Patriot Games

Samuel Huntington opens his book by declaring that he writes “as a patriot,” a position that leads him to be “deeply concerned about the unity and strength” of his country. He also fears that patriotism is an endangered sentiment. In fact, as Huntington presents it, l’amour patrie has long been an emotion identified with the right. Conservatives are more apt than liberals to pin flags on their lapels and place their hands on their hearts when the anthem is played. Yet for many of them the America they love has an explicit shape: an economy that accords primacy to profits and is willing to tolerate the inequalities that ensue; military might the rest of the world will fear; and an emphasis on religion, with its attendant constraints. Above all, they echo William Bennett in proclaiming the “superior goodness of the American way of life.” So to be a patriot one must feel that the United States surpasses all other societies. (Don’t even try to argue that the Finns might do things better.)

Robert Reich also wants to be counted as a patriot. But he says his is a “positive patriotism,” to be distinguished from what he calls the “bullying, negative version.” “Many liberals have been silent about patriotism,” he adds, “or, at best, embarrassed by it.” Not surprisingly, the aspects of America that Reich esteems do not rank high on the conservative list. When he cites “our democratic right to dissent,” it follows that much of that criticism will be aimed at the perceived injustices of a market economy, which he wants to remedy, for example by reducing inequality, providing universal health care, and much more investment in good education. In a similar vein, the America he loves “emphasizes what we owe one another as members of the same society.”

Liberals like Reich have long argued that the most important American tradition derives from the Constitution and its protections of dissent and therefore of reform and creative change. Unfortunately, attempts to install a critical, altruistic patriotism along the lines Reich recommends are not likely to be popular among the current self-appointed guardians of Huntington’s variety. Like it or not, profits, power, and piety are entrenched in what has become a quasi-official delineation of America. The bullying that bothers Reich has been flourishing at home as well as abroad. Conservatives feel free to say that critics even slightly left of center are “anti-American” and lack some quintessential American quality that they leave undefined. Liberals lack comparable epithets, and were they to be somehow devised, they would have little disposition to use them. The reason for that reluctance, Reich implies, can be found in the word he has chosen for his title.

Huntington’s own title is a question: Who Are We? But even as it is asked, his answer is never in doubt. In his view, the nation’s identity was created at its founding

by British settlers who brought with them a distinct culture including the English …

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