A Case for Patriotism


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One of the most distinctive features of the United States, as a country, is that this is a nation bound and built around an idea, not a language, ethnicity, heritage, or culture. The founding documents of America refer to universal principles and values, to ideals of democracy, freedom, and proper government. They talk about the rights of individuals, not the ancient privileges of nations. The foundations of our patriotism are not tribe or culture, but laws, principles, and ideas.

This premise, this starting point, makes the idea of American patriotism fairly distinct from other nations. Love or devotion for one’s country, in most places, is linked to a culture or group. Here, however, it means a deep appreciation for the ideals of American democracy; life, liberty, equality, self-determination, and the rule of law.

As someone who is American by choice (I am Spanish and Venezuelan by birth), this has always been the most important part of the American experiment; a nation built on values and principles, not culture or ethnicity. This foundation is also at the heart of two distinctive strands of American patriotism, bound to how we interpret those ideals and values.

The first strand is found in the very preamble of the Constitution, the one that seeks “to form a more perfect union.” Under this conception, America is an ongoing project; a continuous effort, always moving forward, striving to build a better country. The Declaration of Independence set our goals; the Constitution created the tools to achieve them. Our duty, as patriots, is to work to build a country where everyone is truly created equal, where the voice of the people governs, and where all of us are able to truly pursue happiness, freely and without fear. Under this vision of patriotism, we are far from a perfect country, but one that strives and advances to fulfill its ideals. American history is one of liberation, of opening new paths ahead, one where freedom moves forward.

The second strand of patriotism argues that the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution remain the true, essential core of the American project. Our task should be to honor and respect the principles contained in those documents and deepen our commitment to them. These are the ideals and values that have built our nation; we defend them, not move forward looking for new horizons.

These two visions are not entirely bound by politics or ideology; there is a long tradition of conservatives that have spoken of America as the “shining city on a hill” that steps forward in the defense of freedom. Progressive politicians have occasionally looked inward, as well, calling for a stronger commitment to the fundamental rights and principles of our Constitution. Both ideas are neither contradictory nor incompatible.

It is undeniable, however, that the forward-looking, “a more perfect union,” restless version of patriotism is what has driven America forward. This is the patriotism of the men and women who advocated for abolition. It is the patriotism of those who stood up for the rights of workers, the poor, and the destitute, and pushed for a New Deal. It is the patriotism of those who stood up for civil rights. This is the kind of patriotism that drives us to advocate for healthcare for everyone, affordable housing, good schools, and good jobs where workers are treated with the respect they deserve – because we believe that to be free, we should not fear sickness or poverty,  and ensure all us us have the tools and opportunities we need to pursue our own happiness.

As progressives, we  should not shy away from patriotism, but embrace it. The ideals at the core of the American project, freedom, justice, equality, are the same ideals we defend and advocate for. The left should be unapologetic that our values, our ideas, our goals, are deeply rooted in what our country stands for. We are fighting for American values, and our restlessness, our push to move forward, is right in line with what our own Constitution calls for in its very first line.

Our country, the country that we love and believe in, is an unfinished country. Our advocacy, what we fight for, is to defend and expand the very definition of freedoms and build a better future for all.

Happy birthday, America. We have plenty of work left to do.