Many people who are active in environmental groups are uncomfortable with the idea of American patriotism. They seem to associate it with a bigoted nationalism, the kind of anti-immigrant ire associated with the alt right and fed by Donald Trump.
Liberal discomfort with American nationalism didn’t start with Trump, writes historian Jill Lepore in her new book This America: The Case for the Nation, but it’s certainly reached a frightening crescendo since the 2016 election (Note: this article contains Amazon affiliate links to books I recommend).
During the Vietnam era people on the Left began to turn away from the nation state, which they saw as oppressive, and towards a pluralism celebrating oppressed groups like women, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians seeking human rights. Many liberals earnestly predicted and eagerly hoped that nationalism would just fade away on its own, to be replaced by a progressive global consciousness that would usher in an era of peace through global trade and communications, “The End of History,” as historian Francis Fukuyama put it in 1992.
It’s understandable how historians and activists on the Left would have gotten disillusioned with the idea of America as a nation. But they were wrong that nationalism would just fade away, as any story about a Trump rally will confirm.
While people on the left, including environmentalists, were going either tribal or global, ordinary Americans continued to look for stories about their country, for which they remained as hungry as ever.
With no supply coming from the Left, pundits and writers on the Right stepped in, like Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, with his Killing Lincoln in 2011, followed by a series of “Killing” books that portrayed American history as driven by episodes of violence against great (white) men. By 2015, O’Reilly’s books sold 6.8 million copies.
O’Reilly’s books may be harmful — and inaccurate — but that doesn’t mean pride in America is always misplaced. Lepore argues that the Left needs to take back the story of America and even embrace a liberal patriotism, one dedicated to the national ideals of freedom and equality.
Only if the Left gets back into the discussion about what it means to be an American can we hope for humane approaches to contentious issues like immigration and race.
Indeed, Lepore thinks that appealing to patriotism is necessary to help political causes on the left, including the climate movement, achieve any real success. She agrees with fellow liberal historian Michael Kazin:
It’s nearly impossible to name “any American radical or reformer who repudiated the national belief system and still had a major impact on U.S. politics and policy.” Patriotism, Kazin pointed out, has been indispensable to the Left, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Eugene Debs to Martin Luther King Jr.: “Americans who want to transform the world have to learn how to persuade the nation.”
I hope that in the future climate will not be a political cause mostly on the Left, but will increasingly become a concern of conservatives as well, as a high-priority issue of national security and prosperity rather than a low-priority “environmental” issue for lefty tree huggers.
But until that happens, activists on the Left should follow the strategy that brought success to their forbears in progressive social movements, whether abolition, women’s suffrage or civil rights.
That strategy is to wrap yourself in the flag.
But you don’t have to be cynical about it. After reading American histories by some of Lepore’s fellow liberal historians such as Gordon S. Wood (The Radicalism of the American Revolution), Ron Chernow (Alexander Hamilton), or Ray Raphael (Founding Myths), I’ve come to believe that, tragedies and triumphs taken together, America is indeed a great country.
Inventing solar panels doesn’t make up for slavery.
But we were the country in the eighteenth century that came up with a radical idea for freedom and equality that has now become the world’s norm. In a world where ordinary people’s horizons were limited by the rule of unelected kings and popes, sultans and caliphs, and moguls and shoguns, Americans founded the first society dedicated to the idea that all people should have equal rights. Our founders didn’t finish putting this idea into practice — they merely started the process. Over the next two and a half centuries, activists and political leaders helped our country get closer to fulfilling its original promise for all our people.
Of course, we still have much work to do to achieve full freedom and equality for all. And we’ve developed other problems that America’s founders didn’t anticipate, like climate change.
We can certainly argue about how far our country has come and how far we have to go. But for now, since you and I both live in it, I think that’s reason enough to try to save the U.S. from climate chaos!
To help my friends in the climate movement who may still be uncomfortable in claiming that promoting clean energy is patriotic, I offer a short video on how patriotism is not the same as nationalism (at least the alt-right kind of nationalism) with quotes and images from some of those successful political movements from American history.
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot