I consider myself a patriot. But I will never be a nationalist, much less a know-nothing nativist . There’s a distinct difference. However, conflating the two is all too common an activity.
I’m going to make a highly fugitive claim: Maybe what most liberal progressives and conservative traditionalists fundamentally want and value isn’t all that different. Maybe what most divides us isn’t ends, but means.
Let’s begin with what one needn’t believe to be a patriot.
One doesn’t need to believe that America is uniquely exceptional. One doesn’t need to believe that Americans are uniquely righteous. One doesn’t need to believe that America is uniquely ordained and blesséd of God to be some shining city on a hill, empire of liberty, or the last best hope on earth.
One doesn’t need to believe Americans are more or less brave or free than other peoples in other societies that share the the values of courage and liberty. Being a patriot isn’t about winning a contest to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, or the most influential.
So what is it to be patriot?
To love and work to better one’s nation for its people and their future’s sake.
I love the country of my birth. I love the soil out of which I was sprung. I am a Pennsylvanian. I am an American. I have hope that the people of this country can be good, that they can be great, and that our constitution, our laws, and our civic traditions can serve that goodness and greatness.
I do not believe they are beyond reproach, beyond criticism, beyond improvement and amendment and change. I do not believe that you can love them without also fighting for them to be the best and most just that they can be.
I am hopeful that reformation happens and our executive, legislative, and judicial apparatuses will someday soon allow us to fairly conduct the business of democratic government, of differing but overcoming difference to enact and enforce laws that serve and protect us all.
I think this election is proof that many of us can agree on one thing: our polity is broken, undermined by undemocratic influences. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both represent a public rejection of establishment corruption and donothingness at the expense of the people. We can many of us agree on that, at least.
But, that agreement aside, I would like to remark on how our differences and disagreements do not make one party or the other unAmerican or unpatriotic, specifically how what I believe as a liberal progressive doesn’t exclude or subvert or deny many of the values held by conservatives.
You can be provincial: tied in your heart to your nation, your state, your county, your city or town. You can also be cosmopolitan: familiar, at ease, and respectful of the value of other cultures, other peoples, and other ways.
You can be an individualist and also a collectivist. Society implies that every singular is a component of a plurality and every plurality is composed of singulars. Much as I believe the theological fight over “I” or “We” in the Nicene Creed among my fellow Episcopalians is a hairsplitting conceit, I believe that individuals cannot exist apart from the collective or that the collective is nothing if not a constitution of individuals. They are not only not mutually exclusive, the one idea necessitates the other.
You can respect, honor, and value law enforcement officers and military service members and at the same time criticize policies and practices that have given police officers immunity from the law or have used soldiers to further abhorrent foreign policies. And you can also respect the experience of those who may as victims of that immunity and those policies feel hard-pressed to share your respect.
You can believe in markets, and entrepreneurship, and profitable business. You can believe that they are necessary to supply the goods and services that we need and desire; while also believing that there are certain goods and services that can be more justly managed by laws rather than markets. You can believe in worker’s rights and consumer protections, without disavowing employers and industries.
You can believe in hard work and personal responsibility and also believe in ensuring the welfare of all. You can be both a capitalist and socialist, and all the while uphold republican democracy. You likely already are without even realizing it.
You can believe in the value of banking and lending and investment and insurance, without giving license to usury, predatory behaviors, price gouging, discriminatory practices, and borderline if not actual fraud.
You can believe in the promise of American polity and still believe that it’s possible to improve it, build upon it, reinterpret it, all without retrogressive originalism or nativism, racism, sexism, or any ‑ismic extremity.
You can be many things at once, because patriotism is not an either – or set of criteria. There is nothing unAmerican, because America stands atop codified rights and liberties that eschew the very idea of unAmericanness.
When Sam. Johnson said (and there’s nothing wrong with quoting an Englishman), “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he meant those who mistake their own interests for the common good and use nationalism as an impenetrable flag of impunity to wrap themselves in, rhetorically reducing all else to treason.
A true patriot upholds the interests of the commonwealth in the name of the commonwealth for the sake of the commonwealth; of the people, by the people, for the people.