76 Theses on American patriotism
It might be time for a reminder on what makes a patriot.
By Timothy Taylor
1. Patriotism is love for one’s country.
2. To describe patriotism, one can adapt St. Paul’s comments about “love” in 1 Corinthians: “Patriotism is patient, patriotism is kind. Patriotism is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury … .”
3. A good person can certainly be a patriot. But that doesn’t imply that all good people are patriots, or that the better the person, the more patriotic — or that all patriots are good people.
4. It’s quite possible for a bad person to be a patriot. But that doesn’t imply that all bad people are patriots, or that a lousier person is more patriotic, or that all patriots are bad people.
5. Patriotism is analog, not binary. Some Americans will be 100% patriots, while others will be mid-level or mild patriots, or not patriotic at all. And that’s just fine.
6. Patriotism has multiple dimensions, including feelings about the central political understandings and shared history of a country, the physical landscape of the country, and fellow-citizens of the country.
7. For Americans, patriotism includes allegiance to the bedrock principles of freedom and equality as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
8. American patriots can be glad that the Constitution has been amended in the past, and can also hope to see it amended in the future.
9. If you support a fundamentally different system of government than described in the U.S. Constitution, you are not an American patriot.
10. Patriotism includes love of the physical country. When American patriots picture “from the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters,” their hearts are moved.
11. Patriots like to visit other parts of their country, if circumstances allow. If you have no desire to engage outside your city or state or region, you are not patriotic.
12. Patriotism means loving the entire country. A generalized dislike of certain areas — say, southern states, the Boston-D.C. corridor, California, inner cities or rural areas — is unpatriotic.
13. Patriots experience a twang of emotion when crossing their national border. Sir Walter Scott wrote: “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,/ Who never to himself hath said,/ This is my own, my native land!/ Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,/ As home his footsteps he hath turn’d/ From wandering on a foreign strand!”
14. If you become a citizen of another country, or even seriously consider it, you are not an American patriot.
15. Expressing a desire to leave the country if your preferred candidate does not win an election is not patriotic.
16. Wishing that your state or region would secede from the rest of the country, or that the United States should be divided into multiple countries, is not patriotic.
17. Sometimes patriots will be so exasperated with their country that they say or do things that do not reflect their deeper feelings. If rare and regretted, such outbursts should be readily forgiven.
18. American patriots believe in civil liberties and constitutional protections for all residents, not just for the patriotic.
19. American patriotism includes a general affection for other Americans. An affection that excludes groups as defined by religion, race/ethnicity, or geography is unpatriotic.
20. Patriots will respect and even cherish dissent from other patriots, knowing that it arises within a shared love of country.
21. Still, dissent is not the highest form of patriotism, any more than criticizing your spouse is the highest expression of a loving marriage.
22. When patriots communicate with others outside their country, they will feel some internal pressure to counter even justified criticisms of their country.
23. American patriotism includes a respect for religious belief, although patriots need not be religious.
24. A patriot loves the actual and existing United States. A love that depends on the beloved being without flaw is no love at all.
25. Patriotism doesn’t spare one’s own country from criticism, but it also doesn’t single it out for exceptional criticism.
26. Patriots from different countries respect each other’s loyalties.
27. If you view yourself as a “citizen of the world,” you are not an American patriot.
28. Patriots have some interest in U.S. history. When you love something, you also like knowing its back story.
29. Patriotism need not proclaim itself at every moment. But patriotism will not hide, nor be ashamed.
30. Those who are perpetually unwilling to express affection for their country are not acting patriotically.
31. Patriotism trumps political partisanship. Indeed, American patriotism rejoices in a range of opposing views.
32. Challenging the patriotism of others based on routine political disagreements is unpatriotic.
33. Patriotic symbols can be overemphasized: We all know couples for whom the wedding ceremony seemed more important than the marriage.
34. Patriots often find it suspicious when others speak boastfully in affirmation of their patriotism.
35. A patriot can deeply disagree with American political leadership; most patriots sometimes will.
36. A claim of patriotism can be a cover for iniquity. George Washington warned in his 1796 Farewell Address “to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”
37. A claim of patriotism can be a cover for misbehaviors and crimes. Thomas Boswell famously quoted Samuel Johnson as saying: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” For some scoundrels, it’s a first refuge.
38. “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism,” as George Orwell wrote: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
39. A claim of patriotism has been used as an excuse for in-groups to denigrate others.
40. A claim of patriotism can sometimes be little more than a cloying and bathetic sentimentality.
41. Some are queasy about being identified as patriotic because they fear being grouped with those who make misguided claims of patriotism. This reaction cedes the name of patriotism to those who do not deserve it.
42. Patriotism cannot reasonably be blamed for all the actions taken in its name, any more than love, democracy, equality or freedom can be blamed for all the actions taken in their names.
43. Despite the ways in which patriotism can be misused, those who sneer at patriotism are acting unpatriotically.
44. Carl Schurz was an emigrant from Germany who became a Union general during the Civil War, a senator from Missouri and a secretary of the interior. He was once challenged for criticizing his adopted country. He replied, “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”
45. Some people will react to grave injustice by losing their patriotism. For patriots, this outcome is sad, but can be understandable. But there is no reverse jujitsu by which those who lose their patriotism should be judged as extra-patriotic.
46. People who have been mistreated by their country often still display a deep patriotism. When the boxer Joe Louis was asked how he could volunteer for the U.S. Army during World War II as a Black man who had experienced racial prejudice, he replied: “Might be a lot wrong with America but nothing Hitler can fix.”
47. Deploying patriotic symbols doesn’t prove one is a patriot.
48. Refusing to display or acknowledge patriotic symbols doesn’t prove that one is not a patriot. But an open discomfort with the symbols of patriotism will raise reasonable doubts about patriotism.
49. Those who deface patriotic symbols like the American flag may have a righteous cause, but they act unpatriotically in doing so.
50. Patriots at many times throughout history have been social, economic and political critics.
51. It is logically incoherent to believe that a patriot must be either unaware of the flaws in one’s society or else must be a supporter of those flaws.
52. Mark Twain wrote: “[T]he true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”
53. Political liberals can be patriotic even when they believe that the government has failed millions of citizens — for example, with a lack of economic security and low quality education and health care.
54. Political conservatives can be patriotic even when they believe that social and political values of deep importance are eroding and government is overstepping its bounds.
55. Libertarians can be patriotic even when they believe that many laws (say, drug prohibitions) are fundamentally unjust.
56. Anti-tax protesters can be patriotic even when they believe that the government practices theft by taking their money.
57. Pro-lifers can be patriotic even though they believe unborn children have been murdered through legal abortion. Pro-choicers can be patriotic even though they believe America offers insufficient support for the rights of women to control their own bodies.
58. Some patriots oppose all wars for reasons of conscience. Such patriots will not hesitate to serve their country in other ways during times of war and peace.
59. Patriots will wince at E.M. Forster’s famous comment: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” A patriot may question whether treason must be morally preferable to breaking faith with a friend. But when two great loves come into conflict, it can be the stuff of tragedy.
60. It’s possible to hope that your country withdraws from a war being fought abroad, and still to be a patriot. U.S. patriots were not obliged to support the wars in Vietnam or Iraq.
61. An American patriot who opposes an American war will nonetheless not give aid and comfort to the enemy, nor rejoice in military defeats.
62. Those who damn their country most loudly, or who spell America with a swastika or as AmeriKKKa, are not those who love it the most.
63. When voting, it’s legitimate to give some preference to a political candidate who reveals a deeper sense of patriotism.
64. There is no reason to believe that politicians or those who work for a government paycheck are more patriotic than non-politicians and those who do not work for the government.
65. Those who view the ideal human being as detached from emotional ties to places, people, or institutions are not patriotic.
66. Patriotism is not jealous of other loyalties, but reinforces ties to family, culture, religion, hometowns and regions.
67. Patriotism includes a belief in the uniqueness and exceptional character of the United States: You can’t love something without feeling it is distinct.
68. If you love something, you also believe that it contains the seeds of good.
69. Patriots will find it hard to comprehend those who deny any patriotic attachment. David Hume wrote: “When a man denies the sincerity of all public spirit or affection to a country and community, I am at a loss what to think of him. … Your children are loved only because they are yours: Your friend for a like reason: And your country engages you only so far as it has a connection with yourself … .”
70. Patriots have a visceral feeling of relationship with other patriots, living and dead, extending to those who are just becoming U.S. citizens.
71. Some people fear that patriotism means surrendering their individual judgment, either to political authorities or to national loyalties. This is a misapprehension of American patriotism.
72. A patriot will respond to those who mock patriotism with clear disagreement and cold dismissal, flavored with sadness. But those who mock deeply held beliefs like family, religion or patriotism have little reason for surprise if the response is more energetic.
73. American patriots will not prefer a one-size-fits all centralized model of governance. They appreciate that fellow-citizens in other localities and states should have some flexibility in their self-governance.
74. Patriotism is a social glue. Political scientist William Galston wrote, “If the human species best organizes and governs itself in multiple communities, and if each community requires devoted citizens to survive and thrive, then patriotism is … a permanent requirement … .”
75. The Declaration of Independence declares that governments derive their just powers “from the consent of the governed.” A broadly shared patriotism is a form of ongoing consent that makes democratic governance possible in a sprawling and diverse country.
76. My wife and I note each anniversary of our first date — although our shift from friendship to dating was not clear-cut at the time. Similarly, the Continental Congress declared independence on July 2, 1776; the delegates didn’t actually sign the Declaration of Independence until a formal copy was made in August; and the U.S. Constitution was not ratified until June 21, 1788.
But in matters of close affection, annual commemoration matters more than historical details. In that spirit, patriots will feel the tremors of their endearment every July 4.
Timothy Taylor is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, based at Macalester College in St. Paul.