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Men Without a Country

In the aftermath of the election, thoughts on the meaning of patriotism
Ruined and abondoned shack with American flag and Christmas

This bitter election has brought back to me a scattering of political anecdotes which illuminate our nation’s current moment.

One time, when I was about seven years old, my aunt and cousins visited for the July 4th weekend. She took all us kids out for ice cream, and as we piled into the car she turned the radio on. A few minutes later the station played “God Bless America,” and everyone sang along. I was baffled. When we got back home, I said, “Mommy, everyone sang ‘God Bless America’ in the car.” “What’s wrong with that?” my mom replied. I said, “How could they sing that? They’re Democrats!”

That reflected more on my own simplification of the partisan divide than anything my parents ever actually suggested about the opposite party. But the fact that I could have come to such an understanding of patriotism—back then, in the halcyon 1990s—indicates that we’ve been bitterly divided for the entire lifetime of a substantial portion of our population. This, at least as much as Jon Stewart, must account for the jaded and world-weary posture of much of America’s youth in regard to politics and civic affairs.

Another anecdote: sometimes I find myself humming the songs from the Armed Forces Medley, which, to my best recollection, I have only ever heard in entirety as the sign-off segment of many mid-aughts Mark Levin talk radio shows. That has stuck with me since my childhood.

I also remember the flag lapel wars from growing up watching the news. I ponder the meaning of the flag itself becoming a partisan signal. Is it simply evidence that the right has shamelessly appropriated the once-universal symbols of the nation and turned them into symbols of a particular political program? Or does it speak to a tendency on the left to view patriotism as hopelessly complicated and not necessarily celebratory? I suspect there is truth in both.

My last story: during my masters program in late 2015, as the infamous 2016 campaign was getting into high gear, I attended a GOP debate watch party at a professor’s house, with an audience of American students and a couple of Chinese international students. Ted Cruz, during his introduction, said “I am passionate about what I believe. I’ve been passionate my whole life about the Constitution.” As if on cue, the room erupted into mocking laughter. My Chinese classmate turned to me, confused, and asked why that was funny. I realized that I couldn’t explain it to her without delving into a history of America’s partisan divide. It was insufficient to tell her that loving the Constitution is self-evidently risible. It made me feel, in fact, that the opposite is the case, and that something in our civic life had gone off the rails if that needed to be explained.

But perhaps I was just feeling shallow, knee-jerk patriotism, a desire to say something good about my country when facing an international audience of one. 

In fact, today the trope that ostentatious patriotism is the province of the right has reversed. Many social and religious conservatives in particular, as well as critics of America’s expansive and imperialist foreign policy, no longer celebrate American exceptionalism, if they ever did. Some elements of the far right over the last decade have even pined for leaders on the order of those in Russia or China. It would not be impossible to find a Twitter personality welcoming Russian assistance in overthrowing the contemporary West’s secular globalism. This is far from representative, but it reveals something about the trajectory of current attitudes. At worst, it evinces that dreaded slide towards authoritarianism. At best, it could be the prelude to a less hubristic national self-understanding.

Folks like TAC’s own Rod Dreher, and many further to his right, particularly in the “Catholic integralist” sphere, seem to be asking themselves: if secularism, consumerism, and general depravity are American, what does it mean to be a patriot? “Shoring up the imperium”? Or realizing that Jesus and America are not moral equivalents? The sometime escape hatch—that America is an idea, that idea is godly, and the America that actually exists today is not the genuine article—is as heretical as it is absurd. 

Nonetheless, many right-leaning self-professed patriots have slipped into a nationalist version of Catholic sedevacantism, clinging to the notion that America is a Platonic Form in the ether, a Form more real than the contemporary nation-state that occupies central North America, with all of its actual attributes that conservatives are not so keen on. Others seem to view themselves as men without a country. And still others, perhaps most on the mark, admit that even the Founding Fathers did not believe their experiment would endure forever. A country may have a character or a “personality,” but it does not have an immortal soul.

I was chatting with my Chinese classmate later that week—the same one who asked me about the Constitution—and somehow we got into the subject of America’s wars and public attitudes about service. “I hope there is never a war between us, but if there is, of course I would fight for my country,” she said. She probably thought, and would probably be correct, that any such war, at least in its outright military dimension, would be instigated by the United States. Nevertheless, I wondered how many Americans would—or should—say the same?