Donald Trump declared his inauguration a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion” and left-wing Twitter went into a frenzy about how creepily quasi-fascist this was.
Right-wing Twitter went into a frenzy pointing out that Barack Obama had declared his own inauguration a “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation.” Left-wing Twitter angrily responded that those things are completely different, implying that if you couldn’t see the difference between a beautiful and healing day of renewal and reconciliation, and a disgusting celebration of atavistic nationalism, you might be something of a fascist.
And I, bordering on something perilously close to despair, thought, “Guys, this is why Red America hates us.”
It used to be a trope on the right that the left thought patriotism was a bad word – a charge the left angrily denied. Now here we have a surprisingly large number of people arguing that patriotism is a bad word, and wildly inappropriate when issued from the Oval Office. Or at least, more than a bit uncouth.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t be patriotic and also left wing. (just ask arch-jingoist Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) But left-wing political beliefs cannot substitute for patriotism any more than a belief in tax cuts and smaller government can.
Patriotism is the primal love of your country which pre-exists any particular notion about how its political affairs should be arranged. You can espouse a single-payer health care program (or smaller government) as a loyal citizen of Denmark. You cannot, however, be an American patriot in that same position, though you may be a most excellent Dane. True patriotism does not require us to choose between the many constituent identities that every individual has. But it does require you to decide where your first loyalties lie.
But shouldn’t we scorn patriotism, which drives us to war and so many other awful things? No more than we should scorn the progressive ideals that have led to so much good social change, and also so much human suffering under various left-wing regimes. Ideals are dangerous things with a tendency to run amok, but no society can live without them. And I submit that no nation can live long without a pretty healthy patriotism — a powerful symbolic identity that transcends the frictions and disagreements that otherwise make it impossible to unite for any common purpose.
As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued for years, doing things in groups is really hard, and the larger the group, the harder it gets. Moral values like group loyalty — an instinctive group loyalty, not some dry intellectual thing carefully reasoned from first principles and self-interest — make it possible for us to do this very difficult thing. And the reason you can’t simply rely on a more intellectually attractive, well-reasoned version is that other people will not trust it. Your reasoning could change, or your self-interest could dictate that you betray them. Bedrock emotions are stickier. This makes them problematic, but it also makes them necessary.
This by no means suggests that to be patriotic you need to support, say, aggressive foreign wars, or a large military, or any of the other things often associated with patriotism in our political culture. (Note that in the 1930s, the most strongly patriotic folks were often virulently anti-interventionist, at least until Pearl Harbor.) What it does mean is that you should be able to say, without irony or reservation, “I love my country more than any other country,” and understand that adults around the world won’t hear this as an insult against their own land, but as the moral equivalent of “I love my wife more than any other woman.” You don’t love your country best because all the others are rotten places full of awful people; you love it best because it’s yours.
This should be obvious at a time when that cosmopolitan ideology is failing everywhere. Elites somehow got the idea that national loyalties would fade away and be replaced by a gentle globalism. And indeed, some of the old loyalties did fade away. But it turned out that the alternative to nationalism was not globalism, but particularism – the fracturing of polities into angry tribes that passionately loathe each other. And many in those tribes now demand to know why they should let cosmopolitan elites run things, when those elites declare, as a matter of pride, that they feel no greater loyalty to their fellow citizens than they do to strangers far away.
In fact, unabashedly sentimental patriots are in the best position to argue against the excesses that patriotism can enable, because they don’t have to start by proving their loyalty to the nation, rather than some more abstract good that their fellow citizens may reject. What we need is exactly these “empty symbols” such as, er, maybe a National Day of Patriotic Devotion: flags and the national anthem at sporting events and eyes that get a little wet when you hear the words “When in the course of human events … “
Whatever else Red America is wrong about, they are right about this. Patriotism doesn’t imply reverencing any leader or any particular political program, but it does require reverence for your nation and your fellow citizens. You can celebrate a day of patriotic devotion and then go to the Women’s March to protest the man who proclaimed it.
For one of the things most worth loving about this magnificent, flawed country of ours is a heritage that says there’s no contradiction between those two things.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.