America, prompted Sen. Barack Obama to affirm his patriotism in Independence, Mo., last week. Obama
Discussions about patriotism, meaning love of country, frequently degenerate into absurd competitions to prove who loves his country more, or accusations that one candidate does not love the country enough. We end up focusing on whether candidates wear lapel pins, place their hands on their chests when singing the national anthem, or sing it on key. The conversation about nationalism goes deeper, about the very reason for organizing smaller communities into larger countries and into the vision of just what kind of nation we want to be.
Unfortunately, the great crimes of the 20th century made nationalism a dirty word to many. Defined by disasters like Bosnia’s brutality and Nazism’s horrors, the concept became linked with parochialism, xenophobia, prejudice, extremism, militarism and mass murder. It became trendy to celebrate the European Union as the “post-national” wave of the future. This ignores how Germanic Germans remain, how French the French still are. In fact, nationalism remains the world’s central organizing principle, with 192 nation-states in the United Nations.
Nationalism has unleashed great cruelty. But it has fueled many modern miracles, including America’s great liberal democratic experiment. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have stayed united, settled the West, won world wars, explored space, mass-produced prosperity, spread essential rights or created the Internet, which, remember, was invented as a tool for national defense.
When Abraham Lincoln invoked “the mystic chords of memory,” he reminded Americans of the appealing ideals that united them as one nation. When Ronald Reagan saluted John Winthrop‘s “shining city upon the hill,” he, too, summoned a mythic national past to push the country toward a better future. At its best, nationalism gets people dreaming and working together and behaving better than they might if they were just thinking selfishly or too locally.
Every day, Americans fulfill national ideals, living, and often quoting, the enduring phrases from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans enjoy a deep commitment to human life, unprecedented amounts of liberty and massive opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.
Thomas Jefferson‘s five-word affirmation in the Declaration of Independence – that all men are created equal – has become impressively more inclusive over time. Since 1776, the phrase has empowered African-Americans, women, the poor and immigrants, inviting them to enjoy more and more of America’s goodies.
Nationalism focuses on “we the people,” not just the “I”; nationalism is about each nation’s romance with the land and myths about the past. Mining group pride and common goals can elevate not denigrate, include not exclude.
Lincoln’s cautious but egalitarian nationalism helped Northerners evolve beyond their initial racism to make the fight for union a fight against black slavery. Theodore Roosevelt‘s romantic, upbeat patriotism helped industrializing Americans create a communal counterbalance to business power and sing a collective song of American altruism. Franklin Roosevelt‘s can-do, optimistic communalism reassured and mobilized Americans during the dark days of the Depression, then inspired Americans to share their Four Freedoms with the rest of the world.
The American revolutionaries we honor on July 4 were reluctant revolutionaries – they did not want to reject England, the mother country. But, by defending themselves, they became ardent nationalists. On this 232nd anniversary of their great leap of faith, we can demonstrate our patriotism and champion its connection to our pride in our nationalism. Patriotism is about “my country, right or wrong”; nationalism about how my country goes about righting wrongs and forging a common good.
In this presidential campaign, we should seek a worthy successor to our tradition of inspirational nationalists. Let’s make this presidential campaign about competing centrist visions for modern American nationalism – acknowledging its strengths and potential to do good in the world – rather than engaging in a petty debate maligning either candidate’s patriotism.