Does the Left Have a Patriotism Problem?

[I]t should not be lost on anyone that it is conservatives who typically carry around copies of our Constitution in their pockets. It is the Tea Party that refers relentlessly to the nation’s Founders. The movement’s very name invokes a key event in Revolutionary Era history to imply that there is a kind of illegitimacy to the current government in Washington akin to that of a king who once ruled the American colonies far from our shores. Representative Mike Pence of Indiana perfectly captured conservatives’ inclination to believe that their entire program is a recapitulation of the nation’s founding documents. “There’s nothing that ails this country,” Pence told a 2010 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, “that couldn’t be fixed by paying more careful attention to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America.”

While the right was talking about history, liberals were talking about—well, health-care coverage, insurance mandates, cap-and-trade, financial reforms, and a lot of other practical stuff. One can offer a sympathetic argument here that progressives were trying to govern in a rather difficult moment and didn’t have time to go back to the books. But the left’s default was costly, and it was noticed by an editor of this journal in the spring of last year. “Beyond the circumscribed world of academic journals and conferences,” Elbert Ventura wrote in these pages, “history is being taught—on TV and talk radio, in blogs and grassroots seminars, in high school textbooks and on Barnes & Noble bookshelves. In all those forums, conservatives have been conspicuous by their activity—and progressives by their absence.” Ventura ended with this alarming coda: “If we don’t fight for history, progressivism itself will be history.”

E.J. Dionne, “Why History Matters to Liberalism

It’s almost accepted as a truism that people on the right in the US are more patriotic–or, at least, more comfortable with expressing patriotic sentiment–than people on the left. This is not too controversial a notion on left or right, though you will certainly find many in the Democratic Party full-throatedly denying that it’s based on fact. Liberal Democrats, they say, can get just as teary-eyed over “The Star Spangled Banner” as the most politically constipated Bircher. You will also hear among a certain kind of Democrat the sort of argument you hear among liberal Christians comparing themselves to fundamentalists, about the ersatz nature of right-wing patriotism compared to “real” liberal patriotism.

But I think most people would agree that those on the right are far more comfortable wrapping themselves in the flag than those on the left. To test that, ask yourself how you think the fellow in the photo below would feel about corporate tax rates, government regulation of companies’ CO2 emissions, federal investment in renewable energy sources or subsidization of early childhood education in the barrios of our Southwestern cities.


Yes, the teabag in the middle of the forehead is a dead giveaway, but, so is the historic headgear. Dionne is right when he notes the propensity of right wingers to express their anger in terms of the Revolution and its founders’ presumably shared (and monolithic) intent.  When lefties launched the Occupy protests last fall, they did not find their touchstones in the mythology of the Founding so much as in other protests of more recent vintage, specifically, 1960s counterculture and Seattle1999. A tricorn hat on an occupier’s head might easily be interpreted as ironic or sarcastic. No one would think “ironic” while looking at the gentleman above (unless you consider the juxtaposition of revolutionary headgear on a counter-revolutionary’s head ironic).

Why is the American Revolution so remote from the left’s arsenal of protest imagery? Why is it always the first resort of the right whenever its ire is stirred? What does this discord of historic references mean about the opposing polarities of American politics? Is the left’s alienation from the Revolution a sign of some defect in its politics, as right wing critics would surely argue, or of a defect of mere presentation of its politics, as Dionne and Ventura seem to be arguing?

Personally, I don’t view it as a defect of any kind. I tend to be more suspicious about the purity of the right’s use of Revolutionary and other patriotic symbolism as well as its understanding of history. (I’ve written previously about the right’s tendency to misread Jefferson, for example.)  I’m just not personally very moved by patriotism. (You might call me apatriotic, even. )

I don’t doubt the sincerity of any given individual’s patriotism: if they say they’re patriotic, ok, I say; they’re patriotic. But so what? What is the real value of patriotism? Dr. Johnson famously defined it in his dictionary as the last refuge of scoundrels, which doesn’t mean he disapproved of patriotism per se, just that he understood its value to cynics. But what is its value to the sincere patriot?  I have to confess, not being one myself, I can’t say. I don’t even want to venture a guess. I’d certainly welcome some enlightenment on the subject, if any self-identifying sincere patriot cares to share it, in the comments below.

Interestingly (to me anyway), there was a piece in the Guardian last week by Jonathan Haidt, NYU Psychology professor and author of The Righteous Mind, on a similar subject: why do working-class people vote for conservatives and against their economic interests? Haidt admonishes liberal critics (like, presumably, Thomas Frank of “What’s the Matter with Kansas” fame) for positing the “dupe theory,” to whit (in Haidt’s phrasing):

[T]he Republican party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues. “Vote for us and we’ll protect the American flag!” say the Republicans. “We’ll make English the official language of the United States! And most importantly, we’ll prevent gay people from threatening your marriage when they … marry! Along the way we’ll cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor, and allow industries to dump their waste into your drinking water, but never mind that. Only we can protect you from gay, Spanish-speaking flag-burners!”

In essence, Haidt argues, for a lot of working-class voters, moral interests trump economic interests–“politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping,” Haidt says–and conservatives are far better than liberals at convincing this part of the electorate that they can be trusted to guard those moral interests. I don’t know what Haidt would make of Frank’s ample evidence that in fact, the conservatives suck at advancing their moral agenda possibly even more than liberals suck at advancing their economic one–mainly, Frank argues, because they know they can’t win. (Consider how well they’ve handled same-sex marriage, for instance.) But let’s set aside that little quibble and ponder Haidt’s argument a bit closer. It may help me answer my questions about the real value of patriotism that I posed above.

Here is the heart of Haidt’s argument:

One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.

In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavours. In my research with colleagues at, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate “taste buds” of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral “cuisine” makes less use of them. For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticise your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one’s willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: “Conservatives need not apply.”

I tried to take that survey at, and I couldn’t get past the notion that if anyone were going to offer me up to a million dollars for each of the tasks in question, why settle for less than a cool million on any of them?  “Give my boss the finger? Uh, no, sir, no way. Not unless you really gave me that million dollars you’re offering.”  On the other hand, I really would not kick an innocent dog in the head for any amount of money. Is there something wrong with me for thinking it more disturbing that anyone would require more money to piss on a flag than to kick a dog in the head? Or is there something wrong with Jonathan Haidt for arguing that a lowlife with those values has a more “complex moral palate” than someone like I do?

I have to wonder, if Haidt’s screwy survey says something real about the moral values of left and right: Is it the left that has a “patriotism” problem–really a values problem? Or is it the right?

One thought on “Does the Left Have a Patriotism Problem?

  1. Pingback: #TeaParty Does the Devil’s Work in Ohio « Tragic Farce

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