Reviews | Democrats need patriotism more than ever

In a country where “emancipation is a proclamation, not a fact,” Johnson warned, if inequality was not addressed, America “would have failed as a people and as a nation.” The country could “win the whole world and lose its own soul,” he said, paraphrasing the Book of Mark. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., too, called the American foundation’s tenets an expiring “promissory note” and urged the country to “stand up and live the true meaning of its creed.”

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This version of patriotism combines criticism of our country’s failures with a commitment to change them. It clings to the principles of freedom and equality because they are fair, and also because they are ours, they are us. It approaches the worst aspects of America, not as enemies to be eliminated (as in our many internal “wars” over this or that) but as we would approach a lost friend or family member. With that in mind, even the harshest rebuke, the most relentless list of wrongs, comes with a commitment to repair and heal, to build a more just and decent country. It also involves practical faith: as long as change is possible, we should try each other.

These may resemble the soft tones of a more naive era. Don’t we know more now than previous generations about the cruelty and complexity of history, the intensity of white supremacy in the early Republic, the constitutional compromises with slavery? Haven’t we gone beyond complacent patriotism? But that’s wrong and, really, shamefully parochial. We know no more about American injustice than King, or, for that matter, Johnson, the son of the East Texas fanatic who became a complex but effective civil rights champion. There was nothing complacent about their patriotism.

They insisted that every American should bear some responsibility for his country’s crimes and failings, whether or not he personally benefited or suffered from them. And, for Johnson and King, everyone deserved to be proud of America’s progress toward justice. Patriotism was a practical task: appreciating and preserving what is good, working to change what is bad, and remembering that part of what is good in a country is that its citizens box change it. Patriotic effort had no guarantee of success, but it was an obligation nonetheless—a duty akin to what the philosopher William James once called “the moral equivalent of war.”

Today, America faces threats to national well-being and even to its survival: climate change, racial inequity, oligarchy, economic collapse of entire regions. But the enemy is not an invader: these slow crises pit us against each other. Spitting our carbon, living in our economically and ideologically separated neighborhoods and regions, trading accusations of bigotry and bad faith, we are each other’s problems. Under these conditions, it is difficult to find common threads. At some point, a liberal gets tired of saying, “We’re better than that,” when we definitely seem not to be.

But there’s something beyond a final “We’re better than that” and your favorite update to Garrison’s “A Covenant with Death and a Deal with Hell.” Progressive patriotism justifies the risks and sacrifices in trying to create a country that deserves them. Loyalty to country, in this light, means faith that you and other citizens can still build better ways to live together.

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