Di­vided by pa­tri­o­tism

A pre­scrip­tion for unit­ing par­ti­sans on the left and right

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - out­look@wash­post.com Yu­val Levin, the ed­i­tor of Na­tional Af­fairs, is the Her­tog fel­low at the Ethics and Public Pol­icy Cen­ter.

As In­de­pen­dence Day ap­proaches, Amer­i­cans are di­vided. We are con­flicted along lines of party, re­gion, ed­u­ca­tion and class — and th­ese di­vi­sions have left us with a pol­i­tics that just feels bro­ken. We all love our coun­try, but we can’t even agree on why and how to love it. Pa­tri­o­tism it­self has be­come a stick­ing point.

There has long been an ar­gu­ment, roughly along the axis of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism, about whether to love Amer­ica for what it has been or what it should be. The right in­clines to Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, and the sense that our na­tion’s roots in self-ev­i­dent moral truths ren­der it a unique force for good in the world and make its pol­i­tics dis­tinctly el­e­vated. The left in­clines to a more re­demp­tive hope in Amer­ica — the idea that our coun­try has been work­ing from its birth to over­come its unique sins, and that it has made some progress but has much more to make.

Lib­er­als ar­gue that the con­ser­va­tive form of pa­tri­o­tism san­i­tizes his­tory and de­scends into jin­go­ism. Con­ser­va­tives say the left’s form of pa­tri­o­tism isn’t so much a re­gard for Amer­ica as for lib­eral po­lit­i­cal ideals, which pro­gres­sives hope our coun­try might in­creas­ingly come to re­sem­ble.

In our time, Pres­i­dent Trump and some of his sup­port­ers have brought to the fore an­other, per­haps even deeper dis­agree­ment over pa­tri­o­tism. Trump is not an Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ist. “I don’t like the term, I’ll be hon­est with you,” he said in 2015. “. . . Look, if I’m a Rus­sian, or I’m a Ger­man, or I’m a per­son we do busi­ness with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term.” More than not nice, he seems to think it’s not true: What stands out about Amer­ica, Trump ar­gues, is not its ideals or its grad­ual self-im­prove­ment but the sim­ple fact that it is our coun­try. So Amer­ica’s lead­ers should do what the lead­ers of all other na­tions do and put their own na­tion first. “At the bedrock of our pol­i­tics,” Trump said in his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, “will be a to­tal al­le­giance to the United States of Amer­ica, and through our loy­alty to our coun­try, we will re­dis­cover our loy­alty to each other.”

Th­ese dif­fer­ences among three types of pa­tri­ots have a lot to tell us about our con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics. But as they are de­ployed in po­lit­i­cal de­bates, they of­ten serve to nar­row our sense of the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion. Each camp un­der­stands its ad­ver­saries as speak­ing some­how from out­side that tra­di­tion and per­haps against it. So pa­tri­o­tism it­self be­comes a source of dis­unity.

But in fact, th­ese dif­fer­ent forms of pa­tri­o­tism all speak from within our tra­di­tion. All have deep roots, and the ten­sions among them might point us to­ward a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how our so­ci­ety should re­gard it­self.

One man’s life and thought were a tes­ta­ment to all three forms of pa­tri­o­tism. Abra­ham Lin­coln, who knew a thing or two about a di­vided pol­i­tics, would have been no stranger to our con­flicts over na­tional sen­ti­ment. But his think­ing on that sub­ject of­fers a model of gen­uine states­man­ship, be­cause it tended to build bridges where oth­ers, in his time and ours, could see only chasms.

He sug­gested, to be­gin with, that it is a mis­take to think of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism as a spur to empty jin­go­ism. Our ide­al­is­tic ex­cep­tion­al­ism is, if any­thing, a re­straint on self-con­grat­u­la­tion be­cause it al­ways com­pels us to con­front the fact that we fall short of our ideals. The Amer­i­can creed, Lin­coln ar­gued in one speech, should form “a stan­dard maxim for free so­ci­ety, which should be fa­mil­iar to all and revered by all; con­stantly looked to, con­stantly la­bored for, and even though never per­fectly at­tained, con­stantly ap­prox­i­mated, and thereby con­stantly spread­ing and deep­en­ing its in­flu­ence, and aug­ment­ing the hap­pi­ness and value of life to all peo­ple of all colors ev­ery­where.”

What makes Amer­ica ex­cep­tional is that it was founded on prin­ci­ples that guide our public life yet will al­ways be as­pi­ra­tional. This joins to­gether the con­ser­va­tive and pro­gres­sive forms of pa­tri­o­tism — as it sug­gests that progress to­ward jus­tice in­volves vin­di­cat­ing rather than re­pu­di­at­ing our found­ing prin­ci­ples.

Those prin­ci­ples can also help to over­come an­other chal­lenge to unity in our day that Lin­coln would have rec­og­nized. As he noted in an 1858 speech, about half the peo­ple liv­ing in the United States at that time were not de­scended from the found­ing gen­er­a­tion but were im­mi­grants or chil­dren of im­mi­grants. They had no con­nec­tion “by blood” to the rev­o­lu­tion, he said. And yet, “when they look through that old Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, they find that those old men say that ‘We hold th­ese truths to be self-ev­i­dent, that all men are cre­ated equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sen­ti­ment taught in that day ev­i­dences their re­la­tion to those men, that it is the fa­ther of all moral prin­ci­ple in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Dec­la­ra­tion — and so they are.”

A stir­ring call to pa­tri­o­tism, to be sure. But Lin­coln was also alert to the charge — as present then as now — that this kind of at­tach­ment is too cold and the­o­ret­i­cal to hold us to­gether in times of gen­uine strain. The very first sen­tence of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence de­scribes us as “one peo­ple,” and Amer­i­can pa­tri­o­tism has al­ways been a form of na­tion­al­ism, too.

Some­times Lin­coln sug­gested that sheer love of our own — what Trump and some of his sup­port­ers cham­pi­oned — might live along­side our pa­tri­o­tism of prin­ci­ple and as­pi­ra­tion, al­beit as a ju­nior part­ner. Of his great hero, Henry Clay, Lin­coln said, “He loved his coun­try partly be­cause it was his own coun­try, but mostly be­cause it was a free coun­try.”

In his youth, in par­tic­u­lar, Lin­coln in­clined to­ward a rather cere­bral form of pa­tri­o­tism. In one of his ear­li­est public ad­dresses, de­liv­ered be­fore the Young Men’s Lyceum of Spring­field, Ill., when he was only 28, he sug­gested that, even in the face of pas­sion­ate di­vi­sions, our com­mit­ment to Amer­ica should be un­fail­ingly ra­tio­nal. The rev­o­lu­tion was over, he sug­gested. “Pas­sion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in fu­ture be our en­emy. Rea­son — cold, cal­cu­lat­ing, unim­pas­sioned rea­son — must fur­nish all the ma­te­ri­als for our fu­ture sup­port and de­fense. Let those ma­te­ri­als be molded into gen­eral in­tel­li­gence, sound moral­ity, and in par­tic­u­lar, a rev­er­ence for the Con­sti­tu­tion and laws.”

But 23 years later, as he pre­pared to take on the heavy bur­den of the pres­i­dency amid deeper and more in­tense di­vi­sions than Amer­ica had ever known, Lin­coln had come to see that pure prin­ci­ple and rea­son alone were not enough of a foun­da­tion for rev­er­ence, unity and love of coun­try. True, an ex­cess of pas­sion was dan­ger­ous. But at the con­clu­sion of his first in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, he called for some­thing more lyri­cal and sen­ti­men­tal to bind us: “Though pas­sion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of af­fec­tion. The mys­tic chords of memory, stretch­ing from ev­ery bat­tle­field and pa­triot grave to ev­ery liv­ing heart and hearth­stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the cho­rus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the bet­ter an­gels of our na­ture.”

Lin­coln had dis­cov­ered for us the truest touch­stone of repub­li­can pa­tri­o­tism: the uni­fy­ing power of our com­mon na­tional memory. Memory is both con­cep­tual and vis­ceral. It lets us take pride in our ideals and our ex­pe­ri­ence — our ori­gins and our progress — and the fact that both are ours. It can serve as a foun­tain of af­fec­tion be­cause it is shared with our fel­low cit­i­zens, not sim­ply as a set of prin­ci­ples but as a life lived to­gether.

A pa­tri­o­tism of com­mon na­tional memory could be the an­swer to the rid­dle of a pol­i­tics di­vided over how to be uni­fied. It is not a way to make our dif­fer­ences go away, but rather to al­low us bet­ter to live with them and so with each other. It could help coun­ter­act our ten­dency to think of our po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents as speak­ing from out­side the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion, and so as threats to be warded off rather than fel­low cit­i­zens to be en­gaged. Our tra­di­tion is more ca­pa­cious than we tend to imag­ine and gives us more room for gen­uine pol­i­tics than we too of­ten as­sume.

A love of coun­try rooted in na­tional memory would let us draw some good out of the ways in which we are now di­vided over pa­tri­o­tism. It is good for all of us to be re­minded of the ideals Amer­ica was born to em­body, of the fact that it could stand to em­body them more fully, of the fact that all th­ese ideals can be em­bod­ied at the same time, and of the sim­ple re­al­ity that Amer­ica is not it­self an ideal but a real na­tion, full of real peo­ple who de­serve lead­ers who put them first.

And it would be good to re­mem­ber, as well, that our coun­try has made it through mo­ments of much deeper di­vi­sion than this one — in the life­times of many Amer­i­cans, let alone in the span of our na­tional memory. We have of­ten done so with the help of lead­ers able to sum­mon us to­ward progress rooted in re­mem­brance. We could sure use such lead­ers now.

So as we cel­e­brate our coun­try this In­de­pen­dence Day, let’s cite Lin­coln once more. He con­cluded his eu­logy of Henry Clay with a prayer to which he him­self would one day be an an­swer and which we would be wise now to re­peat: “Let us strive to de­serve, as far as mor­tals may, the con­tin­ued care of Di­vine Prov­i­dence, trust­ing that, in fu­ture na­tional emer­gen­cies, He will not fail to pro­vide us the in­stru­ments of safety and se­cu­rity.”


“The mys­tic chords of memory . . . will yet swell the cho­rus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the bet­ter an­gels of our na­ture.” Abra­ham Lin­coln


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