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Obama and the Limits of Progressive Patriotism

Paul Waldman uses the perfect phrase [1] to describe Obama’s speech last night:

For the last eight years, Obama has been making a case for a progressive patriotism, one based on the idea of “a more perfect union,” that phrase from the preamble to the Constitution that he returns to again and again. It’s the idea that the American story is one of constant improvement and progression toward the realization of the country’s founding ideals. In that story, change isn’t incidental, it’s essential. And it’s a fundamentally different kind of patriotic story from the one conservatives usually tell. It’s why Obama frequently brings up dark periods in our country’s history, like slavery (as the first lady did [2] on Monday) or Jim Crow or McCarthyism — those periods are a critical part of the story, because they remind us what we overcame.

So over these years, Obama has taught Democrats how to clearly and unequivocally celebrate America while remaining true to their progressive values. And in the process, he turned his party into a confident one, after it had cowered in fear for a quarter-century before his arrival. It seems like a long time ago now, but during that time Democrats were constantly afraid — afraid they’d be called unpatriotic, afraid they’d be called weak on crime, afraid they’d be called tax-and-spenders, and afraid that Republicans who always seemed more skilled and more ruthless would whip the stuffing out of them.

They don’t look that way anymore, do they? This may be a party that has suffered defeats at the state level (as the president’s party often does), and is still in the minority in Congress. But Donald Trump’s campaign of white nationalism has made Democrats more sure than ever that the future belongs to them, their broad coalition, and their inclusive vision.

And more than a few Republicans understand it too. On Wednesday evening, Tony Fratto, who served as a spokesperson for George W. Bush, tweeted [3], “Watching Democrats talk about America the way Republican candidates used to talk about America.” As Obama neared the end of his speech, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Reviewtweeted [4], “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they’re trying to take all our stuff.”

But it isn’t their stuff alone, not anymore.

What these Republicans are responding to isn’t just that Obama is stealing their rhetoric or their optimistic stance. There’s a real kinship between progressive patriotism and the patriotism of the conservative movement, inasmuch as both assume that what America is about, and what makes her worth fighting for, is ideological in nature. There are real differences between the left-wing progressive and right-wing liberal versions of that ideology, but in either case America is something that mere Americans can only aspire to live up to.

The problem with an ideological definition of American patriotism, though, is that we don’t actually all agree on the ideological content. Progressive patriotism, like movement conservatism’s version of patriotism, turns dissenters into un-Americans.

Worse still, it invites the inversion of the proper relationship between the government and the governed. The promise of democracy is, maximally, that we will learn to reason together towards arrangements that we can all live with, and minimally that the government will be accountable to us for its actions. But if the ideal arrangements are objectively out there, rather than something we reason together towards, then democracy becomes a test of the people — they are the ones held accountable, the ones who fail if they vote the wrong way.

Donald Trump’s appeal is, in part, a visceral reaction to that way of thinking on the part of both the right and the left. He’s a walking reminder that the people are sovereign, and that American patriotism is defined not by a theory of what America stands for but by what actual Americans feel.

Trump’s alienated voters don’t feel what Obama feels. That doesn’t mean they’ve failed him. That means he’s failed them, in the sense that he has failed to speak to them in a language they understand, which is his job.

You know who knew how to speak that language? Bill Clinton. Take a look at his speech from Tuesday night. Ostensibly aimed at Sanders voters, what struck me as most important about it was the way in which it reflected a real understanding of the mentality of those who have moved, over the past twenty years, from Clinton to Trump.

Or just check out what I had to say about that speech in my latest column for The Week [5]:

Here’s how the important part begins:

There are clear, achievable, affordable responses to our challenges. But we won’t get to them if America makes the wrong choice in this election. That’s why you should elect her. And you should elect her because she’ll never quit when the going gets tough. She’ll never quit on you. [Bill Clinton]

As someone who’s argued that loyalty should be the key theme for the Clinton campaign [6], this brought a smile to my face. But it’s worth noting as well that loyalty is also a cardinal virtue among Appalachian whites. Moreover, suspicions of disloyalty are precisely what have made Barack Obama uniquely unpalatable in this region. Bill Clinton is taking this tack not only because it’s a good one for his wife, and because it connects her personal story to her qualities as a candidate in an effective way, but because it’s a good way to speak to the voters she’s having the most trouble with.

She sent me in this primary to West Virginia where she knew we were going to lose, to look those coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back you had 50 years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future. [Bill Clinton]

This may be the most important sentence of the whole peroration, but not because of the content. He’s talking about the primary against Sanders, but the argument works equally well to puncture the magical nonsense claims of the Trump campaign. But what’s really important is how the argument is being made. Bill Clinton is talking to voters in West Virginia. He’s talking to them, not about them. He’s not reducing them to psychology or sociology. He’s giving them agency. What they think matters. What they do matters. And it’s their choiceThey have to decide whether they are going to let themselves be played for sentimental fools or not.

It’s sad to realize how infrequently Democrats in the Obama era have talked this way, particularly to this constituency.

And so I say to you, if you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes and you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over somebody that wants to send you back.

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.

If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be, help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future. [Bill Clinton]

The most important word in this section is “if,” and the application of that conditional is instructive. Clinton isn’t saying to native-born American citizens that they should welcome immigrants. He’s saying to undocumented immigrants that if they love America, then they should try to stay. He’s not saying that Christian Americans should avoid prejudice against Muslims. He’s saying to Muslim Americans that if they love America, then they should join the fight against America’s enemies. He’s not saying to white Americans that black lives matter. He’s saying to African Americans that if they are afraid of police violence, then theyshould work to reduce violence generally, both by and against the police.

Implicitly, Clinton is assuming some of the key premises of the archetypal Trump voter. There is such a thing as “America” that can be loved or not, and that the condition of entry to a political coalition is demonstrating that love. The job that the police and the armed forces do is inherently noble, and even those who fear being on the receiving end of state violence can only join the coalition to reduce it if they first acknowledge its essential nobility of purpose. He’s challenging the people who Trump’s voters likely view as the ones making demands to instead become allies of the sorts of folks implicitly assumed to already be in the fight, because we already know they love America.

It’s a vision of broad national unity across a multiracial and multicultural nation. But it is a vision that builds that unity on a core implicit identity of Americanness that must be chosen, even earned. Which, as it happens, is just how lots of white folks back in Bill Clinton’s part of the country tend to view the matter.

My conclusion:

Donald Trump is telling a story about American identity that is exceptionally ill-suited to the country that actually exists, much less the country that is emerging. That story is a corrective, though, to the failed ideological stories told by the past two administrations, one a story that put Christian religiosity at the core of American identity, and another that put progressivism at the core.

If the Democrats are to be able to speak to America as a whole, and have a chance of becoming a true majority party and not just capturing the presidency from time to time, they will need a way of talking about American identity that is neither exclusively ideological nor narrowly ethno-national. Their audience for any such message will have to include the most nationalistically minded among the American tribes.

And the starting point for speaking to anybody is learning to speak their language. Even if your aim is to change it.

We already know that Hillary Clinton won’t inspire progressive believers the way Obama can. We’ll see tonight whether she’s learned a trick or two from her husband.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Obama and the Limits of Progressive Patriotism"

#1 Comment By KD On July 28, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

I think the problem of “Progressive patriotism” is that identity is based on difference. If everything was the same color, we would have no language for color. There is no meaning without difference.

Ergo, an “inclusive” national identity is not an identity at all. Progressives are either offering no identity, or an identity that consists in the negation of the values, heritage, and lineage of the Founding generations of Americans.

Such an identity can work in Zimbabwe or South Africa, but there are still too many Americans who identify with the Founders for that to get very far in America, outside of certain urban enclaves.

I think the New Deal was precisely a time of liberal nationalism, but the Democrats of that time period were not very inclusive, whether you look to the segregationists in the South or the Japanese internment.

The Democratic party post-1965 has become a collection of tribes that are either historically “marginally American” (at least by pre-1865 standards) or recent arrivals or whites who expressly reject their traditional moral culture (homosexuals, feminists, etc.). They are mostly united by their hatred of those people whom Jon Stewart aptly told “you don’t own this country”.

The Democratic party has reached a point where it cannot bridge the gap between the present and the past anymore. They probably need a new flag, perhaps the Rainbow Flag, that can replace Old Glory, which in any event is as what-passes-for-racism-today as the Confederate Flag.

We are really witnessing the emergence of a new Nation, one which expressly disavows the values, culture and tradition of the prior American Nation. It is too late to get off the train, whatever happens in this election cycle, the Democrats are right about that point.

I suspect that the future will be much more discontinuous with the past than many pundits recognize.

#2 Comment By Capacity Builder On July 28, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

“The problem with an ideological definition of American patriotism, though, is that we don’t actually all agree on the ideological content.”

Exactly. For example, while it featured prominently in progressive and neoconservative arguments, real conservatives didn’t think we should invade Afghanistan or Iraq in order to make the world safe for buggery (to the extent that it wasn’t already safe or even popular in those places, of course).

#3 Comment By ek ErliaR On July 28, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

In addition to what KD has said, I offer the suggestion that it has been an awful long time since “America” stirred any deep and honest emotions in any of us.

Personally, I haven’t much liked the generic “America” since August 1968. And having that elitist clown, Obama, lecture me on “who we are” at any given moment is simply transgressing the bounds.

#4 Comment By Calvin On July 28, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

@KD: The idea that the emergent Democratic platform is so wildly divergent from “America” that it necessitates a new flag is nonsense. The idea that being inclusive de facto means fractious tribalism or utter homogeneity is also nonsense. The idea that there has ever been a universally agreed-upon definition of what American values means is similarly ahistorical.

America has never been homogenous, and has never held a completely unified idea of what America “really means.” There have always been regional differences, racial differences, propertied differences, etc. There are core elements that remain more or less timeless, and those elements have tended to overcome the myriad other differences that color the conversation, but those differences have always been there, often flashing in bold and neon signs.

Americans are different. The way we experience this country is different, and those differences shape how we view the promise of the American dream. It has ever been thus, and any thought to the contrary is simply to ignore the lived experiences of several large segments of the American people.

#5 Comment By collin On July 28, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

He’s a walking reminder that the people are sovereign, and that American patriotism is defined not by a theory of what America stands for but by what actual Americans feel.

My neighbors in California don’t feel like Trump agrees that people are sovereign and they certainly feel differently than many Trump voters. They feel like Trump biggest supporters want 1950s America that no longer exists in terms of demographics, economics and political situation.

#6 Comment By ‘who we are’ and what it is On July 28, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

I agree with the writer above about Obama insulting us by presuming to define “who we are”. The guy is assassinating people around the world with drones. He’s running the most invasive mass surveillance program in human history. He started or perpetuated wars and insurgencies in half a dozen foreign countries. And he did all that instead of defending our borders and stopping the flood of illegal immigrants – people who are definitely not “who we are”.

#7 Comment By Clint On July 28, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future. [Bill Clinton]

These Appalachian whites fell off the Clintons’ Sled, awhile ago and they ain’t about to be suckered by Bubba, into gettin’ back on it.

#8 Comment By Cyril On July 28, 2016 @ 6:07 pm


You make a very serious and misleading mistake by juxtaposing homogeneity and heterogeneity.

For example, it is true that four waves of colonists( quackery, puritans,Scot-Irish, Cavaliers) were different from each other, but they were a) Protestant( i.e. non-Catholic b) British (one way or another). The same way in other countries: Prussians and Bacarians may feel their difference but they historically have had much more in common with each other than with Spaniards, for example. Also, do you really think there would even be a country if instead of aforementioned four types you had Han Chinese, Nigerians,Eskimo and Hungarians, for example? Not all diversities are equal.

Not to mention that for the most part of human history people by and large stayed where they were born. Different types of American colonists may not feel too positive about each other, but their relative reclusiveness( by today’s standards, of course) mitigated possible negative effects. In contrast, in today’s world where cultures and identities meet constantly,violence is a norm for ” identity is always accompanied by violence” and “all forms of violence are quests for identity”. Those are words not of some fringe racialist but of Marshall McLuhan.

Then again, you will probably continue to drink your kool – aid anyway , so why do I even bother…

#9 Comment By KD On July 28, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

The American Flag is directly connected with a particular set of ancestors, the Founding Fathers, as well as the names of those who have died defending the Republic.

I have no doubt that the Democratic Platform has an enormous resonance for a large fraction of the now-existent sub-populations inhabiting a particular territorial region marked on the map as the “United States”.

It just has nothing in the way of any continuity with the ancestral past.

Who can say “Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s Pride”?

We certainly can’t in the sense of carrying on the traditions of our fore-fathers.

One can only imagine that the ancestral ghosts are angry and will demand to be feed.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 28, 2016 @ 9:19 pm

Whatever is said, it’s no more than electioneering talk, soon irrelevant after elected.

#11 Comment By mdc On July 29, 2016 @ 11:54 am

But there’s a necessary element of ‘progressive patriotism’ that is not ‘ideological.’ Even if the ‘more perfect union’ of the future would be good in itself from an ideological perspective, that imposes no obligation on anyone as an American to bring it into being. Democrats like Obama implicitly assume that we should work for that goal out of love of country, that we owe it to ourselves and our own *because they are our own* to pursue those ideological goals. Otherwise, why not move to Norway and wish America the best?

‘My country, right or wrong’ is the unspoken presupposition of progressive patriotism. Conservative movement patriotism is different. It assumes something more like ‘My country, always right.’

#12 Comment By WalkingHorse On July 30, 2016 @ 6:29 am

All things considered the phrase “progressive patriotism” is an oxymoron. The progressive movement, before 1910, rejected both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, thereby repudiating the rationale for this nation and the governmental architecture established for this it. The resulting centralization of decision-making into the hands of “experts” is decidedly un-American and unworthy of a self-governing society. The democrat party at this juncture is propaganda arm for the Cultural Marxists who aim to destroy both this nation and Western Civilization at large. It is worth noting that what we call “Western Civilization” was in previous times accurately termed Christendom.

“Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. … In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”
— Antonio Gramsci

#13 Comment By JonF On July 30, 2016 @ 12:45 pm


You omitting the New York Dutch– still a very distinct ethnic group in 1776 and after (Martin Van Buren and even Sojouner Truth, a slave, grew up speaking Dutch in the Hudson Valley)– and a mish-mash of Germans in the early United States. And with the enlargement of the nation we also gained the Cajun/Creole French of Louisiana.

Your statement “For most of human history people stayed where they were born” is not really true either. If you restrict it to written history it’s partially true (though even in antiquity there were vast migrations of people, occasionally overthrowing empires in their way), but if you include the whole of modern humankind’s existence then it’s pretty clear that people wandered far and wide, else it would be rather hard to account for the human presence, in prehistory, around the globe as opposed to a fairly limited range in Africa.

#14 Comment By chingaislam On August 1, 2016 @ 2:29 am

words are cheap.

#15 Comment By JonF On August 1, 2016 @ 2:45 pm

Re: Who can say “Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s Pride”?

If you mean literally “died”, then pretty much anyone whose family has been here for multiple generations can talk about the land where their fathers died.
As for the Pilgrims the number of people descended from them has always been a fairly minor fraction of the total population.