Illustration by Genevieve Humphreys
I grew up in a patriotic home. My grandpa served in the Navy, my siblings and I were Scouts, and our front porch is decked out with red, white and blue ribbon anytime a national holiday rolls around. Our house itself is red, white and blue, complete with a white picket fence that lines our yard. My childhood and upbringing were about as all-American as you can get. But public opinion is shifting on the notion of American patriotism, and mine is too.
Over half of Democrats, Republicans and Independents believe patriotism means to show respect, loyalty and love to one’s country according to the June 2019 McCourtney Institute for Democracy Mood of the Nation Poll. Less than 10 percent of each political affiliation actually dislike or reject the concept of patriotism altogether. A Gallup poll conducted last summer, however, showed that less than half of American adults are “extremely” proud of the United States, and the numbers continue to decrease.
Those of us who grew up in the United States probably knew the Pledge of Allegiance and the names of the 50 nifty United States before we could even spell “patriotism.” For the even more privileged of us, patriotism was a default setting — patriotism that is borderline nationalism.
I bought into American exceptionalism via this strong patriotism until I entered high school. While my history classes continued to provide American propaganda, my friends and I began our own history research. We quickly found out that our beloved flag has not always waved on the side of justice.
It’s not that I stopped being patriotic. I stopped standing for the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. I no longer celebrate the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. I reevaluated all of the ways I blindly supported the United States before I learned that the whole country was built on slave labor and the genocide of indigenous people and culture. But I never stopped being patriotic.
At this point, patriotism is connected closely with the right wing. After Donald Trump was elected and half the country cried out with fear and anger, his supporters were quick to say, “If you don’t like it, move.” What they were missing is that opposing something you view as unjust in your country is patriotic. It’s true that many were quick to declare their hatred for America when Trump came to power, but there was no mass exodus to Canada. What did happen was a nationally-organized march. A movement of kneeling during the National Anthem. A whole lot more everyday people paying closer attention to their country than they ever had before to make sure it didn’t plummet too far.
Trump’s inauguration sparked a lot of this, but he was more like the last straw. Since the founding of this country, activists and grassroots organizations have been fed up with its oppressive power structures and electoral politics. Now more than ever, opposition to the United States is framed as the opposite of patriotism when in fact, it’s out of love for what this country can become that so many people criticize it.
Patriotism is still alive and well on the left side of the political spectrum. It’s just not the kind that worships the stars and stripes unconditionally. It’s the kind of patriotism that puts people first. It seeks out justice and raises its voice when justice is nowhere to be found. It doesn’t dissipate in the face of oppression, it multiplies. It weaves its way through the fight for healthcare and open borders, liberties for transgender people and universal education. This kind of patriotism is not anti-America because it is an active force for change. If no one had faith that our country could improve and that the people within it deserve better, then a lot more of us would’ve taken up the offer of hightailing it to some other country.
Somehow I find myself more patriotic now than I was on the sidelines of a 4th of July parade as a kid, waving a flag at the police cars driving by. I think it’s because now my patriotism truly is the respect, loyalty and love that Americans define it as. More specifically, respect, loyalty and love for my neighbors that also call the United States home, and less for empty symbolism.