Patrick Deneen had an important post on the similarities between New Left critiques and some contemporary “radical” conservative arguments, and observed in the writings of several contemporary conservatives, including himself, “a more sweeping condemnation of the broad sweep of American political history and its basic self-congratulatory narrative.” In passing I might note that this is why earlier paleoconservatives and many of us still today remain critical of or even hostile to certain episodes in American history, because so many of these episodes derived from this habit of self-congratulation and were valorized in historical memory as part of the same habit to glorify ourselves as exceptional. Many of us are more skeptical of the ‘Good Wars’ in our past because we see plainly how the mythology of the ‘Good Wars’ covers over gross injustices and feeds into national self-righteousness that is in turn used to justify other exercises of power.
Sean Scallon has followed up with a post on the shift towards optimism on the right, which is one of the failings of modern conservatism–and American culture as a whole–that bothers me the most. Scallon also added this anecdote referring to the McGovern campaign:
“You know,” said Talmadge, “what was wrong with George in that campaign was that he gave the impression that he was mad at the country. He was condeming her policy in Vietnam and just seemed like everything he said indicated that he was as mad as hell about this country. People aren’t going to support a candidate like that. This is a great country. It makes mistakes, but by God if you get up there and preach day and night against America, you’re not going to be elected.”
Talmadge was probably right then, and his observation would hold true today as a matter of electoral politics. If Americans have had a habit of self-congratulation, we also prefer it when our politicians flatter us. Perhaps that is an inescapable part of democratic or quasi-democratic politics. No one likes to hear that he is contributing to grave national problems, much less that he must change something about himself rather than demand action from the government on his behalf. Private irresponsibility hardly fuels demands for public probity and prudence, but instead seems to give license to reckless policies. The old stump speech boilerplate about making the government’s budget more balanced and like a household budget will still win applause, but when private indebtedness is so great it means nothing.
One of the most tired accusations is that so-and-so “blames America first,” which in a more sane world would be understood as taking responsibility for one’s own flaws. One would think that a more damning charge would be to say that someone never blames America, and so refuses to take responsibility for anything done in her, our, name, but even this use of the word blame is misguided. In fact, most of the people who “blame America first” go to great lengths to identify the flaws of America only with the parts of the country unlike theirs and only with the people on the other side of cultural and political divides. The more comprehensive the critique, the fewer people there are who want to hear it. When making a cultural critique of private habits, the resistance becomes even more fierce. The more prophetic and less convenient the warning, the less political traction it has because it unites more enemies against it. To call for self-restraint, rather than self-congratulation and self-rewarding, from everyone is necessarily to be a voice in the wilderness.
Obviously, there are different degrees of responsibility. Not everyone is equally responsible for our predicament, but neither is anyone entirely free of responsibility. One of the worst traits of populist rhetoric is its capacity to find scapegoats and evade the responsibility that the people themselves have for their predicament, so it follows that a populist agenda that is expressed in terms of self-criticism will make many enemies and win few friends. I think this may help explain why “Come Home, America” grates on so many ears, instead of sounding like a clarion call. To call for America to come home suggests that she has gone astray, and so it means that we as a nation have gone astray, which is to do the worst thing possible in a political campaign: tell your audience the truth about them.
What does any of this have to do with the original discussion? To the extent that people conventionally define patriotism as collectively denying national responsibility and exulting in national pride, it is not surprising that it should wax and wane with electoral fortunes of different factions. It is telling that this discussion was prompted by the argument currrently circulating that there can now be an unabashed left-patriotism on account of Obama’s election, as if patriotism or the expression of it can or should be contingent on the faction currently running the state. Now that Obama is in office, the argument seems to go, the left can indulge in the pretense that we can do no wrong and other nations hate us for our freedom (or whatever virtue they would like to trumpet at the time). If patriotism were actually contingent on such things, I would submit that it wasn’t really patriotism at all. Indeed, evading responsibility, shifting blame and invoking our exceptional status are all reliable ways of escaping patriotic duties and the hard choices that go with them. Critics of such “patriotism,” which is not really patriotism at all, are necessarily going against the optimistic grain, as optimism permits the perpetual deferral of hard choices.