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Democrats Should Embrace Patriotism
No, America Is Not a Racist, Dystopian Hellhole
Here is the uncomfortable fact Democrats need to face: whatever the outcome of the 2022 election, Democrats’ uncompetitiveness among white working class voters and among voters in exurban, small town and rural America puts them at a massive disadvantage given the structure of the American electoral system. This problem has only been exacerbated by recent slippage in Democratic support among nonwhite working class voters. Without better performance among these voter groups, Democrats’ hold on power will be ever tenuous, as will be their ability to actually fix the problems they say they want to fix.
To address this problem, I suggest a three point plan for reform and renewal. I covered the first two parts of this plan in my last two posts:
This week I will discuss the third and final part of the plan.
Democrats Must Embrace Patriotism and Liberal Nationalism
Let’s face it: today’s Democrats have a bit of a problem with patriotism. It’s kind of hard to strike up the band on patriotism when you’ve been endorsing the view that America was born in slavery, marinated in racism and remains a white supremacist society, shot through with multiple, intersecting levels of injustice that make everybody either oppressed or oppressor on a daily basis. Of course, America today may be a racist, dystopian hellhole, but Democrats assure us that it could get even worse if the Republicans get elected. Then it’ll be a fascist, racist, dystopian hellhole.
Hmm. This doesn’t seem like a very inspirational approach.
It is hard to believe that, not so long ago, Democratic President Bill Clinton was saying “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America”. And even more recently, when Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008, he said:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
Perhaps it’s time to revive the spirit of these remarks and give patriotism a chance. As the liberal commentator Noah Smith observed in an essay simply titled “Try Patriotism”:
I’ve seen a remarkable and pervasive vilification of America become not just widespread but de rigeur among progressives since unrest broke out in the mid-2010s…. The general conceit among today’s progressives is that America was founded on racism, that it has never faced up to this fact, and that the most important task for combatting American racism is to force the nation to face up to that “history”…. Even if it loses them elections, progressives seem prepared to go down fighting for the idea that America needs to educate its young people about its fundamentally White supremacist character….
This [cartoon] “history” ignores America’s deep and powerful tradition of anti-racism, the universalistic egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement that was present from the very beginning, the Founders’ conception of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, America’s role in the ending of European colonialism, its position at the forefront of liberal democratic reforms and experimentation, the promotion of global standards of human rights following WW2, and so on.
In short, embrace patriotism and don’t apologize for it. That’s the creed of ordinary Americans even if many activist Democrats reject it. Illustrating this, a survey project by the More in Common group was able to separate out a group they termed "progressive activists" who were 8 percent of the population (but punch far above their weight in the Democratic party) and are described as "deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America's direction today. They tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media".
These progressive activists' attitude toward their own country departs greatly from not just that of average Americans but from pretty much any other group you might care to name, including average nonwhite Americans. Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans, in fact, are highly likely to be proud to be Americans and highly likely to say they would still choose to live in America if they could choose to live anywhere in the world. In contrast, progressive activists are loathe to express these sentiments. For example, just 34 percent of progressive activists say they are “proud to be American” compared to 62 percent of Asians, 70 percent of blacks, and 76 percent of Hispanics.
In another illustration of this dynamic, an Echelon Insights survey posed this choice to respondents: America is not the greatest country in the world vs. America is the greatest country in the world. By 66 percent to 28 percent, strong progressives (about 10 percent of voters) said America is not the greatest country in the world. By 70-23, Hispanic voters said the reverse.
This is a big, big problem. One of the only effective ways—and possibly the most effective way—to mobilize Americans behind big projects is to appeal to patriotism, to Americans as part of a nation. Indeed much of what America accomplished in the 20th century was under the banner of liberal nationalism. But many in the Democratic party blanche at any hint of nationalism—one reason so many are leery of patriotism—because of its association with darker impulses and political trends. Yet as John Judis has pointed out, nationalism has its positive side as well in that it allows citizens to identify on a collective level and support projects that serve the common good rather than their immediate interests.
Democrats have tried uniting the country around the need to dismantle “systemic racism” and promote “equity”….and failed. Democrats have tried uniting the country around the need to save the planet through a rapid green transition…and failed. It’s time for Democrats to try something that really could unite the country: liberal nationalism.
This approach has a rich heritage. As Peter Juul and I noted in our American Affairs article on “The Case for a New Liberal Nationalism”:
When labor and civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin put forward their ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans in 1966, they couched their political argument in the powerful idiom of liberal nationalism. “For better or worse,” Randolph avowed in his introduction, “We are one nation and one people.” The Freedom Budget, he went on, constituted “a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America” and “a call to all those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction.” It was also, he added, “a plea to men of good will to give tangible substance to long-proclaimed ideals.”
To the detriment of the nation as a whole, the Democratic Party and left-wing political elites [have] abandoned the successful and compelling idiom of liberal nationalism espoused by the likes of Randolph and Rustin, as well as by political leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Hubert H. Humphrey. Instead, party and intellectual elites have retreated into an ideological hall of mirrors that has left them adrift at a critical time in the nation’s history. They lack the political language required to move the United States beyond the rolling crisis it finds itself in.
If liberal nationalism was good enough for A Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, for FDR and JFK, it should be good enough for today’s Democratic party. Democrats should proudly proclaim that their party is a patriotic party that believes Americans as a nation can accomplish great things, just as it has in the past and as it will in the future. Given all that Democrats hope to accomplish and all the voters they hope to reach, to do otherwise makes no sense. Indeed, it borders on political malpractice.
That concludes the final part of my three part plan. To review:
3. Democrats Must Embrace Patriotism and Liberal Nationalism
A Democratic party that adopts these principles has a real shot at political domination given Republicans’ serious problems and weaknesses. Conversely, a Democratic party that continues on its present course dooms American politics to continued stalemate and polarization. Like the prospect of an imminent hanging, that should concentrate the mind.