Guest Opinion: Patriotism requires a common story

Published 8:27 pm Sunday, April 9, 2023

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By John Hood

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? In very online debates among very online people, the exchange rate is even more skewed. Case in point: a recent Wall Street Journal illustration generated tens of thousands of words of argument, invective and speculation.

The image in question depicted a dramatic drop in the share of Americans saying values such as patriotism and community involvement were “very important” to them. Regarding patriotism, for example, 70% of respondents in 1998 said it was very important, as did 61% as recently as 2019. This year, only 38% said so.

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Many commentators posted this startling graph and expressed concern. I was one of them.

Then pollster Patrick Ruffini argued it was an exaggeration. It turns out that the 2019 and 2023 polls used different methodologies. The earlier survey was by phone, the later one online. Respondents are far less likely to be pessimistic when they’re being interviewed live than when they’re clicking buttons.

Ruffini pointed instead to a Gallup question asked in the same way for decades: “How proud are you to be an American: extremely proud, very proud, moderately proud, or not at all proud?” The “extremely proud” share has declined — from 70% in 2003 to 38% in 2022 — but at a more gradual pace. And if you combine “extremely” and “very” proud together, the figure is 65%, not hugely different from the 70% in 2019 (though still 26 points lower than the high-water mark of 2004).

I still find it alarming that more than a third of Americans aren’t particularly proud of our country. And it’s alarming that, according to the 2023 Journal poll, there’s a huge generation gap: 60% of people aged 65 or older are intensely patriotic vs. only 29% of those under 30.

Proposed explanations abound. Republicans blame Biden. Democrats blame Trump. Progressives blame public concern about climate change and racial justice. Conservatives blame public concern about family breakdown and opioid addiction. There are also broadly shared concerns about the electoral process, the management of COVID-19, the future of work, and America’s place in a rapidly changing world.

Because we live in a sprawling country full of people with differing priorities, there may well be some truth to all these explanations. Still, there’s another critical factor at work, one lying just below the surface of public discourse but informing much of it.

For want of a better term, let’s call it alienation. Far too many Americans feel they’re no longer welcome in their own country — or, alternatively, that they were never welcome.

There’s nothing approaching a consensus about what it means to be an American. Simply living in proximity to each other is insufficient to create a sense of American-ness. Nor is the “blood and soil” ethnic nationalism of other lands relevant here, given our varied ancestries. (Such nationalism is often destructive in other lands, anyway.)

The only conception of America expansive enough to include three hundred and thirty squabbling millions of us is a common creed of liberty, justice and opportunity for all. That, in turn, requires a shared understanding of America’s origin story — warts and all, yes, but with a particular emphasis on the promissory notes contained in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the ongoing struggle to make good on them.

Families, schools, congregations and media all have roles to play in promoting this common American creed. That’s why I support efforts to improve civics education. It’s also why I’m writing my Folklore Cycle of historical-fantasy novels set in early America. Its diverse characters range from presidents and folk heroes to writers, artists, ministers and liberators. Unless we all feel invested in a common history, we can’t envision a common future.

Is America a shining city on a hill, an imperfect but ever-brightening beacon of freedom in a benighted world? Or is America a bright, shining lie? Too many would say the latter. We need to change their minds — or, more to the point, their hearts.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.