The evolution of the Patriot
How did we get here?
Depending on the context, the word patriot can make your heart swell with pride, or shake your head in disgust.
It can be recalled with pride, as the first American patriots who stood up against taxation without representation, establishing a state independent from the tyranny of British rule.
These days, however, patriotism has a cult-ish, nationalistic feel to it; a gun-toting, flag-waving, Ford F-150 driving, in-your-face-bumper-sticker toting, barbed-wire-fence-tattooed, obnoxiously loud kind of feeling.
Perhaps this characterization is a grossly misguided Blind Spot; falsely attributing patriotism to those who are proudest to outwardly show it, even though some of the most patriotic, proud-to-be-Americans may as well be those who have emigrated from other countries and are too shy about their English to express their feelings about the USA. It takes a trip outside the US to realize the rest of the world doesn’t typically wear hats and shirts casually emblazoned with the flag of their country.
So, what happened? What happened between the days of the first US patriots and now?
A 2019 Gallup poll has demonstrated this falling lack of pride in being an American. This poll shows that around 85% of early Silent Generation/Late Boomers, 80% of Boomers/Gen X, 65% of Gen X/Millennials, and 50% of Millennials/Gen Z and described themselves as at least very proud to be an American. For the sake of simplicity in this piece, I am considering patriotism to mean proud to be from one’s own country.
This is important to note because semantics can make a big difference in this discussion. Searching patriot on thesaurus.com will produce synonyms jingoist, nationalist, and partisan. That being said, it does not seem so extreme to say that shooting fireworks and waving flags on the 4th of July can be seen as patriotic.
Well dang! Pride in America is falling. What gives? Kids these days, what a bunch of whiny, lazy, ungrateful Millennials. This country is going to hell.
People are still proud to be American (relatively speaking), just not as much as they used to be. Are we finally realizing that the moniker of the greatest country in the world is nothing but a brilliant marketing slogan? That the American Dream, a phrase that foreigners who speak next to no English can produce in a thick accent, is nothing but a dream for most. A dream that can never be disproven, because, well, you’re just not working hard enough yet.
In peculiarly similar proportions to the very proud to be American label, the chance of making more money than your parents (often considered the basis of the American Dream) has been on the decline since the 1940s.
Those born in 1950 had around a 70% chance of making more than their parents. Those born in 1960 had around a 62% chance. 1970, a 61% chance, and 1980, a 50% chance. The numbers do not appear to be turning around anytime soon.
So, the American Dream is tanking. Patriotism is right there with it. Where is the bottom? How bad does it have to get for a country to say enough is enough? How much will young people have to complain (a self-reinforcing cycle that has the unfortunate reputation of kids these days complaining again) in order for the country to turn it around? Is it possible for us as a population to be be very proud to be an American again?
Maybe this decreasing level of patriotism is trending towards a more sustainable level, as a more humanist view tends to replace our childhood indoctrination of the USA being “the greatest country in the world”. *eye roll*
But what if it’s something else? To examine this more closely, let’s un-holster our big gun (question)…
What do we, as the USA, have to be proud of?
Simply asking this question makes me feel like I’m on the attack. Quite the contrary… at this moment, I would just like to take inventory of what we have to be proud of, at this very moment in history.
Historically speaking, we can be proud of the fact that some people (considered radicals at the time… imagine those people who try to secede/start their own country in modern times) banded together in the 18th century to form a nation free from the tyranny of British rule.
We can be proud of the countless number of people who have given their lives in support of the American cause.
Today, in 2021, the obvious answer is freedom. Freedom of speech, religion, the press, and to bear arms, and so on. Freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy. Anywhere that isn’t as free as us isn’t as good as us.
People in North Korea only know what it’s like to live under a dictator. People in the US only know what it’s like to have freedom. Maybe young people really are ungrateful… when you have never experienced another system, or lived under the threat of any system, is it possible to feel very or extremely proud of that? Perhaps his explains the drop in American pride, to a more neutral level.
A quote often attributed to British historian Arnold Toynbee suggests that when the last man who remembers the horrors of the last great war dies, the next great war becomes inevitable.
This quote may be a dramatic oversimplification, but with the Second American Civil War wikipedia page already in existence, it seems to some that we’re already there, albeit in a non-violent form.
Judging freedom as the ultimate measure of a country’s success is unfair. And for many Americans, a fragile topic. Most arguments against any of our freedoms is immediately met with fierce resistance and comparisons to Communism. Any attempt to limit the number of guns in a country known for mass shootings is typically met with They’re trying to take all our guns away! What next… freedom of speech?
Freedom in America has ironically usurped the chance for most people to have a better life. Politicians have been allowed to cater to corporate and wealthy interests all in the name of freedom (supreme court decisions Buckley vs. Valeo declared limits on campaign spending unconstitutional, and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti allowed corporations to spend money on ballot initiatives, just to name a few examples). The freedom to act upon unsubstantiated claims of election fraud has pushed the country to the brink of a democratic collapse. Wealth is concentrating near the top because one person’s freedom to make more money than they can spend in their entire lifetime is more important than making life decent for thousands of people that make that outrageous fortune possible.
Simply hinting that some of these freedoms need to be examined in closer detail is enough to stir up an angry mob of torches and pitchforks.
Of course, these freedoms can be rephrased. Are you inhibiting the freedom of a billionaire, guaranteed by the invisible hand of the free market (total BS)? Or are you inhibiting the freedom of normal people to have a halfway decent life? Without government intervention, our free market would lead us down the path to monopolies and corporate serfdom, which when you think about it, isn’t as distant as you might think.
Some people have a sick obsession with being exceptional and earning things the rest of the world sees as a no-brainer, like healthcare, education, parental leave, etc. Do you want one single day more than two weeks of vacation (which ironically enough, was the same amount that Communists had)? Work hard and earn it. Do you want insurance so you can pay for your cancer treatment? Figure it out.
Conservative patriots cling to this exceptionalism for a variety of reasons. For one, it pushes down the people below them, establishing their place in the social order. Pushing other people down gives their life meaning in a tragic way. Things might not be as good as they could be, but at at least I’m not _______ (insert oppressed race/social class here.) Even those without power or wealth can find themselves enamored by the despotic nature of some politicians.
The other reason that this type of conservatism thrives is because admitting that they were wrong would mean that they’ve been living a lie their entire life. This is an inconvenient truth to uncover a few decades into your existence on this planet. As humans we tend to resist changes to our identity; those changes which threaten the foundation and meaning of our lives are bound to elicit some recoil.
Just because you lived with something for most of your life doesn’t mean it adds any value to the world. Naming a professional sports team any skin color besides the Red Skins feels wildly inappropriate, but because it’s named after a group of people violently oppressed, forcefully deprived of the freedom to own their own land, and sent down the Trail of Tears, it was fine. The caricaturization of Asian people in Dr. Seuss books existed for decades, but in an increasingly connected modern world, this image does help young people understand what Asian people are really like.
There comes a time when these relics are better suited for a museum… let’s call it the Museum of Past Thinking and Other Curiosities. We should never cancel these things from our lives, but put them on display in a museum of similar relics, so we can learn from them as a society, and try to do just a little better in the future. This seems to be a concept that some people find hard to accept.
Samuel Johnson is credited with saying patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. This can be interpreted to mean that bad behavior is justifiable when carried out in the name of one’s country.
It’s hard to think of the original Patriots as scoundrels from our liberal, 21st century lens. Sure, they were rebels, but from an objective standpoint, who would approve of being taxed without being represented? Who would wish to be ruled by a King from across the ocean? Again, we can only answer this question through our 21st century lens, before our modern era of liberalism…. where democracy rules, the customer is always right, and the right answer often comes from the depths of your heart.
That being said, patriotism has taken a tumble. What would the Founding Fathers think of our country today? Would they approve of our minority ruling, swamp-ridden, corporate-lobbying, fight tooth-and-nail just to unionize, freedom to “figure out” how to pay for our hospital bills?
My gut tells me they would not.
A portion of this article is an excerpt from Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights, available now.