On Patriotism and Potlucks

By Johann N. NeemJuly 31, 2021

On Patriotism and Potlucks

Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes by Steven B. Smith

IN THE DARK last days of the Trump administration, it became clear that he and many of his supporters would defend their vision of the United States even if it meant sacrificing our country’s principles and the Constitution. I asked myself whether I would still identify as an American if our democracy died. This question remains as Republicans sustain the lie of voter fraud and defend a former president who encouraged violence against our democratic institutions. Can and should one be an American without democracy? Or put differently, how does one distinguish between one’s political and cultural identities?

I struggle with these issues because I’m a patriotic American. I’m an immigrant, and I fly the flag in front of my house on national holidays. I’m also a history professor. I could thus relate to Steven B. Smith’s story of being at a Fourth of July picnic with academic colleagues: when the host asked if the group “felt patriotic,” there followed “a moment of acute embarrassment.” I admit to similar experiences. As Smith writes in Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, patriotism is treated on campuses as “an unenlightened preference for one’s own at the expense of a more enlightened, cosmopolitan point of view.” Smith worries that, “in educated circles,” patriotism “has come to seem morally questionable.” He hopes to convince his readers not to dismiss patriotism as such.

At the same time, like so many of us, Smith worries about the rise of ethnocentric nationalism on the right. This nationalism, Smith writes, wants to make the United States an “ethnic nation,” in which the nation becomes “the sole source of a person’s identity” to separate “‘us’ from ‘them.’” To the new nationalists on the right, being an American is primarily a cultural — or worse, racial — category. Smith’s book speaks to the question I asked myself as Trump’s attacks on our government threatened to undermine the American experiment. Smith defines patriotism as the middle ground between the Scylla of right-wing nationalism and the Charybdis of elite cosmopolitanism. To Smith, the former is excess, the latter insufficient.

Patriotism, Smith argues, is a virtue. It is “a form of loyalty” and a “formative part” of one’s identity. But this is not because patriotism requires the right skin color or religion. Instead, patriotism is “a feature of moral character.” In other words, to be moral requires being patriotic, just as it requires other virtues, such as honesty or tolerance or a commitment to justice. To Smith, we have a duty to be loyal to the social institutions that have nurtured us. Drawing from Aristotle, Smith argues that patriotism is “a learned disposition,” fostered through “our rituals and habits, our customs and feelings.” Patriotism is more than simply a rational commitment to principles; by practicing it, it becomes a moral custom, something we do because we are the kind of person who does it, just as someone is honest or fair.

Smith challenges those who claim that patriotism is, as the philosopher George Kateb put it, a moral “mistake.” He also distinguishes himself from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who, in a 1984 essay, argued that patriotism is an expression of loyalty irreconcilable with liberalism because liberals treat moral rules as universal and divorced from our parochial commitments and identities. Smith disagrees. Traditionally, liberals have been devoted to cultivating “a particular kind of character and way of life” within a community. Liberals seek to develop citizens with “capacities and character traits such as independence, fair play, acceptance of moral responsibility, and critical self-reflection — a distinctive canon of liberal virtues.” Liberalism, in other words, is a civic tradition.

Although he does not mention her, political theorist Danielle Allen also proffers a virtue-based approach to these questions in her book Talking to Strangers. What holds us together as a people, Allen argues, is not loyalty but the Aristotelian virtues of friendship. Allen recommends “political friendship” among citizens. As political friends, we recognize that sustaining our relationship is more important than our immediate disagreements. We must thus treat each other equitably and with reciprocity. If Smith teaches us that patriotism is loyalty to a regime, Allen shows us that citizenship requires other virtues too.

Smith makes a convincing case for patriotism’s morality. He believes that the United States “is a creedal nation based on an idea.” Being American means participating in a common confession expressed in such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Upholding the creed is Americans’ highest civic responsibility. As the historian Sidney Mead put it in his classic 1967 essay, the United States is a “nation with the soul of a church.” Mead considered the American creed “prophetic […] its ideals and aspirations stand in constant judgment over the passing shenanigans of the people, reminding them of the standards by which their current practices and those of their nation are ever being judged and found wanting.”

But what, then, is the relationship between creed and culture? If we are a nation with the soul of a church, the American creed is our theology. Yet nations, like churches, are sustained by more than ideas. They depend on rituals. In a Christian church, communion may be akin to the patriotic rituals Smith calls for, such as standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. But beyond communion lie other practices that forge the bonds that create a faith community, such as the potluck. The creed is paramount, but the potluck brings people together, keeping the creed alive.

That is why Smith dismisses Jürgen Habermas’s constitutional patriotism as insufficient. Habermas hoped that one could be patriotic on principle alone, but Smith rightly responds that “such a thin theory of patriotism lacks the affective connotations of pride, service, and loyalty that bind together members of a nation and make them citizens.” Patriotism, Smith emphasizes, “is more than devotion to a set of constitutional procedures. It requires affection for a way of life.” In short, Smith asks us to acknowledge the interdependence of our political and cultural identities. Patriotic loyalty, he writes, is undergirded by “the character-based habits and dispositions that constitute a society’s way of life, everything from our perceptions, feelings, and beliefs to our cuisine, body language, posture, and accent.”

What the nationalist right gets wrong is that American culture — our way of life — is not itself patriotism. Being a good patriot means learning from the testimonials of the prophets and committing oneself to upholding their teachings. But today’s right treats the potluck, rather than the ideals, as morally prior. Smith makes clear that this is a moral mistake. It is equally wrong, however, when the left presumes that people will accept the atonement without the potluck.

In politics, it may be that civic virtues originate as much in national identity as the other way around. As we witness our social and political fabric being ripped apart, we have to accept — whether we like it or not — that democracy is a system that can manage pluralism and conflict within a group (such as the nation) but not when conflicts are understood as pitting groups against each other. We need to see ourselves as part of the same nation, a challenge for a country struggling with racial and economic inequality and decades of culture wars and globalization. We can argue all we want about the need to respect democratic institutions and norms, but it may have little impact if we do not consider ourselves a people.

This brings me back to my opening question and to my tentative answer: the United States is not an idea. It is a nation committed to an idea. Our creed makes us who we are. I cannot be American without the creed, but the creed alone is not enough to make me an American. What, then, should I bring to the potluck?


Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America. He teaches history at Western Washington University.

LARB Contributor

Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019) and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017), which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.


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