Since the Vietnam War, the Left in American politics has often lost sight of the ways that patriotism can be used to support a progressive agenda, as it was used during the Civil War and again during the Civil Rights movement. Branding opponents of the Vietnam War as unpatriotic, the Republican Party began a decades-long effort – without sufficient pushback from the Left – to appropriate the mantle of patriotism for itself, culminating in Donald Trump’s grotesque claim to “Make America Great Again” by promoting white nationalism. Yet if the United States can make a legitimate claim to greatness, this claim rests on our historic role as the birthplace and champion of democracy. The GOP’s aggressive efforts to wrap itself in the flag have let Americans on the Left forget that they – not the Right – most fully embody the democratic values that are the proper essence of American patriotism. Consequently, they overlook the powerful ways that they might use patriotism to win wider support for progressive policies.
The uniquely American equivalence between democracy and patriotism had its roots in the Declaration of Independence, but fully blossomed only during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln gave this democratic strand of American patriotism its most eloquent expression in the Gettysburg Address. Harkening back to the nation’s founding, Lincoln described the United States as “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The operative word here is dedicated. The United States, unlike every other nation, which was defined merely by geographic location, a shared language, or a ruling dynasty, was to be a political community defined by an ideal: a nation that stands for something, that stands for democracy. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Lincoln continued, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
For Lincoln, as for all Northerners who understood that the war’s purpose was to preserve the Union, the war was a test of the world’s only democratic experiment. If democracy failed in the United States, than it might not be feasible “in any nation so conceived and so dedicated.” If the South managed to break apart the Union, democracy would have failed, perhaps to be lost for all humanity, for all time. And so 360,000 Union soldiers gave their lives, “so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In this way, the United States became not only the birthplace of democracy, but the world’s foremost champion of democracy, a role reprised (despite some tragic mistakes and frequent hypocrisy) in World War I, World War II, and in the Cold War struggle against communism.
To be sure, a look at our country’s history does not always present an uplifting picture. Sometimes it seems as if our democratic ideals have been honored more in the breach than in the observance. But the ideals have always remained a part of our political culture, a part of the national DNA, and at some crucial points, patriotism has inspired us to make the country live up to its ideals. If we are great because we have been the champions of democracy, then our national pride can goad us to perfect our democracy and live up to the standard that defines our nationhood. We can see this progressive use of patriotism in the history of our Civil Rights Movement, when Martin Luther King and other leaders could affirm, with right on their side, that racial segregation was undemocratic, and therefore unpatriotic and un-American.
In his celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King affirmed that “[w]e will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.” The young African-Americans who protested segregation by sitting down at lunch counters “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Dr. King harnessed American patriotism to the cause of racial equality within a single sentence of the speech he gave on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a rapt audience of 250,000: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” In so doing, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, King put his finger on what may be the most distinctive component of American patriotism, the fact that the country has a defining creed, which constitutes a standard against which the nation must measure itself.
President John F. Kennedy sounded a similar note on June 11, 1963, when he spoke on national television to announce the civil rights legislation he was introducing in Congress, the bill that later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Invoking America’s role as the champion of democracy in the Cold War struggle against communism, Kennedy said: “We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?” Not at all subtly, Kennedy tarred defenders of segregation with the brush of Nazi racism, accusing them of seeing themselves as part of a “master race,” thereby branding their conduct as un-American and unpatriotic.
Just as democratic patriotism was harnessed to the cause of progress and social justice in the Civil Rights movement, so too can progressives and other Democrats use patriotism today to unite the Democratic Party, win a convincing victory in the 2020 elections, and advance the cause of reform. The time is ripe for such an effort because American democracy stands today in mortal danger, the Democratic Party is well-positioned to serve as democracy’s champion, and the upcoming elections may be our last chance to save government by the people in the land of its birth.
Our democracy has been hollowed out from within across the last four decades by a swelling torrent of campaign cash. High dollar donors now determine which political candidates are viable, and which policies these candidates may implement once they are in office. Americans can still vote, but with the candidates and their policies already chosen for them, they have little to vote for. A political system rigged in favor of the wealthy and of corporations has produced, among many unfortunate outcomes, three waves of tax cuts for the wealthy, dangerous environmental deregulation, cruel cuts in social welfare benefits, and the Republican Party’s denial of climate change.
Increasingly favoring policies (tax cuts for the wealthy, climate change denial) that are unpopular with the voters, Republican politicians have turned against democracy, trying to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them, through partisan gerrymandering and manifold forms of voter suppression. Not content with rigging elections, the GOP tries to make elections less important, by packing the courts with extreme conservatives who can apply the laws as they please, without ever having to face the voters. Republican politicians further undermine democracy by unflinchingly supporting President Trump, an imminent threat to democracy in his own right, who routinely tramples on the Constitution and democratic norms, calls the free press the “enemy of the people,” lies prolifically to the voters, and invites foreign interference in our elections, elections whose results he may not accept if they do not go his way.
Because American patriotism is inextricably bound up with democratic values, these Republican actions and policies are by definition unpatriotic. Without making this point in an inflammatory fashion, Democrats are well-positioned to wrap themselves in the flag in the 2020 elections, because of the steps they have taken – and can take in future – to defend and restore American democracy. Impeaching Donald Trump won’t remove him from office, but is worth doing because it lets Democrats take a stand for democracy and the Constitution, while Republicans defend the indefensible. In their first law of the present Congress, the aptly named For the People Act, House Democrats struck a blow for democracy on several fronts. If implemented, this law would make it much easier for Americans to vote, rather than more difficult, as Republicans are working overtime to achieve. It would end partisan gerrymandering by taking Congressional redistricting out of the hands of state governments and assigning to apolitical commissions. It would impose new restrictions on lobbying, and proposes some modest campaign finance reforms – reforms that are a step in the right direction, though still not nearly enough.
Truly effective campaign finance reform – a reform that breaks the power of wealthy donors over our politics – would make Democrats the unambiguous champions of our democracy, even as Republican politicians have manifestly become its enemies. This reform, usually known as “democracy dollars,” already exists in several versions, including two bills introduced in Congress. Presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang, and Bernie Sanders have all mentioned it, but none have made it a leading issue, and it has received no real attention from the press. I discuss this reform extensively in my blog post of 10/5/19. Very briefly, it works like this: the federal government gives every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw this money for personal use, but instead would go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With over 200 million registered voters as of 2016, this translates to $10 billion in small donations from voters, as compared to the $6.5 billion in private money spent on the 2016 federal elections. Every serious candidate would able to fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely with donations from voters. This would free politicians to serve the voters instead of serving high-dollar donors, the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy. Even better, every candidate would have to make a choice: opt into the democracy dollars system, and give up all future private donations, or else fund his or her campaign entirely with large private donations. Candidates who take the second course of action will be justly and ferociously accused of preferring to serve corporations and the wealthy instead of serving the voters. This intense political pressure would drive a very large part of the private money out of our political system, making the United States a democracy again within a single electoral cycle.
So here’s my advice for progressives and other Democrats as they approach the 2020 elections. Talk an awful lot less about their specific plans for health care, which is the main issue that seriously divides them. Unite the party around the shared mission of saving American democracy from big money, antidemocratic Republican policies, and the would-be dictator in the White House. Impeachment, the For the People Act, and the democracy dollars reform should be Democrats’ leading issues, their plan to restore our democracy. Finally, they should present the salvation of American democracy as the consummate expression of patriotism, an affirmation of our claim to greatness as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, the defining ideal that we must all strive to live up to. That Democrats do this is not only vitally necessary – because our democracy is indeed in terrible danger – but it is also very good politics. It provides a terrain of shared values upon which Democrats can reach out to independents and moderate Republicans. Not every American will support Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, but most Americans still believe in democracy, and every American is a patriot. This just might be the stuff of which a landslide election is made.