In yesterday’s New York Times, Jefferson Cowie had some good advice for Democrats. Essentially, he argued the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson must discover a way to embrace patriotism, something he says they have ceded to Republicans. The neoliberal wing of the party, he argues, has become so pro-trade and -globalism, and the progressive wing has become so skeptical of the value of the American experiment, that little room is left for flag-waving.
There is certainly no shortage of evidence to suggest that pride in America is not a central plank of the American left just at the moment. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently remarked that America was never that great, the National Football League protests take place during the national anthem, and Antifa protesters recently ripped the American flag from a more moderate liberal protester at a rally.
TV writer Aaron Sorkin gave us a taste of this change with a famous speech in his show “Newsroom” arguing that America is not the greatest country on earth. That effort came only a few years after he had written “The West Wing,” a show with a much deeper patriotic feel to it.
This rhetorical shift is a danger for Democrats. It plays very well in certain bubbles where they have great success, but in the broader country it seems to fall flat.
The Old Rhetoric
Barack Obama was typically very careful and gifted at striking a balance between pride in the American experiment and its history and a willingness to critique our country’s darker moments and tendencies. He had an advantage in this, in that he represented how far the country had come in a relatively short time since the civil rights movement.
One cannot imagine Obama or any major Democratic politician that came before him saying America was never that great. Until very recently, no Democrat would ever have suggested that America is a bad actor in the world in any significant way, or that its history has not promoted the greater good. This is clearly no longer the case.
Can Democrats find a way to express pride in America and its past while still maintaining their basic criticisms? In theory, this should be pretty easy. It would come down to, “I criticize America because I love America, and there is nothing more American than our freedom to criticize it to make it better.” The only thing that complicates this approach is that many in the modern Democratic Party really do seem to hold some beliefs antithetical to the vision of America’s founders that were not present a decade or two ago.
Consider the First Amendment
Nowhere is Democrats’ shift away from the founders’ vision bmore clear than in regard to the First Amendment, specifically the freedoms of religion and of speech. In the early 1990s it was Democrats who championed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a rebuke to a decision by Justice Antonin Scalia finding that government could deny Native Americans unemployment benefits for the religious use of peyote. But by the 2010s, RFRA had suddenly become the bad guy because its principle, that the state must use the least restriction on religious freedom possible to achieve its goals, was used to protect Christians from baking cakes for gay weddings.
While Democrats were traditionally happy to defend the religious freedom of minority religious groups, the source of most controversy until recently, they are now far less comfortable defending the religious freedom of Christians. It wasn’t just freedom of religion where a shift occurred, either. It was also, perhaps more tellingly, on freedom of speech.
In the late 1980s, the biggest free speech question of the day was Sen. Jesse Helms’ attempts to bar the National Endowment for the Arts from funding offensive art. The idea that the government could legally stifle freedom of expression this way was anathema to Democrats, who vigorously opposed Helms on the issue.
Fast forward 30 years, and the primary calls for limiting speech, hate speech laws, compulsory pronoun use, limits on political speech, and de-platforming at public colleges are all coming from the left. Gone is the old mantra, “I abhor what you say, but will defend your right to say it.” In its stead stands a much greater willingness to use the mechanisms of the state to silence “bad actors.”
Next, Consider Capitalism
Many Democrats have abandoned their one-time fidelity to the basic American principle of capitalism. In the 1990s, not a lot of Democrats were running around calling themselves socialists, much less the runner-up in a presidential primary or a rising superstar on her way to Congress. The vast majority of Democrats had no doubt that capitalism was a stronger, better, and freer form of economy than socialism. This is no longer the case.
Even though what today’s Democrats actually mean by socialism is vague to the point of being indescribable, it is always focused on international models meant to be better than our own. No, of course, they don’t want to be like the Soviet Union or Venezuela, but they do want to be more like Norway and Sweden. The message here is clearly that the traditional American economic model is deeply flawed and must be replaced. That doesn’t leave much room for pride in it.
Just because in regard to these examples (and maybe throw in gun rights) Democrats have moved away from traditional American values doesn’t mean they cannot at least try to claim the mantle of American greatness. The immigration issue is a tremendous opportunity in this regard. But of late, most of the energy on that issue has focused on President Trump’s supposed cruelty rather than a positive image of America’s traditional openness, itself something of a shift for the GOP since the 1980s.
Politicians should talk about America the way they talk about their family, always starting with their love for it. Criticize it, sure, but most of us would never tell our family they were never that great. Finding a way back to clear expressions of patriotism isn’t just important for Democrats winning or losing elections. It is much bigger than that.
In a country with only two main parties, if one loses faith with the core goodness of the nation then mere political battles become existential fights over the basic meaning of America. That may be where we are heading, but it is not where we should go.