A new survey shows that Americans, on average, are growing more patriotic. Among some predominantly liberal groups, however, patriotism is on the decline, and the gap between the left and the American public is widening. The two sides of the chasm reflect two distinct views of the United States.
The USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in mid-June shows that 32 percent of Americans describe themselves as “extremely patriotic,” the highest number in the reported data, up from 19 percent in 1999. The 2010 total represents an 8 point increase since the January 2002 survey, which was the first after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The most patriotic groups of Americans are Republicans at 52 percent, conservatives at 48 percent and those over age 65 at 40 percent. The least patriotic are Democrats (20 percent), liberals (19 percent) and those aged 18 to 29 (22 percent).
The most patriotic groups have seen double-digit increases in “extremely” patriotic sentiment since 2005, while the least patriotic groups have flat-lined or declined. When it comes to those with less patriotic fervor, among Democrats the percentages in the “somewhat” or “not especially” patriotic categories rose from 33 percent in 2005 to 37 percent, while among Republicans the number declined from 15 percent to 9 percent, with the “not especially” group being less than 0.5 percent.
The study notes that it is “particularly intriguing” that 42 percent of Democrats are satisfied with the direction the country is heading while a mere 7 percent of the more patriotic Republicans agree. This 34 percent difference mirrors the 32 point patriotism gap between the two major parties. But feelings of patriotism should not be confused with a sense of complacency. Patriotism scores declined in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War when the country seemed more secure and the future was less in doubt.
The recent resurgence of patriotic sentiment is better viewed as a measure of concern over the direction the country is taking. As with the Minutemen in 1775, today’s patriots are responding to a call to action. Among some quarters on the left, the expression “patriot” is synonymous with the Tea Party movement, which they consider reactionary and racist. This may explain in part why liberals are less willing to describe themselves as patriotic.
The patriotism issue broadly parallels the battle lines of the culture war. Those brought up in an educational system in which the United States is portrayed negatively - as the country of slavery and segregation, of unjust wars, environmental pollution, evil capitalism and all manner of oppression - have no particular reason to be patriotic. To these people, Michelle Obama’s position rang true when she said in February 2008 that, “for the first time in [her] adult lifetime” she was “really proud of [her] country.” There was no reason to be proud of America before the Obama ascendance. Likewise, candidate Barack Obama’s promise to “fundamentally transform” the United States was an exciting message to those who viewed America as a morally bankrupt, internationally despised country with a despicable history.
To those who hold a competing image of the United States - as a shining city on a hill, as the font of freedom, as a country of faith, hope and charity, as the product of a divine plan, as the defender of democracy and the last best hope of mankind - this vision needs no fundamental transformation. The rising tide of patriotism is a response to the assault on these American ideals, a defense of the dream of the first new nation founded in liberty. Patriotic Americans are not yet ready to give up the fight.