The nation’s leaders are now locked in a bitter struggle to control the vision of how the citizens of a divided nation should be brought back together. If all goes well in the next decades, the idea of a fight over the terms of unification may come to seem funny. Now, it is just frightening.
As an alternative to fear, we offer a different vision entirely: we ask our fellow citizens to consider joining us in a preference for patriotism over nationalism.
Patriotism, we believe, means supporting constitutional ideals, even when — especially when — supporting those ideals requires rethinking our own assumptions and political affiliations. A patriot’s allegiance is not to any governmental office, nor to the individual who fills it. A patriot’s convictions govern daily life, steadily aiming to make our nation a little better than it was the day before, whether through civil debate, legal action, carefully considered protest, or something as powerful as spreading grace to people in our proximity.
We discovered our agreement on the meaning of patriotism in a series of Zoom conversations that began last Fall. The dizzying difference between our ages has been a particularly valuable dimension of our discussions. One of us is 69; the other, 23. Given that intergenerational coalition-building has not universally been a strength of the babyboomers, we offer the reminder (using one among many examples) that Dr. Martin Luther King was 26 when he emerged as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
There are also striking differences between the life experiences that brought us to a shared set of beliefs. One co-author is a Special Operations combat veteran, currently, a freshman at CU Boulder headed to further public service in K-12 teaching. The other has worked as a professor at a public university for 36 years; she has also held federal office as a Member of the National Council on the Humanities. The student’s reflection on the way that his military service shaped his understanding of patriotism and nationalism refreshed and energized the professor’s thinking, convincing her that what she had heard from him should be heard by many.
Here are the features that we believe characterize patriotism in contrast to nationalism:
- Patriots do not abandon critical appraisal, and in fact believe that honest criticism is the necessary first step to demanding better of their nation; nationalists are susceptible to thinking that criticism approaches — and crosses — the borders of disloyalty.
- When they encounter people who hold differing convictions and principles, patriots commit to continuing to work collaboratively. Patriots refuse to throw in the towel; nationalists can feel fully justified in taking a “my way or the highway” stance.
- Patriotism is dynamically inclusive; nationalism can be prey to intended and unintended exclusion on the basis of race and nationality.
- Patriots embrace the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and recognize that the nation has an undeniable record of failed promises — to Indian peoples, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, members of the white working class, and people of varying gender identities. And yet letting the failures define our nation discounts the complexity of American history and surrenders to a sense of inevitability and fatalism. Patriots see the failures as a challenge to do better; nationalists are inclined to dismiss the failures as exaggerated and dismissible grievances.
In the most memorable moments in our Zoom conversations, the student veteran reported a pattern: some of his fellow soldiers had shifted their attitudes from nationalism to patriotism. In fact, he had made that transition himself; when he entered military service, his opinions were closer to nationalism than they were when he left.
During his deployments, he took part in uncomfortable debates and discussions that went to bedrock: how consistently were American ideals of liberty and justice practiced within the United States and beyond its borders? Patriots, he felt more and more, faced up to hard questions like this one; nationalists were not even interested in them.
Reminding us that no people have ever changed their minds by being ridiculed, the co-author laid out an outline of the steps and stages in conversation that shifted his beliefs, and the beliefs of some of the people with whom he served, toward more patriotic values:
1.) Start with an open discussion of what qualifies an action as patriotic. Base this in examples of actions taken by national leaders that earned the agreement and the disagreement of the people with whom we are pursuing an understanding.
2.) Ask them what freedom means to them, and edge them toward the recognition that freedom is different for each person; the difference does not make the other person’s choice dismissible.
3.) Encourage our conversational partners to work just as passionately to support and defend freedoms they may disagree with, as the ones that they themselves value. Erosion of freedom is a slippery slope leading to authoritarianism; it can be only be a matter of time before the freedoms you hold dear land on the chopping block.
4.) Invite them to experiment with the daily practice of radical acceptance even towards those who do not yet join you in compassion, empathy, and tolerance.
We are fully aware that the definition of patriotism that we endorse is not prevailing in the nation today. We are also aware that many people who now use the term “patriot” to describe themselves follow customs of thought that make a better fit to the term “nationalist.”
We believe that individuals have the capacity to change their thinking. We believe that because we ourselves have changed our thinking.
Moreover, there is a good chance that our understanding of patriotism is shared by the majority of Americans, a hypothesis that the next months will put to a rigorous test.
Both of us have taken an oath of loyalty to our nation that will govern us throughout our lives. We took this oath voluntarily and wholeheartedly. Here are the words of the oath Bob Draughon took when he joined the United States Army, and Patty Limerick took when she joined the National Council on the Humanities.
I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same . . .
We know that many Americans — including our elected national leaders — have also taken this oath. We urge them to start every day with thoughts about the patriotic commitment they have made. And we would be pleased if others wanted to take this oath in the privacy of their own homes, in a socially distanced gathering, or in Zoom exchanges like the ones that we have found so fruitful.
The acronym RINO is now stuck with the meaning ““Republicans in Name Only.” We look forward to a time when RINO can shift its meaning to “Republican Integrity Is Now Overwhelming,” while a counterpart acronym DINO will stand for “Democratic Integrity Is Now Overwhelming.” With patriotism in full operating mode, RINOs and DINOS can work together on a path that actually leads toward unification.
Contact Patty Limerick at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find her blog, Not My First Rodeo, at the Center of the American West website, https://www.centerwest.org. Bob Draughon is a freshman at the University of Colorado Boulder pursuing degrees in history and economics. He was previously a mortarman in the 3d Ranger Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment and he deployed twice.
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