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It's Time to Rethink Patriotism and Reclaim it from the Far Right
Mobilizing Millions on Behalf of our Democracy Depends on it
I am writing this on July 4, a day when we often think about our America's history and what patriotism means to us. I grew up in California as a first-generation American with parents from two different cultures and faiths (my mother was born in Edinburgh, my father in Jerusalem). Their social circle included people from all over the world who had come to America to escape political repression or simply to have a better life for their families.
This photograph depicts my mother (in the large white hat) at our town's July 4th parade, surrounded by friends who were immigrants from Italy, Bolivia, and India. Later, when we moved to a different area in the same town, we lived next to scientists who had fled Communist Czechoslovakia and a Polish academic who had survived Auschwitz. Neither of my parents was particularly liberal, but they saw America as a place where you could develop your dreams into something tangible.
This sense of possibility informs the July 4th essay I wrote for Lucid a year ago: "It is the idea that one can transform one's life and the destiny of one's family that has distinguished America in the global imagination and made it a destination for millions of impoverished, oppressed, and ambitious individuals...everyone, in theory, could have a chance, with dizzying improvements in standards of living within the scope of one or two generations --- both for immigrants and for people born here, of every race and religion."
When I visited my mother in England last week, she talked about emigrating to America and expressed amazement that she, who grew up poor and was unable to go to college (my grandmother was a night laundress in Edinburgh) has a daughter with a Ph.D. And there is a world of pride in stories like Jelani Cobb's: "Family history in two cards," he wrote recently on Instagram, posting his electrician father's business card and his own as Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism.
At a time when the future of America may seem bleak, we must make this sense of possibility central to a revitalized patriotism that can help to mobilize our fellow Americans --nonvoters, for instance-- on behalf of our democracy.
Some may find the recourse to patriotism distasteful. They may associate it with "flag-waving, saluting soldiers and defending 'the American way of life' --- often code for defending the interests of White Christianity," as I wrote last year. Jedediah Britton-Purdy's recent New York Times op-ed also recognizes this problem: "In progressive circles, claiming patriotism is, at best, an eyebrow-raiser."
Yet it's precisely when democracy is under attack that patriotism is most important. Today the extremist GOP claims a monopoly on patriotism, even justifying violent actions, such as the Jan. 6 coup attempt, as necessary to "save the nation."
We must get over our distaste for love of country and find a workable framing of patriotism that reflects America as it is today. That's why I concluded that July 2021 essay by arguing that it’s time for a notion of patriotism that celebrates the achievements of America as a multiracial nation with a robust immigrant population.
This line of thought has now produced a new book by Yascha Mounk on "diverse democracies," but in 2021 it did not resonate --that essay got perhaps the least engagement by Lucid readers of any that I have published.
The radicalization of the GOP and the worsening situation for American democracy over the last year make it imperative to find the right language to involve others in the patriotic endeavor of saving our freedoms.
So, I offer the central arguments of that essay to you again:
Creating passion around America explicitly as a multiracial democracy directly confronts the GOP's attempts to disenfranchise non-Whites and engineer and enforce rule by White minority.
Celebrating America as a multiracial democracy is forward-looking and pragmatic. The latest census document, updated in 2020, confirms that the non-Hispanic White population is shrinking. People classified by the Census Bureau as belonging to "Two or More Races" are the fast-growing group, followed by Asians and Hispanics
As Britten-Purdy concludes, reclaiming patriotism is a way of saying that at a difficult time "we will not give up on one another, because the country that ties us together also gives us the power to remake it."
How do you think patriotism can be made central to Democratic messaging that can mobilize millions to vote and help save our democracy? Leave a comment with your ideas, and I will collect them for discussion at our upcoming Q&As.
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