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There's a pro-American majority out there with no one to represent them
The basic idea of “popularism” is that Democrats should emphasize the issues on which they agree with a majority of the American public, and de-emphasize the issues on which they disagree. There are a number of problems with this. First, the unreliability of issue polling means it’s damn hard to tell what the American people actually want. Witness this train wreck of a poll:
Another problem is salience; even if polls could tell you what the public thinks about each issue, they would have a hard time telling you how much voters care about that issue. Yes, there are some polls that ask people to list their “most important problem”, but it’s not easy to tell whether the people who agree with you are the same people who care about the issue. For example, on immigration, Democrats’ general pro-immigration stance polls well, but the people who think immigration constitutes a “Great Replacement” are probably more riled up about it.
So to really execute a popularist strategy, you have to figure out what people will both agree with you and care about a lot. And that’s not easy. David Shor (the political analyst who’s name is typically associated with popularism) thinks Dems should emphasize bread-and-butter economic issues while downplaying their elite cultural values. That might not be a bad strategy, but I think Americans take social and cultural issues very seriously — as evidence by Glenn Youngkin’s recent win in the Virginia gubernatorial race on a platform of opposing critical race theory. The fact is, this is a very rich country, and though people certainly have their economic problems, we care a lot about the upper rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Who gets acceptance, respect, and status in our society is of great importance to us.
And when it comes to sociocultural issues, one thing that Americans very consistently seem to love is patriotism. That’s something neither of the two main political movements in this country seem to understand.
Americans love America
American pride took a hit during the Trump era. But even in the darkest days of 2020, a solid majority of Americans still said that they felt “very” or “extremely” proud to be an American:
And although American “exceptionalism” isn’t as popular among the younger generations, a 2018 Pew poll found that a whopping 77% of Millennials believed that America is one of the greatest countries in the world.
Here’s an extremely recent PRRI poll from just a couple of weeks ago that shows even more striking results:
You find this same patriotic sentiment in poll after poll; I won’t go through a whole exhaustive list. Everywhere the same result obtains — though the current bitter era of unrest has damaged Americans’ love of their country to a moderate extent, that love is still very robust.
There are two pieces of literature that have informed my thinking on this topic recently. The first is George Orwell’s 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”, which I wrote about here. Basically, he argues that because British people love their country, socialism had to appropriate that love of country in order to succeed politically (a strategy that seems to have been used to good effect by Clement Attlee). Of course, Orwell is talking about the UK rather than the U.S., but many of the same lessons seem to apply.
The other thing that’s been on my mind is Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. This book, which is about American politics in 1973-1976, has deeply influenced my thinking about the current era. It describes how America’s self-image took a big hit from Vietnam and Watergate, but ultimately bounced back pretty quickly. Perlstein puts forth the notion that the sheer pageantry of the bicentennial celebration in 1976 reminded people of how much they actually loved their country, despite all its stumbles. (Note that in five years, America will celebrate its 250-year anniversary.) That resurgent patriotism ended up defining the Reagan era and propelling Republicans to victory.
The lesson here is a general one, I think: People want to like their country. They can be disappointed in it or mad at it or frustrated with it, but ultimately they want to think that they’re part of something good. And that desire can be used to great effect if a political movement manages to capture it, uphold it, and validate it.
Unfortunately, neither of America’s two political movements seems especially interested in harnessing or validating the American majority’s love of country these days.
The anti-patriotism of the Left
Progressives get very touchy if you tell them they’re anti-patriotic. But the reason they get touchy is that they remember (or instinctively realize) how devastating that image was for them in previous eras. Yet although it’s painful to hear, ultimately the progressive movement will be stronger if it realizes how deeply anti-patriotic it has become in the last decade.
Progressives have always been more reluctant than conservatives to express jingoistic sentiments. That remains true to this day. But in the past, progressives have been able to muster a variety of liberal nationalism that acknowledged the country’s shortcomings while believing idealistically in its innate capacity to do better. Bill Clinton expressed this idea best when he declared that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” But patriotism was key to the ideologies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama as well.
Joe Biden still tries to summon some of that old liberal patriotism. But in the age of social media, the progressive movement is defined less by the President and more by the collection of journalists, professors, and lower-level politicians who dominate Twitter and major publications and news networks. And here I’ve seen a remarkable and pervasive vilification of America become not just widespread but de rigeur among progressives since unrest broke out in the mid-2010s.
This vilification generally takes the form of “history”. The general conceit among today’s progressives is that America was founded on racism, that it has never faced up to this fact, and that the most important task for combatting American racism is to force the nation to face up to that “history”.
You can see this in the fight over “critical race theory”. When conservatives decry the teaching of “CRT” in schools, progressives could simply triangulate this push and declare that each locale has the right to teach what it wants. This would blunt the electoral advantage of people like Youngkin. But instead, progressives — at least, the ones on social media, cable news, and major publications — have opted to defend “CRT” to the hilt, casting it not as a battle over any sort of sociological theory, but as a battle over the teaching of “history”. Even if it loses them elections, progressives seem prepared to go down fighting for the idea that America needs to educate its young people about its fundamentally White supremacist character.
So why am I putting the word “history” in quotes (along with “CRT”)? Because the version of “history” that progressives want to teach young people, generally speaking, is a cartoonish story in which America is the villain — a nation formed from racism, founded the day the first slave stepped onto our shores, dedicated thereafter to the repression and brutalization of people of color. This “history” ignores America’s deep and powerful tradition of anti-racism, the universalistic egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement that was present from the very beginning, the Founders’ conception of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, America’s role in the ending of European colonialism, its position at the forefront of liberal democratic reforms and experimentation, the promotion of global standards of human rights following WW2, and so on.
Every nation has good and bad in its history, and America has plenty of both. But by insisting — or even just accepting — that a cartoon of American evil is the true “history” and the good parts merely puffed-up propaganda, progressives put themselves on the wrong side of patriotism.
One small example of this is when Nikole Hannah-Jones — the architect of the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, which has been practically canonized by progressives despite substantive objections by academic historians — insisted that the U.S. used nuclear weapons in WW2 simply because they wanted to justify the money they had spent on developing the Bomb. Hannah-Jones declared that all other reasons for dropping nukes constituted “propaganda”, while her own represented “history”. This assertion was roundly condemned by progressives and conservatives alike (a good sign!), and people with a better knowledge of the relevant history stepped in to educate the public:
That progressives were willing to push back on Hannah-Jones’ assertions bodes well — it’s a sign that the American left may start to balk at the cartoonish tales of American villainy they’re being urged to proselytize to the young generations. That in turn suggests that progressives may eventually move back toward the liberal nationalism of Obama, Clinton, Kennedy and Roosevelt. But it’s going to be a long road back.
The anti-patriotism of the Right
If this were the 70s again, the conservative movement could capitalize on the progressive movement’s paroxysm of anti-patriotism by waving the flag and singing the praise of ‘Murica. But this is not the 70s, and the Right has been captured by its own form of anti-Americanism — one that’s actually far more dangerous to the country than anything the Left has planned.
The Trumpist conservatives of 2021 don’t hate the idea of America — they hate the America that actually exists. As Anne Applebaum recently wrote in a review of a documentary by Tucker Carlson, the Trumpists have turned hatred of American institutions into their own sort of post-Christian religion. Rightists hate corporations because they’re “woke”. They hate the U.S. Military because it’s “woke” (and because it wouldn’t support a Trumpist coup). They hate universities. They hate schools. They hate the media, of course. They hate essentially every institution that makes America America, except for possibly churches, but if and when those start praising diversity, they’ll hate those too.
This nihilistic hatred of American institutions makes the modern Right willing to strike at their own country. It supports the toxic, suicidal madness of antivax. It undergirds the shameful defense of the shambolic coup attempt of January 6th, as well as Trump’s efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election. And it is behind Republicans’ declining faith in democracy itself.
But even beyond hating American institutions, the dominant Trumpist wing of the conservative movement despises the actual polity of America as it exists today. We can argue all day about whether Trumpism is fundamentally about a desire to bring back White supremacy (it is), but there’s no denying the exclusionary, anti-pluralistic impulses that lie at the heart of the movement:
This exclusionary, restrictive vision of what constitutes a Real American cuts directly against the patriotism that most Americans feel for their nation of immigrants. Among all generations, Americans see the country’s openness as core to its national identity:
By turning against that openness — by making opposition to immigration and diversity the core of their movement — the Trumpists who now dominate the conservative movement have repudiated one of the core things that Americans like about their own country.
In doing so, conservatives repudiate the patriotic legacy of Ronald Reagan, who in his farewell address declared:
Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world…Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close.
This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation….Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.
Not only are the Trumpists intent on closing that door, they’re willing to overthrow electoral democracy in order to do it.
Americans may be divided, they may be partisan, but they’re too patriotic to go for that. Hopefully new Republican leaders like Glenn Youngkin can wrest control of the movement back from the people who are taking it in a dark, doomed direction. But as long as Trump is around, I’m not optimistic.
The patriotic silent majority
So here we have a situation where most Americans love their country and have no one to represent that love in the political arena. They’re forced to choose between one movement that vilifies the idea of America, and another that vilifies the America that actually exists. The patriotic silent majority is politically and ideologically homeless right now.
Whichever movement can reverse course and tack back toward patriotism first will, I predict, encounter a deep and eager reservoir of positive energy and support. Obviously, being on the progressive side of things myself, I hope Dems come up with the next JFK before Republicans come up with the next Reagan. But someone needs to try patriotism soon, because to not do so would be madness.
And I am sick and tired of madness.
Update: A little over a year after I wrote this post, the 1619 Project folks have shifted strongly toward emphasizing the patriotic part of their original messaging. I’m really happy to see this:
Also, I really like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ recent framing:
The U.S. has always had two founding concepts — the idea of America as a civic nation united by common ideals and dedicated to universal equality, versus the idea of America as a pan-European empire. In Nikole Hannah-Jones’ phrasing, these two national concepts represent two nations superimposed on each other — the idealistic civic nation founded in 1776, and the ethnonationalist imperial nation “founded” in 1619. If the former wins out, then the U.S. deserves our patriotism; if the latter, then anti-patriotism is our only moral option.
I couldn’t agree more.
Update: Looks like the Biden team recognizes the power of patriotic messaging.