In a 1908 Speech Samuel Clemons (aka Mark Twain) observed that “Patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel. He is the man who talks the loudest.” Twain drew this conclusion from observing that political leaders often use “patriotism” to demand loyalty, unity, and conformity to group and nation when reason does not warrant the appropriateness of these qualities. In addition, the charge that a person or group is deficient in patriotism is useful for demonizing people and groups.

So what is patriotism, properly conceived? Was Mark Twain too dismissive of patriotism? Cross-cultural research shows that patriotism is the norm in every country: all people of all nations express an affection for their country, a deep sense of belonging, and a concern for the welfare of the group or nation. It is also the case that invoking to group or national identity are indispensable tools for motivating people to engage in behaviors that promote the common good. This raises the question of whether we can distinguish between a productive version of patriotism and the often toxic brand of patriotism that Mark Twain scorned?

For our purposes, it is useful to distinguish between static and aspirational versions of patriotism.

Static patriotism

Static patriotism is backward looking and is defensive in nature. The static form celebrates the past: it harkens back to a golden age and a generation of heroic founders whose wisdom and courage present citizens can only faintly imitate. The static version of patriotism demands conformity and group unity. A failure to follow a required deference to group symbols and icons are censured as acts of disrespect and disloyalty. Not surprising, this version of patriotism is highly conservative and is resistant to change that might dilute the cultural foundations of the nation.

Aspirational patriotism

In contrast, aspirational patriotism has both a critical element and a forward-looking element: it regards the nation as an unfinished enterprise. There is a strong attachment and love of group or country, but it acknowledges that more needs to be done to perfect the union. It reminds citizens of the shared values and aspirations, and urges them to renew their commitment to strive toward those values and ideas. An aspirational patriotism understands that people of all nations rightly feel pride in their nation, that we need not elevate our own group uncritically above all others, or that criticism of a country’s history and institutions is an act of disloyalty and disrespect.

True patriotism regards the nation as an unfinished enterprise, and is always working and striving toward a 'more perfect union.'Click To Tweet

Patriotism and conflict

It is instructive that societies engaged in very protracted conflicts usually revert to a rigid patriotism of conformity, enforced unity, and censorship in the name of loyalty. Such unanimity of focus is needed to maintain the motivation for ongoing sacrifice for the group. This is most pronounced when the very existence of the group or nation is considered to be in doubt.

Toxic patriotism as a political tool

The problem with the static form of patriotism is that it is an exceedingly powerful tool in the hands of unscrupulous political leaders; it is thus open to cynical manipulation and abuse. It is undoubtedly necessary when a society faces existential threats (e.g., World War II), but in less extreme environments, its deployment must be regarded with suspicion.

Leaders know that they can stir fears and invoke patriotism to gain popularity, motivate people to action, and silence dissent. To invoke the motto “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” as Governor Bevin routinely does, can easily be reduced to “follow the leader without reservation or questioning.” Journalists who ask impertinent questions about tax returns or an unusual house purchase are excoriated for their disrespect and are called “Cicadas” and “Peeping Toms.”

Aspirational patriotism as impetus to improve

The fact that patriotism can be abused should not lead us mistakenly conclude, as Mark Twain did, that appeals to patriotism are inherently fraudulent. An aspirational form of patriotism is a powerful tool. It aroused people to an awareness of the injustice of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. harnessed the values asserted in the Declaration of Independence, to motivate people to change the nation for the better. An aspirational patriotism manages a tension between celebrating the past and orienting toward the future; it points out the imperfections and contradictions in our present life that ought to be corrected. An aspirational patriotism serves as a resource for motivating us to strive for a better collective future.

Love stories and fairy tales conclude “and they lived happily ever after.” However, we the living know that the wedding vows are only the beginning of the work to build a shared life and a shared future. Couples develop a shared memory and cherish the past, but they know that they cannot live there. They draw on the past as they proceed to form a more perfect union. Why should we expect anything less when it comes to our love of country?

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Greg Leichty
Greg Leichty is a professor of Communication at the University of Louisville. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of conflict management and social movements. He has been involved in several social justice organizations in the Louisville area over the last decade.