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Let's Get Serious About Patriotism

Ira Chernus

The New York Times and the Washington Post have put the Democrats on notice: If you want to become president, patriotism still counts. Whether by coincidence or some conspiratorial design, both of the bellwethers of the political center gave the issue of patriotism front page coverage this past weekend.

Democrats may be tempted to dismiss the patriotism ploy as a distraction from the really important issues of the campaign. Glenn Greenwald, for one, has already denounced the Post article as "small-minded, juvenile gossip" about "tiny sideshows" like lapel pins and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Yes, it's a shame that the the media reduce the issue of patriotism to silly symbols like lapel pins and the Pledge of Allegiance. But the fact is that patriotism is largely about emotion, and emotions are triggered by symbols that can easily seem, to outsiders, trivial and silly. To focus on the triviality of the symbol and miss the meaning behind it is a dangerous mistake. On Election Day, it can get you killed.

So those of us who desperately want to see McCain lose in November would do well to thank the Times and the Post. Regardless of their motives (which do deserve to be questioned), they have given the Democrats a well-timed reminder: Like it or not, patriotism and its symbols still matter to millions of Americans -- perhaps enough to swing an election that we all thought, not long ago, the super-patriot Republicans were absolutely doomed to lose.

Look at the polls. Over 80% of the voters see the nation heading in the wrong direction. A clear majority say that the party offering a new direction, the Democrats, are most likely to make the right decisions on the major issues, especially the economy and the war. Considering that McCain's major policy positions are closely in line with Bush's, he should be trailing far behind.

And the polls are starting to show Clinton and Obama inching ahead of McCain -- but only by a few points, generally within or just at the edge of the margin of error. And some even have McCain ahead. There is something about McCain that inclines a small, but crucial, portion of the electorate to vote for him even though they disagree with his positions. Emotion counts.

That paradox is most obvious when it comes to the war in Iraq. The most recent Pew poll shows 56% of Americans saying "bring the troops home as soon as possible." The perception that the U.S. is reducing violence and stopping terrorism in Iraq has dropped dramatically in the last two months. More people blame the war than any other single factor for our economic woes.

Yet in a head-to-head matchup on who will make "wise decisions about Iraq", McCain beats Obama 50% to 38%, and he beats Clinton 49% to 43%. On the question of who can best handle terrorism, McCain beats Obama 63% to 26% and he beats Clinton 58% to 31%. Those are the same kind of numbers pollsters were finding over two months ago.

Perceptions of patriotism follow virtually the same statistical pattern. In the Pew poll, 90% call McCain patriotic, 76% say the same of Clinton, but only 61% apply that term to Obama. In a recent New York Times / CBS poll, 70% McCain found "very patriotic," compared with 40% who felt that way about Clinton, and only 29% who felt that way about Obama.

The candidate perceived as more patriotic is seen as best able to handle issues of war and national security. That may seem like an obviously predictable correlation. But why? Why shouldn't the candidate seen as best on the economy or health care or education -- the one who can do most to improve the nation's quality of life -- be seen as more patriotic? Why should it be the candidate seen as best able to defeat our enemies?

Because that's how we are taught to think and feel about patriotism. Most of our symbols of American patriotism evoke an image of the U.S. as an embattled nation, besieged by foes who want to destroy us. Patriotism has come to mean, above all, a commitment to the survival of America as our highest value, a willingness to fight -- and die, if necessary -- to save our country. It's only one version of patriotism, but at least since World War II (and perhaps a lot earlier) it's the one that has dominated American life.

And it's been sinking Democratic candidates, not merely since 1988, as Greenwald argues, but since 1968. For four decades now, Democrats have typically been expressing their patriotism by emphasizing the contrast between how Americans live now and how much better we might live here at home in the future. Republicans express their patriotism by emphasizing a contrast between a virtuous America and its evil enemies.

That's the narrative McCain is counting on, and having real success with: Being a super-patriot means being able to hold the line against our enemies abroad. We may not know exactly what we all stand for as Americans. But we know damn well what we stand against.

The narrative works because of its deeper implications. If politics means making things better here at home, as Dems say, then apparently things are not very good right now. And we need a difficult internal debate to figure out how to make them better. If politics is mostly about fighting foreign enemies, as the GOP says, the underlying message is that things here at home are just fine. No difficult discussion is necessary. Our status quo merely needs to be protected against aggressors who would destroy us.

Democrats ask voters: "Which candidate will make life in America better in the future?" Republicans ask voters: "Which candidate will make you feel better about being an American in the present?" When symbols of patriotism revolve around winning wars, they become symbols of America's present virtue (our right to win) and strength (our ability to win). So they make people feel good about being an American.

The lesson of history is that when Americans are losing a war, or think they might be losing a war, many are especially eager to vote for candidates who make them feel good about being Americans. So they choose the Republican, who makes them feel good and proud about America as it is (e.g., Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1980, Bush in 2004).

Yes, if we could get emotion completely out of politics and force voters to decide only on the basis of rational policy views, it would be a wonderful world -- and liberals would win almost every time. But it ain't gonna happen any time soon. Yes, it's easy to poke logical holes in the Republicans' way of symbolizing love of country, and it's worth doing. But it won't win elections. You don't get people to change their symbols and their feelings by logically deconstructing them. You get people to change by offering them a more attractive set of symbols.

When it comes to patriotism, you can create new alternatives from anywhere on the political spectrum. There is no need to choose between good policies and good symbolism. We should expect, and work for, both. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that well enough. So did Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, there is a long line of successful models we can follow.

So there is no reason to dismiss patriotism as a trivial issue -- and lose yet another election that Democrats should be able to win. There is every reason to engage the issue of patriotism head-on, reject the trivializing, raise the conversation to a more serious intellectual plane, and fight to take away the Republican's long-standing lock on the symbols of patriotism.

If the Democratic candidate this fall, whomever it is, made patriotism the central issue of the campaign, I suspect he or she would win by a wide margin.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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