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Teixeira: The Democrats’ Patriotism Problem Revisited

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

In the last couple of weeks, I have been revisiting my “Three Point Plan to Fix the Democrats and Their Coalition,” originally published in October, 2022. A brisk tour of the polling and political data suggested the Democrats are still in need of serious reform and that the three point plan is as relevant as ever. Here’s the very short version of the plan:

1. Democrats Must Move to the Center on Cultural Issues

2. Democrats Must Promote an Abundance Agenda

3. Democrats Must Embrace Patriotism and Liberal Nationalism

Two weeks ago I discussed cultural issues. Last week, I discussed abundance (or the lack thereof). This week I’m concluding the series with a discussion of patriotism.

The Patriotism Problem

Democrats suffer from a patriotism gap. They are viewed as the less patriotic party and Democrats are less likely than Republicans and independents to view themselves as patriotic. Here are some examples.

1. A Third Way/Impact Research poll in late 2022 found 56 percent of voters characterizing the Republican party as “patriotic”, compared to 46 percent who felt the same about the Democrats.

2. A Survey Center on American Life/NORC poll from May of last year tested the same question among 6,000 respondents and found 63 percent viewing the Republicans as patriotic, compared to just 48 percent who thought the Democrats qualified.

3. In two 3,000 voter surveys conducted by The Liberal Patriot/YouGov in June and September of last year, only 29 percent of voters thought the Democrats were closer to their views on patriotism than the Republicans were, while 43 percent chose the GOP over the Democrats. Among working-class (noncollege) voters, exactly twice as many (48 percent) thought the Republicans were closer to their views on patriotism than thought that about the Democrats (24 percent). Interestingly, among college-educated voters, there was very little difference in how close these voters felt to the two parties on patriotism.

4. In a poll of 2,500 battleground state and district voters last November, PSG/Greenberg Research found an 11-point advantage for Trump and the Republicans over Biden and the Democrats on who would do a better job on “being patriotic”.

5. In Gallup’s latest reading on pride in being an American, 55 percent of Democrats said they were extremely or very proud of being American, compared to 64 percent of independents and 85 percent of Republicans who felt that way. Just 29 percent of Democrats would characterize themselves as “extremely proud,” down 25 points since the beginning of this century.

6. Perhaps most alarming, in a 2022 poll Quinnipiac found that a majority of Democrats (52 percent) said they would leave the country, rather than stay and fight (40 percent), should the United States be invaded as Ukraine was by Russia.

So the patriotism gap is alive, well, and persistent. Why is this? One key factor is that, for a good chunk of the Democrats’ progressive base, being patriotic is just uncool and hard to square with much of their current political outlook. As Brink Lindsey put it in an important essay on “The Loss of Faith”:

The most flamboyantly anti-American rhetoric of 60s radicals is now more or less conventional wisdom among many progressives: America, the land of white supremacy and structural racism and patriarchy, the perpetrator of indigenous displacement and genocide, the world’s biggest polluter, and so on. There are patriotic counter-currents on the center-left—think of Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, or Hamilton—but these days both feel awfully dated.

Similarly, liberal commentator Noah Smith observed in an essay simply titled “Try Patriotism”:

I’ve seen a remarkable and pervasive vilification of America become not just widespread but de rigueur among progressives since unrest broke out in the mid-2010s….The general conceit among today’s progressives is that America was founded on racism, that it has never faced up to this fact, and that the most important task for combatting American racism is to force the nation to face up to that “history”….Even if it loses them elections, progressives seem prepared to go down fighting for the idea that America needs to educate its young people about its fundamentally White supremacist character…

That conventional wisdom is a problem. It’s why “progressive activists”—eight percent of the population as categorized by the More in Common group, who are “deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America’s direction today”—are so unenthusiastic about their country. Just 34 percent of progressive activists say they are “proud to be American” compared to 62 percent of Asians, 70 percent of blacks, and 76 percent of Hispanics, the very groups whose interests these activists claim to represent. Similarly, in an Echelon Insights survey, 66 percent of “strong progressives” (about 10 percent of voters) said America is not the greatest country in the world, compared to just 28 percent who said it is. But the multiracial working class (noncollege voters, white and nonwhite) had exactly the reverse view: by 69-23, they said America is the greatest country in the world.

The uncomfortable fact is that these sentiments, and the view of America they represent, are now heavily associated with Democrats by dint of the very significant weight progressive activists carry within the party, which far transcends their actual numbers. Their voice is further amplified by their strong and frequently dominant influence in associated institutions that lean toward the Democrats: nonprofits, foundations, advocacy groups, academia, legacy media, the arts—the commanding heights of cultural production, as it were. It’s just not cool in these circles to be patriotic.

Why does this matter? Most obviously, it puts the Democrats on the wrong side of something that’s quite popular: patriotism and love of country. Even after a decade of decline in our contentious times, 67 percent of the public says they are extremely or very proud of being an American. Another 22 percent say they are moderately proud. And, as Smith correctly observes: “People want to like their country. They can be disappointed in it or mad at it or frustrated with it, but ultimately they want to think that they’re part of something good.” Making people feel bad about the country they live in seems like a recipe for failure.

But the problem goes deeper than simple unpopularity, though that is not insignificant. Lack of patriotism undercuts Democrats’ ability to mobilize a coalition behind what they say they want: a robust and far-reaching program of economic renewal. One of the only effective ways—really, the most effective way—to mobilize Americans behind big projects is to appeal to patriotism, to Americans as part of a nation. Indeed much of what America accomplished in the 20th century was under the banner of liberal nationalism. But many in the Democratic Party blanche at any hint of this approach because of its association with darker impulses and political trends. Yet as John Judis has pointed out, nationalism has its positive side as well in that it allows citizens to identify on a collective level and support projects that serve the common good rather than their immediate interests.

Democrats have tried uniting the country around the need to dismantle “systemic racism” and promote “equity”….and failed. Democrats have tried uniting the country around the need to save the planet through a rapid green transition…and failed. It’s time for Democrats to try something that really could unite the country: patriotism and liberal nationalism.

This approach has a rich heritage. As Peter Juul and I noted in our American Affairs article on “The Case for a New Liberal Nationalism”:

When labor and civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin put forward their ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans in 1966, they couched their political argument in the powerful idiom of liberal nationalism. “For better or worse,” Randolph avowed in his introduction, “We are one nation and one people.” The Freedom Budget, he went on, constituted “a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America” and “a call to all those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction.” It was also, he added, “a plea to men of good will to give tangible substance to long-proclaimed ideals.

And it wasn’t just Randolph and Rustin, it was John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal politics he promulgated. In our new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, John Judis and I put it this way:

[T]he New Deal Democrats were moderate and even small-c conservative in their social outlook. They extolled “the American way of life” (a term popularized in the 1930s); they used patriotic symbols like the “Blue Eagle” to promote their programs. In 1940, Roosevelt’s official campaign song was Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Under Roosevelt, Thanksgiving, Veterans’ Day, and Columbus Day were made into federal holidays. Roosevelt turned the annual Christmas Tree lighting into a national event. Roosevelt’s politics were those of “the people” (a term summed up in Carl Sandburg’s 1936 poem, “The People, Yes”) and of the “forgotten American.” There wasn’t a hint of multiculturalism or tribalism. The Democrats need to follow this example.

If liberal nationalism was good enough for A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, for FDR and JFK and MLK, it should be good enough for today’s Democratic Party. Democrats should proudly proclaim that their party is a patriotic party that believes America as a nation has accomplished great things and been a force for good in the world, a record that can be carried forth into the future.

Funny that progressives should lose track of this. As David Leonhardt pointed out in the podcast I recently did with him:

[J]ust look at history—the civil rights movement carried American flags while marching for civil rights…think about what an incredible favor it was to them when their counter protesters held up confederate flags, the flag of of treason…the labor unions of the early 20th century brought enormous American flags to their rallies…More recently, the gay rights movement used the military in the 90s as this thing that they said, let us join the military.

That is patriotism….It worked.

That’s right: it worked. And it can work again.

Leonhardt concluded by quoting labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein:

All of America’s great reform movements from the crusade against slavery onward have defined themselves as champions of a moral and patriotic nationalism which they counterpoised to the parochial and selfish elites who stood athwart their vision of a virtuous society. So the connection really between patriotism and progressivism is long and proud and progressivism will be much more successful if it is willing to embrace patriotism.

Words of wisdom.

One comment on “Teixeira: The Democrats’ Patriotism Problem Revisited

  1. Victor on

    With the Gaza conflict this situation has become worse.

    Anti-Western leftists barely care about Ukraine because it doesn’t fit the narrative of Western imperialism (a very much alive relic from the left parroting Russian rhetoric during the Cold War -although they will still attack NATO and “militarism”-).

    They care about Israel as it is a way of (1) attacking Western presence in the Middle East, (2) creating analogies between settler colonialism between Israel and the United States and (3) pushing a narrative of Islamic radicals as victims (who on top of all of this must be treated as refugees and given welcome). (They would also concede Middle Eastern energy issues to non-Western countries, because they believe in immediate switch off fossil fuels.)

    They don’t care about authoritarianism basically anywhere, cultural genocide in places like China, the persecution of LGBT people by Russia, etc, etc. Their values are just a veneer for Anti-Americanism.

    When leaders of the Democratic party create no pushback against these horrible impulses, they cede the whole ideological ground not just over foreign policy, but over narratives about what the US and the West are and stand for.

    The far left and far right also get to feed on each other. This isolationist disaster always comes to bite the US and the rest of the world in the *** (WWI, WWII). How can we fully confront appeasers on the right when the left is full of pseudo pacifists?

    The intellectual leaders of the left are not even Democrats and certainly not invested in the future of the party. Arguably they are barely interested in the future of the US as a geopolitical entity. They have their “values” but don’t believe in nationalism/nations.

    The worst aspects of identity politics play a crucial role in all of this. The overrepresentation of college educated Middle Eastern and South/Southeast Asian professionals in media, academia, think tanks and politics compounds the problem of Israel being an incredibly emotional and divisive subject between Jewish leaders (although not among the Jewish masses in the US).

    Clinton and Obama are responsible for letting the bipartisan consensus in favor of Western values erode.

    And it turns out Bush/Cheney were right about the need to also confront Iran. They were also right about the Axis of Evil of minor players that would allow the big players (China/Russia) to harm the West without the need for direct confrontation.

    Biden has been very skilled in avoiding a scale up of the conflict in Ukraine, but has been extremely irresponsible in failing to prepare the American people for this next phase of geopolitical conflict.

    Trump’s first presidency was transformative by beginning the necessary decoupling from China. Russia also didn’t make any additional moves during his presidency. But now his embrace of irresponsible isolationism means something else entirely.

    Many Democratic think tanks, interest groups and business leaders are still defending laissez faire 1990’s globalization. But that is just as irresponsible. The Trump tariffs were a good start even if they could be implemented in a better way. Tariffs, free trade agreements with democratic partners and industrial policy must complement each other.

    On the actual Israel/Palestine question, Trump was also right. A solution needs to be imposed on the Palestinians by a coalition of the West and the Arab states. The solution needs to prioritize economic development and be open to land exchanges.

    Israel needs to make major concessions on settlements but the use of Gaza as a stage for attacks shows this is not enough. At the same time the failures of Israeli counterterrorism/intelligence probes there is no military solution. Palestinians must want to focus on their own development instead of building tunnels.

    For that they need to give up the role of victims that was imposed on them by their Arab neighbors (and by the Soviets). This would require the Arab world to acknowledge that the loss of Mandatory Palestine was not a geopolitical disaster. The West supported the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and many Arab states were created.

    The West is always at its best when it supports national self-determination. There should be no caveats to this support. Israel deserves to continue existing and the Arabs of Palestine deserve recognition as a unique people with their own state.

    The need to apply this principle continues in Europe continues.

    The correct basis for future negotiations with Russia should include the multiple irritants that remain after the end of the Soviet empire.

    Since the 1990’s the West has been inconsistent in applying the right to self-determination in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. The need to follow former internal state/administrative borders during dissolution led to injustices. In the end a lot of these injustices were against Russia or Russian allies. Russia accepted most of these during its period of weakness and liberalization.

    Kosovo and Chechnya became a turning point. And although it is clear that Putin has always used geopolitics cynically and for domestic purposes, the West could have acknowledged that Russian grievances had at least some legitimacy. Examples of low hanging fruit that would have solved problems for the West too include the redrawing of borders:
    – between Bosnia and Serbia;
    – between Serbia and Kosovo;
    – Transdniestria;
    – Gagauzia;
    – North Ossetia;
    – Abkhazia;
    – Nagorno-Karabakh;
    – and, of course, Crimea.

    The instability created by “frozen” conflicts was also an opening for conflict. These could have been diffused by allowing self-determination referendums.

    Instead the West allowed obstinacy to develop in the political systems of potential allies like Bosnia, Kosovo, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and, of course, Ukraine. Their own brands of toxic nationalism delayed their Westernization and ended up making them vulnerable or even dependent on Russia.

    The United States failed at even delegating follow up on these countries to the European Union. The EU has been incoherent and irresponsible in its own neighborhood. It is too slow to act and thanks to German stinginess it has ended up paying way more via conflict than it would have via real financial incentives for peace.

    War always costs more, but stupid politicians rarely think long term (worse example being the US Congresses after the fall of the Soviet Union).

    Trump is also right that we have allowed the Europeans to continue to fail to take care of their own foreign policy and military needs.

    European fecklessness still extends to China too.

    The West doubled down on China transitioning to democracy even after Tiananmen. Why? Because of libertarian hubris and liberal naivete.

    The same libertarian hubris and liberal irresponsibility that still puts major military assets (like space and communications policy, as well as propaganda) in the hands of quasi-fascists like Elon Musk and that can’t even do a simple thing like explaining to young people why Tik Tok can’t be in the hands of our major adversary.

    History not only rhimes, it does seem to repeat itself.


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