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Patriotism: The Supreme Political Virtue

(Brooke Hebert/Associated Press)

“Here, Smith steps in, and he admirably makes a case to both the Left and the Right that patriotism is a worthy political virtue in need of resuscitation here in the United States.”

“What is the American, this new man?”

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur famously posed this question in 1782 in Letters from an American Farmer, and it lurks beneath the surface of much of the tension and discontent of modern American politics. This same pivotal question animates Yale political theorist Steven B. Smith’s splendid new bookReclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes.

Smith wrote a book “for this moment” because what it means to be an American—and to be a loyal and patriotic American, in particular—is in a period of immense flux. The standard “American creed” of constitutional democracy, individual liberty, and economic opportunity—along with its heroes like Abraham Lincoln and its key moments like the Founding—are under fire from certain extremes. Many on the populist right are seeking to upend the American creed, a creed of principles, in favor of a sort of blood-and-soil nationalism. On the Left, there are Kantian cosmopolitans who reject the very concepts of the nation-state and borders as immoral, as well as others who are animated by matters of race and identity, and who frame American history as an unending train of oppression on these fronts. In this telling of the American story, neither America nor its principles are worthy of loyalty or praise. Patriotism is scoffed at. Here, Smith steps in, and he admirably makes a case to both the Left and the Right that patriotism is a worthy political virtue in need of resuscitation here in the United States.

To the Left, Smith explains that patriotism is “above all a form of loyalty,” namely, loyalty to one’s country. Patriotic loyalty, writes Smith, is akin to loyalty to one’s family. By loving and being loyal to one’s family, one does not think that his family is morally superior to other families somehow. One simply loves and esteems his family because it is his: “It is not that we believe our house is better than any other house, but it is ours and it makes us feel at home. Patriotism is like inhabiting such a place.” We are not wrong to love and care for our own—our own family members, our own homes, our fellow citizens, and our common country. This is natural. And, given the inescapable fact that we are limited, embodied beings, there is a strong case to be made that we have a moral duty to love and care for those closest to us first. After all, they are the ones that our limited physical, emotional, and mental resources have the best chances of positively impacting.

In addition to being a natural impulse, loyalty to and love of one’s own fosters necessary cohesion at both the familial and societal levels. As Smith writes, loyalty “is the tie that binds society together.” Without a sense of togetherness and a commitment to the collective (social and political), fracture can ensue. Given its connection to social cohesion and unity, then, patriotism ought not be a particularly contested concept on the Left. The Left has historically been the home of broad-based solidarity movements, such as labor unions, and mass appeals, including the Democratic Party’s constant messaging around a “new New Deal” ever since the end of the real New Deal. However, as thinkers like Mark Lilla have pointed out, the modern American left’s penchant for identity politics has strained its ability to think and speak in universalist terms—including, to some extent, patriotic terms. Thus, Smith correctly laments that the progressive left “has become self-absorbed and caught up in an inward-looking cult of identity politics.”

Nationalism is driven by a conception of us vs. them, while patriotism simply entails a love of us. The patriot does not need an enemy, an “other.” The nationalist does.

In Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, Smith has endeavored to convince those on the Left that turning inwards into identity groups or outwards into cosmopolitan, borderless, world citizenship are both unnatural and immoral. But Smith is not concerned with the Left alone. He also aims his fire at the ascendant nationalist right. Smith explains that “Nationalism is an excess of patriotism that holds an absolute attachment to one’s own way of life—one’s country, one’s cause, one’s state—as unconditionally good and superior to others.” Nationalism, argues Smith, is exclusionary: “It does not just celebrate uniqueness but turns it into a principle of difference and opposition. Patriotism draws on an entirely different emotional register.” Nationalism is driven by a conception of us vs. them, while patriotism simply entails a love of us. The patriot does not need an enemy, an “other.” The nationalist does.

American nationalism—and its need for the binaries of “us” and “them”—is uniquely unhelpful and dangerous given our realities of pluralism and diversity. As Smith writes, “pluralism is an inescapable fact of modern political life,” particularly here in the United States. The nationalist mode of thinking is not conducive to dealing with that inescapable fact. Smith concludes: “Nationalism is not patriotism’s exact opposite but a deformation of the patriotic spirit. Patriotism is closer to civic piety—a form of civic bonding over a life in common—than nationalist self-assertion.” Piety entails acceptance but “by no means an uncritical or complacent one.” And this is where Smith’s concept of American, “enlightened patriotism” really comes into view.

If patriotism is a form of loyalty to what is ours, then what is ours as Americans is not only geography, or culture, or language. It is also a set of principles. Hearkening back to Alexander Hamilton’s famous lines in Federalist No. 1 on Americans’ unique opportunity to found a government on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force,” Smith writes that “American patriotism requires more than a common ancestry rooted in a common place. It requires reflection on the principles to which our loyalty is given.” After all, “What distinguishes American patriotism from that of Germany or Japan is that America is a creedal nation based on an idea.” Thus, at the core of American patriotism “is this idea of reflection and choice.”

This exceptionally American, principled patriotism has textual touchstones—namely, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And it is argumentative: What our principles are and their real-world, substantive upshot are matters of dispute. Taking part in these arguments over the meaning of the Constitution, what it means to be an American, and what America stands for is American patriotism at its best. Thus, Smith concludes that our “self-questioning character…is what makes ours a uniquely enlightened patriotism.” This enlightened patriotism leans heavily on particular figures who have stuck to America’s foundational texts and the principles they espouse, such as Abraham Lincoln. Smith writes much of Lincoln’s patriotism, as it was egalitarian, aspirational, and inclusive.

Stemming from his discussion of Lincoln’s patriotism, Smith rightly notes that “Patriotism…requires not only an understanding and appreciation for a set of abstract ideas, but also their embodiment in a particular history and tradition.” For enlightened patriotism to flourish, there must be a story that allows us to make sense of the creed:

“It is in recollection of a shared history—the locus of a collective destiny, of common misfortunes and triumphs—that the bonds of a nation and a people are forged. Symbols and rituals are as important as concepts and principles. In fact, the two require one another. Symbols without principles are empty; principles without symbols are blind.”

However, Smith does not follow up his theoretical reflections on the connection between patriotism and the nation’s historical narrative with sufficient attention to the fundamental disputes over the truth and meaning of American history that are raging today.

Smith writes that through education in American history, literature, and culture, patriots are made, not born. Given the importance of history to patriotism, we cannot reclaim patriotism without a shared sense of our past. This need not and must not be the triumphalist narrative of old that papers over America’s missteps and gross injustices. Indeed, Smith writes that enlightened patriotism needs plenty of humility and modesty. But the fact remains that we need a history. We need to agree on certain fundamental premises, on the basics, if you will. Without that, patriotism’s reclamation project will not get off the ground. Therefore, it is best to read Smith’s insightful book in conjunction with historically bent works like Jill Lepore’s These Truths and Akhil Amar’s The Words That Made Us. To reclaim patriotism—to re-forge a sense of gratitude to our shared home and a sense of loyalty to it—we must have some shared understanding of who we Americans are and how we got here.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and a member of the Harvard Law class of 2024. He can be found on Twitter @thomaskoenig98.

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