The Corner

Obama’s Real Patriotism Problem

From my column in USA Today:

Definitions of patriotism proliferate, but in the American context patriotism must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotism from European nationalism) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is.

It’s the “good as it is” part that has vexed many on the left since at least the Progressive era. Marxists and other revolutionaries obviously don’t believe entrepreneurial and religious America is good as it is. But even more mainstream figures have a problem distinguishing patriotic reform from reformation. Many progressives in the 1920s considered the American hinterlands a vast sea of yokels and boobs, incapable of grasping how much they needed what the activists were selling.

The Nation ran a famous series then called “These United States,” in which smug emissaries from East Coast cities chronicled the “backward” attitudes of what today would be called fly-over country. One correspondent proclaimed that in “backwoods” New York (i.e. outside the Big Apple): “Resistance to change is their most sacred principle.” If that was their attitude to New York, it shouldn’t surprise that they felt even worse about the South. One author explained that Dixie needed nothing less than an invasion of liberal “missionaries” so that the “light of civilization” might finally be glimpsed down there. These authors simply assumed, writes intellectual historian Christopher Lasch, that ” ‘breaking with the past’ was the precondition of cultural and political advance.” Even today, writes Time’s Joe Klein, “This is a chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right.”

Echoes of these attitudes can be found in Obama’s now infamous explanation that “bitter” working-class rural voters won’t embrace him because they “cling” to God, guns and bigotry. But Obama’s sometimes messianic rhetoric about “remaking” America — and the explicitly revolutionary aesthetics of his campaign — also rings a bell. “I am absolutely certain,” he proclaimed upon clinching the Democratic nomination, “that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” So wait, America never provided care for the sick or good jobs for the jobless until St. Barack arrived? That doesn’t sound like the country most Americans think of when they wave their flags on the Fourth of July.

Obama went on to say that he will “remake” the country. Well, what if you don’t want it remade? And Michelle Obama — who believes America is “downright mean” and is proud of America for the first time because of her husband’s success — insists that Barack will make you “work” for change and that he will “demand that you, too, be different.” What if you don’t want to work for Obama’s change? What if you don’t want to be “different”?

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