This summer, my stepdad saw an American flag dancing in the wind and assumed its owner was conservative. It is a common reaction by liberals. For years, the GOP has seemingly monopolized symbols of patriotism, like the flag and the armed forces. Now, it’s time to reclaim American pride, for the sake of this country and the long-term political strategy of the Democratic Party.
The Economist recently published an article called the “Politics of patriotism.” The author cites a Harvard study that found “merely exposing Americans to July 4th parades as children made them likelier to vote conservative.” It also states that according to one survey, 20 percent of millennials consider the flag a symbol of “intolerance and hatred.” However, these millennials show no wavering enthusiasm for American ideals such as equality and opportunity. There is also a clear disconnect between the right and left on what love of country means; this polarization lies in the diverging definitions of patriotism. Democrats are more likely to think that dissent is a part of patriotism, including disobeying “immoral” laws and criticizing US leaders in front of foreigners. Most Republicans reject protest as a sign of patriotism. This gap is not new, but the Trump presidency has exacerbated it.
At a recent press conference, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany criticized the American tire company, Goodyear, for banning employees from wearing MAGA hats while making exceptions for promoting racial equality, like Black Lives Matter (BLM). She said that “what was not allowed was Blue Lives Matter. What was not allowed was MAGA hats. What was clearly targeted was a certain ideology.” She went on to say that “Blue Lives Matter,” which is the conservative movement that supports police officers and response to BLM, is also an “equity issue.”
This defense is emblematic of the GOP’s inability to accept our country’s shortcomings. It should not be political to state that there are racial inequities in this country. In fact, it is patriotic: A patriot accepts that we have never perfected our union. Every day, it is a constant pursuit of the sweeping, bold ideals outlined by our Founding Fathers that we have not fully accomplished yet. When the Trump Administration makes weak defenses like this, Democrats need to point to the founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and consistently respond from a place of patriotism, not emotional, identity politics.
Democrats cannot make these rebuttals unless they redefine the patriotism narrative. As Professor John Pitney, a former Republican, clearly lays out in his new book, Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald Trump, Trumpism is diametrically opposed to American patriotism: he stood idly by as Russians put bounties on our troops. In a 2018 summit with Vladamir Putin in Helsinki, Trump publicly sided with an ex-KGB agent over our intelligence community when asked about Russian meddling in our elections. The president clearly does not respect the Constitution because he has violated the Emoluments Clause since January 20th, 2017, as he still profits off his hotel chains while in office. The examples are endless, and I think that is why Democrats have not been disciplined in their messaging that Trump and his party have abandoned patriotism. Trump constantly starts political dumpster fires so that the media has trouble focusing on this egregious violation of American ideals.
So, it is the job of Democrats up and down the ballot to integrate patriotism into their campaign messaging. The only Democratic candidate I’ve seen try to do this is Pete Buttigieg. He categorized his presidential campaign policy priorities into three values historically claimed by Republicans: freedom, security, and democracy. An example is that he defined security not just in the context of traditional military defense, but also in our ability to combat climate change for future generations. An integral part of reclaiming patriotism is taking back the language that has enabled Republicans to be viewed as the patriotic party. Buttigieg’s strategy can serve as a blueprint for Democrats on how to align these broad values and liberal public policy.
In the immediate term, Joe Biden has to set the strategic vision for the rest of the Democratic Party of how to reclaim patriotism. Practically, this strategy can take the form of the Biden campaign running ads about Trump’s abandonment of American troops in swing states with large military bases, like North Carolina. According to that same Economist article, the US military was 75% white in 1990, and now around 45% of service members are from mostly Democratic-voting minorities. The US military is seen as a symbol of patriotism to many, and now the Democrats have an opportunity to position themselves as strong on national security. Politically, this pivot is a low-hanging fruit to pick and it also will support the longer-term plan of redefining the patriotism narrative.
To me, what first has to happen is to acknowledge and fix the fact that GOP talking points have seeped into the Democratic Party. For decades, Republicans have pulled policy discussions rightward as conservative billionaires like the Koch Brothers have built the educational and political infrastructure to strengthen conservatism on the local, state, and federal levels. The result is that Democrats end up internalizing GOP policy positions instead of going on the offensive and clearly articulating to the American people why they are a better alternative.
The second part of the strategy needs to focus on the next generation of Democratic voters — specifically, the Gen Z-ers who are not 18 yet and Generation Alpha, people born after 2010. Some millennials see patriotic symbols like the flag as inconsistent with progressivism. So, the Democrats will have a hard time convincing younger voting generations that these symbols are not weapons of the GOP. There is a huge opportunity, however, to reintroduce patriotism to Gen Z and Alpha. Democrats need to engage in a constant effort to redefine what it means to love your country, including embracing, not shying away from, the pledge of allegiance in schools, pushing for national youth service programs, and being outspoken about the mental health struggles of veterans.
If the Democratic Party can detach itself from the tight grasp of Republican influence, it will be able to articulate a bold vision for the next generation that associates patriotism with the policies for which we have fought. The Democrats will have succeeded if the next generation sees that beautiful flag at a 4th of July celebration and knows it is a symbol of equality and opportunity for all.
Henry Schulz is a guest writer for the Claremont Independent. He is a junior at Claremont McKenna College studying government. Currently, he is participating in the CMC Washington DC program and working at the Mellman Group, a Democratic consulting firm specializing in polling. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.
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