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What Does It Really Mean to be Patriotic?

By Lee Hamilton


Patriotism has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. Just ahead of the mid-term elections, The New York Times noted that two clashing visions of patriotism were heading to the polls. President Trump and Republicans saw patriotism as “conspicuous displays of respect for the traditional expressions of America — the flag, the military, the Pledge of Allegiance.” Democrats, by contrast, saw it as protecting the norms and institutions of our democracy.

 I don’t entirely buy this distinction, at least when it comes to partisan labels. I’ve known plenty of Democrats who consider it patriotic to honor the flag, the military, and the Pledge. And I’ve known a lot of Republicans who value our democratic traditions.

 But the two broad strands outlined by The Times inarguably exist. For myself, I believe that patriotism means getting on with the serious business of improving our country. It means that we strive to ensure that we live up to our pledge of liberty and justice for all. In this formulation, patriotism is best expressed not in parades or speeches or exhortations or conspicuous displays, but in what we do.

 So much of our national discussion of patriotism is about military heroes. This is important, but it’s an incomplete view of love of country. We encounter patriotism at all levels of American life. The teacher in the classroom, the parents who raise their children to be good citizens, the clerk who keeps town records and helps people vote, the ordinary working person who goes about her tasks with dedication and proficiency — patriotism can be found everywhere in our communities, among people who pursue their lives with the good of the country at heart.

 We have inherited a magnificent political legacy, a set of customs and traditions that give ordinary people the tools and power to improve life for themselves and succeeding generations. Patriotism lies in our efforts to enlarge that legacy so that it applies to all citizens.

 It means we defend civil liberties, the right to dissent, and the equality before the law of all Americans. And it means that upholding our core values — tolerance, mutual respect, the right of everyone to be heard, the belief that in pursuing our own lives and interests we all are capable of contributing to the vibrancy of our democracy — is every bit as patriotic as placing our hand over our heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.                     

Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, representing a district in south central Indiana. 

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