patriotism as a rhetorical tool

Patriotism is much in the news, with the IRS allegedly investigating groups that have the word “patriot” in their name, and various people accusing others of being unpatriotic. In reality, patriotism is rarely just a matter of loving a particular country. It is almost always a particular story of a country that emphasizes some people’s core values and excludes some of their compatriots.

Sen. Ren Paul’s recent fundraising letter says, “President Obama and his anti-gun pals believe the timing has never been better to ram through the U.N.’s global gun control crown jewel. I don’t know about you, but watching anti-American globalists plot against our Constitution makes me sick.”

Paul is not the only one who feels that way. As part of an experiment that we recently conducted, representative Americans told us about any political videos they had shared. This response was far from typical of the whole sample, but also hardly unique:

Mostly of the Obamas….Michelle Obama whispering to B.O., “all this over a flag!” I come from a military family and I am extremely offended by the both of them. I have never seen a more unamerican couple in the White House! This done at a 9/11 ceremony.and now the lack of concern for our flag and our diplomats…Obama should never have been elected…The media has a lot to do with what we are going thru as a Country…Clower and Pivens, Olinsky.. [sic] they are destroying the American way from within and those are the subject matter of most videos I share.

But the Obama administration also adopts a very strong–if different–patriotic narrative. For example, the president’s second Inauguration wove a story in which the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement were central to the great drama of American Freedom. A multiracial Brooklyn choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song about crushing the serpent of rebellion beneath the heel of the Union Army. The president had been reelected by states that fought on the Northern side, and the only Southern voice at the whole event was Sen. Lamar Alexander’s. Implicitly if not deliberately, the message was the glory of the national government that has triumphed over its enemies, domestic as well as foreign. Obama’s strongest critics fear that same government and admire armed resistance against it, at least in the form of the lost confederate cause.

My point is not that one position is more authentically patriotic than the other, although I certainly prefer the substantive values of the administration. The debate is not between patriots and anti-patriots, but among Americans whose reading of their country is strictly at odds.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.