Michael Kazin: A Liberal Revival of Americanism





[Michael Kazin's latest book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches history at Georgetown University.]

Barack Obama's rise to power has, to many people's surprise, once again made patriotism a liberal faith. At the pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, "This Land Is Your Land," lustily rendered by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, shared equal billing with "The Star-Spangled Banner." In his inaugural address, the new president evoked "obscure" Americans who "toiled in sweatshops" or "endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth" as exemplary citizens, while denouncing those who "seek only the pleasures of riches and fame." Before him stretched a crowd of some 1.8 million admirers; many, to paraphrase Michelle Obama's controversial words from last winter, were surely as proud of their country as they had been in many years. That throng on the Mall was probably the largest pro-government demonstration in U.S. history. That spirit is probably strong enough to withstand the news that some high-placed Obama appointees had failed to pay their taxes -- and may even be bolstered by the president's apology for "screwing up" the process.

The revival of Americanism on the left is as unexpected as was Obama's victory itself. Since liberals turned against the war in Vietnam 40 years ago, they have struggled to prove that they love their country even while opposing most of the policies of its government. Some abandoned the effort altogether, preferring to don a fresh identity as global citizens. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued in 1994 that patriotism is "morally dangerous" because it encourages Americans to focus narrowly on their own concerns and to minimize or disregard those of people in other lands. Meanwhile, conservatives led by Ronald Reagan defined patriotism as the need to stand tall against one's enemies and equated liberty with low taxes and a lightly regulated market. From the invasion of Cambodia to the invasion of Iraq, war protesters pleaded, "Peace Is Patriotic," but few on either side paid them much attention.

Then, quite unintentionally, George W. Bush convinced liberals that they should stand up for their own version of the national creed. They condemned his 2000 election as a betrayal of democracy, achieved only after he lost the popular vote and got an assist from a right-leaning Supreme Court. As the "war on terror" heated up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, liberals accused the president of violating the Constitution by snooping into library and phone records and unapologetically using torture. Then the bloody debacle in Iraq drove many a progressive to dust off the advice of John Quincy Adams that the United States should not go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy" because "she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."...

Obama often says that he wants to move beyond the "stale debates" that, since the 1960s, have frequently made people who care about politics into bitter opponents. Arguments about who really loves their country are part of what he means, as are skirmishes over race, religion and sexuality.

But if Obama believes one can enforce a truce in the long battle over how to apply the founding ideals of the nation, he will be disappointed. Since the 1790s, when Vice President Thomas Jefferson accused President John Adams of betraying the republic's "true principles" with his Alien and Sedition Acts, this conflict has been a vital matter in our politics.

No one competing for national office can afford to be on the wrong side of Americanism, an immensely attractive and remarkably supple creed.

Liberals are still getting comfortable with thinking of themselves as the upholders of civic virtue. And conservatives will certainly try their best to recapture that image, as last fall's attacks on Obama as a European-style socialist demonstrated. But after decades in denial, progressives have finally realized that they cannot lead America if America does not hold a privileged place in their hearts. If Obama is as successful at running the country as he has been at recrafting the national story, his most fervent supporters might come to believe that a majority of their fellow citizens are also proud of them.



comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Pamela W. Laird - 2/14/2009

To what proportion of progressives does Mr. Kazin refer in saying that “Liberals are still getting comfortable with thinking of themselves as the upholders of civic virtue”? Most liberals of my acquaintance have longed for the day when they could reclaim their right to patriotism and to hold public officials to high standards of civic virtue. We have fought long and hard against the conservative efforts that Mr. Kazin mentions to paint liberals as uncaring about their country. For many of us, George McGovern’s call to our patriotism has been ringing in our ears ever since 1972: “Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.” That his call to “come home, America” did not prevail had less to do with a lack of liberals’ patriotism than with endless attacks on anyone who did not identify patriotism with the abuse of national power.


Randll Reese Besch - 2/13/2009

In his inaugural address, the new president evoked "obscure" Americans who "toiled in sweatshops" or "endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth" as exemplary citizens, while denouncing those who "seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."

Easy words coming from a famous man who earned $4 million dollars in 2007. Considering how he has backtracked so easily on so many things he said to get elected but didn't mean. Such as no corporate proselytizers in his gov't for instance. Yet there they are. But a liberal? I don't think so. He has so many corporate and big money types around him he looked little different from McCaine or Hillary Clinton for that matter. Such is the need to whore one's self to get elected in our benighted society.

Subscribe to our mailing list