCain's view of patriotism differs from that of many on the right. Conservatives tend to believe that while Americans are bound together by the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, they are also bound together by a set of inherited traditions that immigrants must be encouraged--even required--to adopt. And they fret that if newcomers don't assimilate into that common culture, they won't be truly patriotic. McCain rarely discusses the dangers of mass immigration, but for many conservatives, the fact that some immigrants eat vindaloo or bok choy rather than turkey on Thanksgiving isn't charming; it's worrisome. They see multiculturalism as the celebration of various ethnic cultures at our national culture's expense. And when that celebration is linked to the claim that America's national traditions are racist--as it sometimes is on college campuses--conservatives begin to suspect that multiculturalism is leading to outright disloyalty. That's why conservative talk radio and Fox News went berserk a couple of years back when some immigrant activists paraded through America's cities waving Mexican flags. It confirmed their deepest fear: that if you let people retain their native tongue and let them spurn American culture for the culture of their native land, they will remain politically loyal to their native land as well.
Hoping for a Braver Future
If conservatives tend to see patriotism as an inheritance from a glorious past, liberals often see it as the promise of a future that redeems the past. Consider Obama's original answer about the flag pin: "I won't wear that pin on my chest," he said last fall. "Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism." Will make this country great? It wasn't great in the past? It's not great as it is?
The liberal answer is, Not great enough. For liberals, America is less a common culture than a set of ideals about democracy, equality and the rule of law. American history is a chronicle of the distance between those ideals and reality. And American patriotism is the struggle to narrow the gap. Thus, patriotism isn't about honoring and replicating the past; it's about surpassing it.
If Reagan best evoked conservative patriotism, many liberals still identify their brand with John F. Kennedy, a leader forever associated with unfulfilled promise. If Reagan conjured the past, Kennedy downplayed it, urging Americans to instead grab hold of the future. He liked to cite Goethe, who "tells us in his greatest poem that Faust lost the liberty of his soul when he said to the passing moment, 'Stay, thou art so fair.'" Americans risked a similar fate, Kennedy warned, "if we pause for the passing moment, if we rest on our achievements, if we resist the pace of progress ... Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future."
Obama's political persona is also deeply bound up with youth, promise and liberation from the constraints of the past. In McCain's life, patriotism is about replicating and honoring what came before: the son and grandson of admirals becomes a war hero. In Obama's, patriotism is about escaping what came before: the grandson of an African farmer becomes the embodiment of the American Dream. If McCain's identity has been shaped largely by inherited tradition, Obama's is largely the result of personal invention, a deeply American concept. Obama chose a profession, a city, a religious identity, even a racial one, mostly on his own. His first book is called not Faith of My Fathers--how could it be, since in so many ways he has created his own faith?--but Dreams from My Father, since Obama imagined a father he never knew and from those dreams constructed a life. If some conservatives worry that America's recent immigration wave is fracturing the nation, Obama represents the liberal faith that assimilation is relatively easy and that newcomers don't divide America; they improve it.
Obama's election would, like Kennedy's, represent a triumph over past prejudice. The election of an African American, like the election of a Catholic, would be a sign that America is--as Michelle Obama implied--a different and better nation than it was before, one more worthy of the patriotism of all its citizens. Liberals are more comfortable thinking about America that way: as a nation that must earn its citizens' devotion by making good on its ideals. For conservatives, the devotion must come first; politics is secondary. But for liberals, patriotic devotion without political struggle is often empty. Liberals think lapel pins are fine if they inspire Americans to struggle to realize the nation's promise. But they worry that those symbols can become--especially when wielded by people in power--substitutes for that struggle and thus emblems of hypocrisy and complacency.