One of many disgusting images to surface in the last four years is of Donald Trump on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference kissing and caressing an American flag, saying, “I love you baby.” Among his other dubious and unintended accomplishments, over the course of his tenure in office our flag-fondling 45th President went a considerable distance in turning patriotism into a dirty word.
The possibility of a new Trumpian “Patriot Party” has lately been in the headlines. Self-described “patriots” besmirched the Capitol on the infamous day of January 6. As a last gasp, the Trump Administration put forward its “1776 Project,” a bowdlerized version of American history in the service of so-called “patriotic education.” With all this and more before us, Samuel Johnson’s famous formulation—patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel—would seem to have been proved.
To be sure, as Johnson’s three-centuries-old adage suggests, patriotism has long been in bad odor. Today in educated circles, as Steven B. Smith observes in his Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, patriotism “has come to seem morally questionable,” at best an “unenlightened preference for one’s own at the expense of a more enlightened cosmopolitan point of view,” and at worst “a primitive sentiment, one tied to nationalism, chauvinism, an aggressive, militaristic mind-set, and a desire to dominate other people or at least proclaim the superiority of one’s own ways over all others.”
Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale and the author of a number of widely acclaimed books on political philosophy, seeks to salvage something from the wreckage of the concept. Given where we are, his rescue mission appears to be a Sisyphean task. How does Smith go about it, and how well does he succeed?
Smith is hardly the first to plow this territory. He notes, in particular, the contributions of the political theorist Maurizio Viroli and the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. But Viroli’s work focused primarily on Europe while Berns wrote before the two decades of turmoil following 2001. Smith’s own book trains his attention on the contemporary American scene amid our fierce debates over immigration and the rise of ethnonationalism. “This book,” he writes, “is for this moment.”
The central American conception of patriotism was put forward by Alexis de Tocqueville. In his view, Americans were defined by their absence of a feudal past, and were instead marked by a self-conscious effort to establish government based on equality, liberty, individual rights, and limited government. In this telling, America is a “creedal nation,” and it is the creed—promulgated in our Founding documents—that forms the essence of American patriotism: “Anyone, on this account,” writes Smith, “could become an American. It requires only a willingness to express support for our founding creed and live by it.”
A Notion Upended
But the Tocquevillian view has come under assault of late. On the right, a nationalist tide has been rolling in. To the neo-nationalists, not creed, not ideas about equality and liberty but ties of blood and soil are the core of American patriotism. “The political right has weaponized patriotism,” writes Smith, “turning it into a litmus test for determining who is a real American.”
Nationalism, Smith reminds us, has come in many forms, not all of them illiberal. But some are deeply so. Smith explores the writings of the German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt, whose thinking about politics revolved around the dichotomy—all-important to his system—of friend-enemy. “The pugnacious tone of Schmitt’s nationalism differs markedly from the patriotic spirit,” writes Smith. “Nationalism is exclusionary. It does not just celebrate uniqueness but turns it into a principle of difference and opposition.” In this it is opposed to patriotism, which “draws on an entirely different emotional register.” Nationalism is “a deformation of the patriotic spirit.” Schmitt joined the Nazi party in 1933, enthusiastically justified Hitler’s crimes, and remained unrepentant up until his death in 1985.
The distinction between nationalism and patriotism is displayed nowhere “more vividly,” observes Smith, than in Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism. In the final analysis, the Israeli-American political theorist adumbrates “a doctrine of inclusion and exclusion,” a return, garbed unartfully in sheep’s clothing, to Schmitt’s friend-enemy dualism. A highbrow nationalist like Hazony and a lowbrow racist like former Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa)—who openly defends white supremacy—have something fundamental in common, writes Smith. Both “may truly think they are innocently celebrating national traditions, but their views are invariably based on a logic of exclusion.”
Another set of challenges to patriotism properly understood comes from an opposing direction: cosmopolitanism. This is an ancient line of thought traceable all the way back to Plato. It asserts, explains Smith, that “the principles of justice must be conceived as impartial, atemporal, and universal, standing at a remove from the local conditions of which they are a part.” Immanuel Kant is “the most powerful advocate” of this cosmopolitanism, with his claim that “we owe no greater moral obligations to fellow citizens than to any other humans on the planet.” In this conception, of course, patriotism—attachment to a particular country—is incompatible with enlightenment if not a moral abomination.
Smith’s own view is the Tocquevillian one, inflected by the thought of Abraham Lincoln, and it occupies a middle space between the “two extremes—the pathologies, as it were—to which patriotism is prone.” Like the country itself, American patriotism is exceptional:
Ours is not an ethnic patriotism … but a patriotism of ideas. In this crucial respect, America is the first truly modern nation, a nation founded on the principles of modern philosophy.… The principle of equality is the cornerstone that upholds the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. From this it follows that all legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed…. These principles are said to hold true not for Americans alone but for all human beings…. American patriotism requires commitment to the highest, most universal principles, including truth itself.
Here Smith follows Lincoln, who put forward a trifold vision of patriotism that is uniquely enlightened. First, equality is at its heart: “It underlies his vision of America as a nation of free men and women, where no one governs another without that other’s consent.” Second, it is aspirational: “It is not simply an unreflective attachment to America as it then existed, but is connected to the vision of America that Lincoln hoped to achieve.” Finally, it is inclusive. It stood in opposition to the anti-immigrant policies expressed by the Know Nothings and the American Party. Lincoln’s writings “continually emphasized the open character of the American republic, in contrast to the nativists and nationalists of his period.”
The Uphill Trek
This is all well and good. But for all the power and cogency of Smith’s exposition and arguments—and I have scarcely done justice to the breadth of the historical-intellectual-philosophical landscape limned in his book—can he succeed in his project of reclaiming patriotism from its enemies in an age of extremes?
Surprisingly, Smith himself is somewhat doubtful on that score. On the left, he sees a multiculturalism that has sought to dissolve “the common core of our national identity,” separating Americans into groups of race, class, and gender. This doleful trend, he writes, is “a mirror image of the nationalist grievance and resentment politics [the left] professes to despise. Whether the left is capable of learning this lesson remains very much in question.”
On the right, Smith finds passionate unreason among patriotism’s “excessive friends,” many of whom “see themselves at war with relativism, multiculturalism, and identity politics…. The language of fear, invasion, and impurity remains a staple of this rhetoric.” But patriotism, Smith writes, “is not something that can be force-fed to people, much less beaten into them.” To the contrary, what patriotism requires is “respect for a tradition, which can be acquired only through immersion in the best that our history, literature and political theory have to teach us.”
And that best of what history, literature, and political theory have to teach us is precisely what Smith’s book offers. Given the pit into which we have lately fallen, this book is indeed “for this moment.” It could not be a more timely or necessary work.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose,is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA Today.