History Lesson

How the Republicans Claimed the “Patriotism” Mantle in Presidential Politics

President Ronald Reagan 

The 1988 race for the White House was the last campaign of the Cold War. By the time Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H.W. Bush emerged in midspring as their parties’ nominees, Mikhail Gorbachev had begun his historic reforms, and the superpowers had signed a landmark arms-reduction deal. Still, the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union remained intact, and the Democrats remained afraid of being tarred as squishy-soft. So when the Republicans met in New Orleans in August for their convention, with Dukakis far ahead in the polls, they set out—in the manner of many previous GOP campaigns—to paint their adversary as weak on defense and suspect in his devotion to country.

Weeks earlier, the Democrats had decorated their convention stage in soft colors— salmon, eggshell, and powder blue—for more affecting TV visuals. Seizing on this departure from the classic red-white-and-blue décor, the Republican keynote speaker, Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey, mocked the Democrats’ “pastel patriotism,” insisting that it meant they would “weaken America.” Bush, for his part, attacked what he called Dukakis’ view of the United States as just “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” He then led the assembled in the Pledge of Allegiance—a pointed contrast to an ancient Greek oath that Dukakis had included in his own nomination speech and an invidious reference to Dukakis’ veto of a mandatory Pledge of Allegiance bill many years before.

Perhaps the harshest speech of the convention came on the first night. In a prime-time address, a rising young star in the GOP spoke about an old friend, a U.S. prisoner of war in Vietnam, beaten by his captors for crafting a small American flag “because he knew how important it was for us to be able to pledge allegiance.” Concluding his remarks, John S. McCain III, first-term senator from Arizona, solemnly intoned the words “duty, honor, country.”

The attacks on Dukakis—which tapped into nativist fears about his swarthy, beetle-browed looks, his ethnic last name, and his Jewish wife—stand alongside the Willie Horton ads from that year as prime exhibits in one of the sleaziest campaigns in presidential history. And this year we’ve already heard echoes of it, with the Republicans casting Barack Obama as un-American—an exotic foreigner raised partly in Indonesia with a Muslim middle name, married to a woman who said that only her husband’s political achievements have made her “proud” of her country, a cosmopolitan elitist too snooty to wear a flag pin in his lapel or clasp his hand to his breast during the national anthem.

If Obama’s patriotism sometimes needs explaining—and he explained it in Independence, Mo., this week—McCain’s is uncomplicated. A decorated veteran, he earns praise from Obama as “a genuine war hero.” Even his determination to see the war in Iraq through to the end comes across as principled—proof that his calls to put country first originate in the heart. (And his attacks on Dukakis give pause to those who would otherwise trust his pledge to run a clean campaign.) Many Republicans have voiced hopes that the issue will save McCain’s foundering campaign—and this week’s ginned-up controversy over Wesley Clark’s perfectly reasonable remarks about McCain suggests they might.

Patriotism is justifiably a perennial election issue. Never fixed by a single definition, it has always been subject to debate. And presidential contests are referendums about national identity. This year both candidates have just put their names to short essays in Time explaining what love of country means to them. McCain’s described a familiar, traditional patriotism. He stressed military service and other forms of sacrifice to “protect the ideals that gave birth to our country: to stand against injustice and for the rights of all and not just one’s own interests.” Though his essay paid lip service to Americans’ differences, it emphasized “the duties, the loyalties, the inspirations and the habits of mind that bind us together as Americans.”

Obama’s essay focused less on responsibilities than on rights. It celebrated “the idea … that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door … that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution.” More than McCain’s, his contribution dwelled on the value of America’s diversity—”We are a nation of strong and varied convictions and beliefs. We argue and debate our differences vigorously and often”—even as he suggested that those differences exist within a context of shared underlying values.

Each essay, it so happens, falls within a tradition embodied by its author’s party. Since the end of World War II, the conservative version of patriotism that the Republicans have championed has rested upon a steadfast protectiveness of American values in the face of enemies—proven through a muscular, nationalistic military posture. Impatient with critical perspectives, conservative patriotism advocates an unhesitant participation in collective rituals like waving the flag, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and even public prayer. McCain, who is fluent with words like valor and sacrifice, firmly belongs to this tradition.

Postwar liberalism has defined love of country differently. It calls for candidly identifying what’s wrong with America in order to improve it. It tends to regard collective gestures like the Pledge of Allegiance as hollow, tokenistic, and even potentially coercive—and thus antithetical to the individualism that lets free thought flourish. To conservative patriotism’s semper fidelis, liberal patriotism counters with e pluribus unum.

Before examining how these two patriotisms have played out in presidential politics (which I’ll do in Part 2 of this piece tomorrow), it’s worth looking at two speeches by two postwar political titans—one representative of postwar liberalism, one of postwar conservatism—that epitomize these worldviews.

No speech has better expressed the conservative patriotism than Ronald Reagan’s televised farewell from the Oval Office. Reagan was elected in 1980 to vanquish what his predecessor Jimmy Carter had called a “crisis of spirit.” As president, he bolstered the armed forces and talked tough to the Russians—and spoke sentimentally about the flag and the pledge at every opportunity. As he reviewed his two terms in January 1989, the president boasted of having “rebuilt our defenses,” faced down the Soviet Union, and won the peace. Renewed strength, he argued, had led to the “the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism, … one of the things I’m proudest of in the past eight years.” But Reagan also cautioned his audience that relativism and self-criticism still endangered this revived morale. “Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children,” he fretted, calling for a return to a time when “we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions”—suggesting, in passing, that those two things were the same.

Reagan’s call for an “unambivalent” national pride is one quality that makes him a hero to McCain and others who see any denigration of the United States (at least from the left) as anti-Americanism. This intolerance of self-criticism has often prevented liberals from sharing in Reagan’s patriotism. Instead, liberals have typically hearkened to ideas like those of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic standard-bearer of the 1950s and a beau ideal of many on the left.

Stevenson assumed leadership of the Democratic Party at a time when patriotism politics had turned ugly. Loyalty oaths were proliferating, as were mandatory recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance—newly tricked out with the phrase under God, to set America apart from the godless Soviets. Stevenson inspired liberals by bravely defying the culture of conformity. In a speech to the American Legion during the 1952 campaign, he said that “patriotism with us is not the hatred of Russia; it is the love of this republic and of the ideal of liberty of man and mind.” “True patriotism,” he insisted, was “based on tolerance and a large measure of humility,” on respecting dissenting speech in the service of collective improvement.

When Obama declared last fall, using Stevenson’s phrase, that “true patriotism” consists not of wearing lapel pins but rather of “speaking out on issues [including those] that are of importance to our national security,” he joined a long line of Democrats who have echoed the governor’s noble words. (When Bush taunted Dukakis—”What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?”—Dukakis replied thoughtfully and admirably: “I don’t know what some people see when they look at that flag, but I know what I see. I see a quarter of a billion faces, of all ages and all colors and all shapes and all sizes … for all of our diversity, we are one nation, one people, one community.”)

The merit of Stevenson’s patriotism is hard to deny. But for more than a half-century, it has usually proven too high-minded, or too subtle, to be readily grasped or widely appreciated amid the fast pace and heavy pressure of a presidential race. As I’ll try to show in the second part of this essay tomorrow, it is Reagan’s patriotism—muscular, militaristic, uncritical—that has more often carried the day.