The Corner

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The Patriotism of the Poor Isn’t So Mysterious

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Francesco Duina is professor of sociology at Bates College and author of Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country. Over in the Guardian, he grapples with what strikes him as a surprising and troubling phenomenon:

The World Values Survey indicate that 100% of Americans who belong to the lowest income group are either “very” or “quite” proud of their country. This isn’t the case for any other major advanced country in the world. These positive feelings are also resilient: they intensified, in fact, during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

As long as they remain deeply patriotic, America’s poor won’t rise up. Indeed, they’ll continue to fill the ranks of the military, strive and sacrifice to help America assert itself in the world, and even feed into and support the slogans and successes of the country’s political leaders.

I realize that these days, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews is now the subject of jokes about unregulated methane emissions, but way back in 2002 he wrote a book, Now Let Me Tell You What I Really Think that included a clarifying anecdote from Matthews’ days as an armed officer of the U.S. Capitol Police in the 1960s.

But the core of the force was made up of “lifers” from the military, enlisted guys who’d done long hitches with the Army, Navy, or Marines. I’d spend hours hanging out with these guys. My favorite was Sergeant Leroy Taylor. He was one of those citizen-philosophers who instinctively grasped this country’s real politics, the kind that people live and are ready to die for. He and the other country boys would talk about how they would do anything to defend the Capitol. More than some of the big-shot elected officials, my colleagues in blue revered the place and what it meant to the republic. It wasn’t about them, but about something much bigger.

I will never forget what Leroy once told me and the wisdom it contained: “The little man loves his country, Chris, because it’s all he’s got.”

Being poor in America is terrible in a lot of ways. But even the poorest American is ensured a vote upon turning 18, their day in court if charged with a crime with a jury of their peers, a right to a public defender, their right to speak their mind and criticize anyone in government without the state prosecuting him, their right to assemble and protest, the right to own a firearm if they have no mental impairment or criminal record, no search or seizure of their property without a warrant, rights against self-incrimination, the right to believe whatever religion they want or none at all, and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. There are wealthy moguls in China who don’t have half those rights.

I’d argue the more interesting question is not why do the poor assess living the United States so positively, but why the wealthy assess living the United States so negatively? (And why is there often an implicit assumption that the wealthy see their country clearly and accurately, while the poor do not?)

Perhaps the remarkable opportunities of the wealthy give them a skewed view of life at home and abroad.

Yes, a wealthy person is more likely to have traveled to more foreign countries, and have more firsthand experience with life in other countries. But what do they see in their encounters with other countries? The life of a wealthy person in New York is not all that different from the life of a wealthy person in London or Paris or Dubai or Tokyo or Shanghai. It’s not surprising that almost everyone at the Davos conference gets along well. They’ve all been to the best schools, they all enjoyed enormous opportunities in their careers, they all dress in similar tailored suits, live well, eat well, enjoy the finer things in life . . . It is unsurprising that a CEO from Silicon Valley meets a CEO from Switzerland and, after chatting over a tray of canapes, concludes they’re not so different after all.

If you have been lucky enough to stay or even just step inside more than one luxury hotel in more than one world capital, you’ll realize they all look more or less the same. The lobby of the Four Seasons doesn’t look all that different from one in the Mandarin Oriental, which doesn’t look all that different from the one in Ritz-Carlton, and most of us would be stumped if we had to pick out which one was which, and in which city. There’s a worldwide homogeny to the signifiers of the luxury lifestyle. While there’s a lot of overwrought denunciation of “globalists” out there these days, it’s safe to conclude that most of the wealthy elite in any given nation have more in common with other countries’ wealthy elites than with their own countrymen.

If you step into lower-class or middle-class person’s house in “flyover country” in the United States, or Morocco, or Israel, or France, or Brazil, you will much more likely to immediately spot distinctions and differences. Even something as simple as tea with grandma is going to be immediately distinctive from country to country — the Japanese tea set is going to look different from the English tea set, and different from the Turkish tea set, and if you see a samovar, there’s a good chance you’re in Russia. If there is Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera art on the walls, there’s a really good chance the inhabitants are Mexican or have Mexican heritage. You’re more likely to spot symbols of religious faith, flags, sports team paraphernalia — all kinds of displays that declare, ‘this is where we come from, this is who we are, this is why we’re proud to be who we are.’ It is not surprising that poor and middle-class citizens would find “globalism” as an odd and not-that-appealing prospect, and express patriotism (and perhaps nationalism) in ways that wealthier, more cosmopolitan citizens find naive and parochial.

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