Anyone paying attention to both parties’ national conventions this year could easily see that patriotism has manifested itself differently this election cycle. Indeed, the Democrats seem to have laid claim to that boisterous love of country one would generally associate with the Republican Party. After three nights of flag-waving, “U-S-A” chants, and speeches from the families of fallen veterans, one would be as hard pressed to recognize the Democratic Party’s new tone as one would be to recognize that of the Republican Party.
In the aftermath of convention season, many analysts focused on this shift in message. And while pundits were replete with opinions on whether or not this change represented a wise political move, few approached this phenomenon with the fundamental skepticism it deserved. It is evident that the Democrats in Philadelphia were uncharacteristically vocal about their love of country, but it must be asked whether the “flag waving” they engaged in actually constitutes patriotism. After all, it’s hard to believe that something emotionally driven like patriotism—defined as an impassioned loyalty to one’s country—could be fickle enough to divorce one political party and remarry another in the span of one election cycle. Furthermore, it is absurd to think that a political party can own love of country to begin with. By “reclaiming” patriotism from the Republicans, the Democrats intended to shift their political message, but in the process they exposed fundamental inconsistencies in what it means to be patriotic. These inconsistencies raise the question: just what has patriotism become in our society?
Recent protests, most notably 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for our national anthem, have sparked a firestorm of debate. Some argue that protestors who refuse to rise for the national anthem are making an appropriate statement, while others say they are spitting on the values that undergird the nation. While Kaepernick’s criticisms of the American judicial system and, ultimately, American itself were bound to create feelings of revulsion, the censure he has received seems disproportional to the nature of his protest. Most notably, Kaepernick has been criticized for disrespecting veterans. Despite Kaepernick taking specific care to voice his support for the men and women who defend our country, his critiques of America have been extended to every aspect of the country, including the nation’s armed forces. Kaepernick’s critics argue that our soldiers have died for his right to choose whether to honor the country, and by refusing to stand for the flag he is disrespecting their sacrifice.
This argument against Kaepernick is misguided for the same reasons that Democrats were able to “steal” patriotism this election. It rests on the notion that loving America means saying you love America. Somewhere along the line, loyalty to the flag has become just that—loyalty to the flag itself. Today, being a patriot connotes professing support for veterans, standing for the national anthem, and holding the opinion that anyone who doesn’t like this nation “should get out.” This patriotism does not allow one to voice criticism against the country—which explains why the new Republican Party of “making America great again” has allowed their patriotic identity to be appropriated. Regardless of which party holds control over this form of patriotism, it’s dangerous. Reducing the love of America to chants, slogans, and exaltations of the current state of affairs obscures the true reasons why America is worthy of such loyalty.
“Flag waving” is disingenuous. True patriotism is a far more nuanced idea, owing its complexity to America’s makeup; in such a big and diverse country, it is hard to even grasp the entirety of the nation a patriot aims to love. Nevertheless, delineating what unifies places as different as Birmingham and Los Angeles is essential to understanding why this nation is so special. Ultimately, a place isn’t American because it lies within a national border; what makes both Birmingham and L.A. American is that they both subscribe to the values and rights set forth in The Constitution. They are both testaments to the experiments of self-government, free speech, and an institution that is constantly reshaped by its constituency. From this lens, it becomes quite clear why soldiers are truly the ultimate patriots: they are willing to risk their lives, not only so Americans have the security to respectfully stand for the flag, but also to affirm the values for which the flag itself stands, foremost among those being the right of average citizens to voice displeasure with flawed aspects of American society.
From this lens, Kaepernick’s protest begins to seem comparatively more patriotic than the actions of those so vehemently trying to “protect the flag.” Many soldiers gave their lives to uphold Kaepernick’s right not to stand for the anthem. Whether he chose the most respectful way to speak up is secondary; the greatest insult one can make against our fallen veterans is to try to shame those who exercise the very rights they died to protect. For the flag to truly be symbolic of this nation’s values, it must at some level serve to remind Americans that they can protest against it. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his opinion in the 1989 case Texas v. Johnson, “it is poignant but fundamental that the flag protect those who hold it in contempt.” Kaepernick is trying to make his voice heard in our political process, and although one could argue he picked an inappropriate forum and used inappropriate tactics, his desire to achieve a government that is truly of the people is as American as it gets. By contrast, the desire of the “flag wavers” to stifle dissidence is pure hypocrisy—they are demonstrating their patriotism by directly undermining one of Americas most fundamental tenants.
This lens shows just how ridiculous it is to think one political party can be more patriotic than another. A party cannot own patriotism because patriotism is innate to political parties themselves. Any institution that represents the struggle of citizens to craft the best government clearly reveres the values of our nation. The fact that the two major parties are often at odds with one another makes no difference; constant political dialogue and the change it creates is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that the American experiment is a successful one.
My point is not to discourage patriotism, in fact, quite the opposite. It is the very belief in American exceptionalism that has driven this country to become the greatest on earth. Rather than destroy patriotism, we need to rediscover what it truly means to be a patriotic. In its essence, patriotism is the love of country, but being a patriot is more complex than simply feeling affection towards one’s home. It requires as much thought as action, and it certainly involves more than saying, “I love America.” A true patriot understands the values that make this nation special; a true patriot fights to improve this country for all its citizens; a true patriot understand the flag does not always stand for the values it should, but that each generation has the opportunity to change its message into something every American feels comfortable standing for.