Is There a Place for Patriotism on the Left?

THere are two good reasons why every American progressive should be a patriot. One is emotional, the other practical—and they reinforce one another.

I love my country. I love our passionate and endlessly inventive culture of music, sports, literature, and film, which has thrilled and influenced people all over the world. I cherish our civic ideals of social equality, individual freedom, and populist democracy—as well as the unending struggle to put their laudable, if often contradictory, claims into practice.

But you need not share my emotion to recognize a political reality: One cannot engage effectively in the democratic process without being part of a community of feeling. And for most Americans, their nation, with all its flaws, is a community they are willing to defend.

Iconic figures on the left have always understood this. They have demonstrated that American patriotism could serve tolerant, egalitarian ends as well as racist, authoritarian, and imperialist ones. Tom Paine praised his adopted homeland as an “asylum for mankind,” which gave him a forum to denounce regressive taxes and landed aristocracies. Frederick Douglass based his hopes for the abolition of slavery on “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions” as well as an interracial movement for freedom. Eugene Debs described socialism, in the American idiom, as “the equal rights of all to manage and control” society; while Mother Jones, the great labor organizer, accused coal mine operators of crushing the self-respect of their workers. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed during the Montgomery bus boycott that “if we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong” and “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”

Most of these figures, in their own ways, also engaged in a transnational effort to advance equality and tolerance. But each also depended on the power and legitimacy of American ideals to gain mass support for the changes they desired.

Back in the days when the US military was scorching Indochina and killing its people, I abandoned the conviction that one could be both a patriot and a moral person. I didn’t burn any flags, but neither did I condemn those who did. However, I grew increasingly worried about the contradiction between the utter transformation we New Leftists sought to bring about and our increasing alienation from the mass of our fellow citizens we would need to join us in fighting for that better USA. When I read, in 1970, the Black leftist Julius Lester’s reflection that “American radicals are perhaps the first radicals anywhere who have sought to make a revolution in a country which they hate,” it seemed both profound and painful.

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