America’s New Crisis of Confidence

(Mike Segar/Reuters)

For too many, particularly on the left, patriotism has become contingent on the country’s ability to produce specific political outcomes.

Oikophilia, Sir Roger Scruton writes, “is the love of the oikos, which means not only the home but the people contained in it, and the surrounding settlements that endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile. The oikos is the place that is not just mine and yours but ours. It is the stage-set for the first-person plural of politics, the locus, both real and imagined, where ‘it all takes place.’”

Americans on the whole are feeling momentarily estranged from our oikos, it seems; the national body politic is diseased, suffering from a severe deficiency of oikophilia. Americans’ love of their country is at an all-time low: Last year was the first time in recorded history that less than half of us said we were “extremely proud” to be American. This year, that number has dropped further. Democrats, in particular, are afflicted. Though they have been consistent in reporting less national pride to pollsters than Republicans, the deficit has become more dramatic in recent years: Just 22 percent of Democrats now say that they are extremely proud to be Americans, down ten points from last year and 21 points from 2017.

Much of this arises from a fundamental disagreement about why and how we should love our country. Yuval Levin writes:

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There has long been an argument, roughly along the axis of conservatism and progressivism, about whether to love America for what it has been or what it should be. The right inclines to American exceptionalism, and the sense that our nation’s roots in self-evident moral truths render it a unique force for good in the world and make its politics distinctly elevated. The left inclines to a more redemptive hope in America — the idea that our country has been working from its birth to overcome its unique sins, and that it has made some progress but has much more to make.

The question of what makes America worthy of our love has been a constant facet of our political discourse since the nation’s inception. It is a vitally important debate and probably will never be truly resolved. But our collective amor patriae must be more concrete than a flimsy belief in “progress” if we hope to transcend the malaise of our current political moment.

The patriotism of many contemporary progressives seems to align with Levin’s description: a notion that America’s greatness is tied up in its ability to become better than it was before. There is real value to this form of oikophilia, to be sure. But it is also evanescent and conditional. If one’s commitment to America is contingent on our society continually evolving in the way one desires, then it is difficult to remain attached to one’s country when the electorate produces undesirable political outcomes or the culture is more resistant to one’s preferred changes than one would like.

This is evident from the polling, which shows that the number of Democrats who identified as proud to be American plummeted when Trump was elected. Republicans, on the other hand, are relatively stable in their reported patriotism, showing less concern for the partisan sympathies of any given presidential administration. Significantly more worrying, however, is the profound cultural shift that has accompanied this drop in liberal patriotism; it now seems to be accepted fact in elite progressive circles that patriotism itself is passé. The New York Times posts videos detailing why “the myth of America as the greatest country on earth is at best outdated and at worst wildly inaccurate,” while the paper’s Sunday magazine publishes pieces on why “modern patriotism has become Kabuki citizenship.Mic waxes poetic about the dangers of “performative patriotism,” and our intelligentsia informs us that “the American dream is a myth.” New York governor Andrew Cuomo scoffs that “America was never that great,” and  former cabinet members of the Obama administration agree. Professional athletes continually remind us that they, too, find America unworthy of celebration.

One can understand how a patriotism conditioned on political and cultural outcomes might falter in the current moment; indeed, Americans of all partisan dispositions are rightly concerned for the civic health of our nation. But I would urge my progressive friends to seek out a richer, more robust understanding of what it means to love America, untethered to the daily histrionics of Washington, D.C.

Patriotism in America has eminently rational justification, for a multitude of reasons that need not be expounded upon; ours is an exceptional nation, founded on a radical belief in human equality. The nature of the American people is shaped by the that belief, and the other ideas upon which the nation was founded. But patriotism is even more than the love of our Constitution and the principles upon which it is founded, great as both are. It is also a fond affection for all the inarticulable distinctions that make our country ours: the quiet beauty of everyday American life, incomprehensible to statistical measurement and invisible to the news cycle.

Regardless of partisanship and policy debate, our political commitments should be manifestations of gratitude for our inheritance rather than a rejection of it. A more tender politics begins with a deep attachment to one’s little platoons, a love for one’s place and one’s people, and an unerring affection for the shape of one’s society. This political disposition does not mean perpetual resistance to change — a country without the means to change is without the means of its own conservation — but it transcends the desire for change as the sole determinant of one’s patriotism.

A desire to improve or better one’s country is admirable, but it should not preclude one’s unreserved commitment to it. Humility is a necessary antecedent to good governance. Our entire political class might do well to remember as much.

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