Heading into the Independence Day weekend, a new Gallup poll suggests that Americans’ patriotism is starting to wane — which raises the questions of just what it means to say you love your country and how to think about the country’s problems and flaws. The lament that “things have never been this bad” is usually an indicator of historical illiteracy.
Is Patriotism Slipping?
Six years ago, when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, he explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
The overwhelming majority of Americans at all kinds of events stand for the national anthem — game after game, year after year. It is likely that some of those standing believe that America no longer oppresses black people and people of color. Others likely believe there still is some lingering oppression, but that the country is getting closer and closer to equality, personally and legally. Some probably believe that there is equality on paper, but not in practice. And there are probably some people who see the country in the same way Kaepernick does but stand anyway — because that’s the flag of their country, too.
The point is, few if any of those standing would say that their choice to stand and sing the national anthem means they think the country is perfect, or without serious flaws. They’re standing because America is theirs, too. A refusal to stand and associate yourself with America concedes the flag, the anthem, and the identity of American to the other guys.
You probably don’t think your parents, siblings, spouse, or children are perfect, but you love them anyway — or, at least I hope you do, and I hope they feel the same way about you.
Do Americans love America? The latest Gallup polling numbers tell us that American patriotism is slipping:
The 38 percent of U.S. adults who say they are “extremely proud” to be American is the lowest in Gallup’s trend, which began in 2001. Still, together with the 27 percent who are “very proud,” 65 percent of U.S. adults express pride in the nation. Another 22 percent say they are “moderately proud,” while 9 percent are “only a little” and 4 percent “not at all” proud. . . .
While the current 38 percent expressing extreme pride is the historical low by four percentage points, the combined 65 percent reading for those who are extremely or very proud was two points lower in 2020 than it is today. The current readings are well below the trend averages of 55% extremely proud and 80 percent extremely or very proud.
Before 2015, no less than 55 percent of U.S. adults said they were extremely proud. The highest readings followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when patriotism surged in the U.S.
Can you be proud of your country and simultaneously frustrated, disappointed, or angry with the state of your country as well? I see no contradiction. We have strong disagreements or fights with our family members, too — and that doesn’t mean we don’t love them. Oftentimes our love is one of the factors that inadvertently drives the conflict — we want our parents to go to the doctor to get that lingering health issue checked out, we think our spouses bring their work stress home with them, or our kids drive us crazy when they forget their chores or homework. Frequently, our anger and frustration with someone is driven by feelings like this: “You haven’t don’t that thing I wanted you to do, which I think is in your best interest. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t care. But I do care, which is why I’m irritated or angry that you haven’t done it.”
Criticizing your country can be an act of love, because you want your country to get better than it is. If you think your country is on the verge of making a terrible mistake, you want to prevent that. If you think your country has made a terrible mistake, you want to rectify it. The presence of love does not mean the absence of conflict. Sometimes, we see in those we love a potential greatness that they don’t see within themselves and struggle to get them to realize they can and should do better. (I’m reminded of Vince Vaughn in Swingers: “You’re so money, and you don’t even know it.”)
What’s wrong with America? This could take all day, but what pops in my mind at first:
American culture can seem excessively materialistic.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the performances of celebrities, but we certainly put them up on pedestals. The phenomenon of “extreme fandom” and “toxic fandom” sure looks like the religious impulse channeled toward modern idols.
I wish Americans would cut each other some slack more often. We’re all trying to get through life, facing our own challenges, fighting our own demons, and sometimes keeping all of those hardships hidden.
I wish Americans would realize that social media is a funhouse mirror — distorting and exaggerating, as those mysterious algorithms push the most “engaging” material to the biggest audience, which is often another way of saying the most incendiary, controversial, or outrage-provoking material up top and to the front.
I wish Americans would stop thinking that the American Dream is going to be delivered to them, gift-wrapped, early in life, and that if it hasn’t arrived yet, they are the victim of some sort of unique injustice that rationalizes bitterness, scapegoating, rage, and despair.
I worry — a lot — about what would happen if someone who really studied our cultural anxieties tried to weaponize our divisions against us. Some might argue that this already happened with Russia’s efforts in the realm of social media, but there are much worse ways to exacerbate our divisions.
I wish every American could have the chance to live in another country for a year or two. This isn’t because other countries are terrible. They’re just different — and the experience illuminates what makes the U.S. unique. Other free-market democracies — in many ways, nice places to live or visit — allow the government to formally restrict speech. Not so long ago, we saw how seemingly normal, friendly, welcoming Australia enacted widespread, strict lockdowns to deal with Covid-19. Those Canadians always seemed so nice and polite, right up until some truckers came to town objecting to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions. Lots of Americans sing the joys of visiting or living in France — right up until some vital public service inevitably goes on strike.
Any place on earth you travel to is going to have problems; I just prefer our problems to their problems — or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I prefer our ability to address our problems to their ability to address theirs.
Back in 2020, America had one of its greatest challenges thrown at it in the form of the pandemic — and with a lot of stumbles and mistakes along the way, we got through it. We developed vaccines in record time, lots of people caught Omicron and stayed home for a week, and between the vaccines and natural immunity from past infection, the virus is defanged and largely in our rearview mirror. Meanwhile, China is still contemplating another five years of attempting “Covid Zero” policies.
And somehow, while dealing with all of that grief and hardship, Americans figured out a way to be even more generous. In the calendar year of 2020, when the pandemic was turning American life upside down, Americans gave $471.44 billion to charities and nonprofits — a 5.1 percent increase from 2019. Sixty-nine percent of that enormous sum came from individuals. In five of the last six years, charitable giving by individuals has grown. An astounding 86 percent of affluent households maintained or increased their giving despite uncertainty about the further spread of Covid-19.
The perception that life in America is terrible is often accompanied by a belief that everything is getting worse. If you’re of a certain age, and you’ve been around a young person, there’s a good chance you’ve heard some version of the lament, “It’s never been this bad, and things have never been worse.” These are the sorts of historically illiterate complaints that spur Billy Joel to write hit songs like “We Didn’t Start the Fire”:
The song was Joel’s response to a conversation in the recording studio with Julian Lennon and a friend who had just turned 21. They were in the studio that day and stopped to say hi to Joel. The friend was lamenting how hard it was to turn 21 in 1989 and suggested to Joel that it was much more difficult growing up in the 1980s than the 1950s.
Joel, a life-long history buff, was surprised by the young man’s views. His lack of understanding about the turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, which included momentous events like the Korean conflict, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, sparked Joel to record a mini-history lesson in music covering forty years, from 1949 to 1989.
“You guys had it so much easier back then.”
Really? When exactly were things so much better? When the Soviet Union had its nuclear arsenal pointed at us? Or at the height of the AIDS crisis, before all those treatments were developed? When crack cocaine flooded the streets? When the militia movement blew up Oklahoma City? When were racial tensions better, during the L.A. riots or the O. J. Simpson trial? Back when cars had fewer safety features? Back when you had to read maps or stop and ask for directions, you had to memorize phone numbers, a cassette tape was the best quality for listening to music, and turning in your schoolwork included peeling the perforated ends off the paper after using your dot-matrix printer? When pollution and air quality was so much worse? Back when getting cancer was always considered a death sentence?