In this month’s Public Discourse interview, Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, joined the Witherspoon Institute’s Associate Director Jamie Boulding to discuss the meaning of patriotism in a polarized political landscape. On the modern left, patriotism is often viewed as a threat to cosmopolitan globalism and the identity-based politics that are increasingly central to the progressive outlook. Meanwhile, patriotism on the right can too easily mutate into toxic nationalism or sterile nostalgia. In recent years, particularly with his book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, Smith has emerged as a forceful advocate for reclaiming patriotism and reimagining a constructive middle way between these two distorted visions. In this conversation, he outlines his model of “enlightened patriotism,” which sees patriotism as a virtue to be cultivated and practiced in everyday life, in line with core American values of democracy and equality.
Jamie Boulding: Professor Smith, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. My first question is about your interest in the concept of patriotism. Patriotism, as you’ve observed, has become a contested virtue and controversial in different ways, so can you say more about what prompted your interest in this question and what motivated you to write the book?
Steven B. Smith: The earliest iteration of the idea for the book came up in the weeks after 9/11, when I began to think about the question—which seems like an obvious question for a political theorist, but perhaps isn’t so obvious—what do people owe to their country? We lived at that time in a great patriotic moment. For example, you could go down to Lower Manhattan and see American flags flying, which is not something that generally happens. I wrote a little bit about it, then put the idea aside as I turned to other things, though I never completely abandoned it. In a course I was teaching, Intro to Political Philosophy, I would conclude with a lecture called “In Defense of Patriotism,” which turned out to be something of a rough outline of the book.
But it wasn’t until the last two or three years that the idea came back to me to turn it into a book. My motivation was based on what I was looking at around us. On the Democratic left, there was indifference, or neglect, of patriotism. At the same time, there was what I would call the weaponization of patriotism from some people on the right. The politicization of patriotism is a profound problem for those of us who care about our country but who feel a bit disenfranchised by the dominant tendencies of our moment. I wanted to write a book that expressed both my concern and what I hope would speak to the concerns of other likeminded people.
JB: In your view, both the political left and right have drifted away from thinking about patriotism constructively or intelligently. Could you say more about how you see these trends?
SS: Being something of an Aristotelian myself, I decided to think about the problem in a kind of Aristotelian manner. In Aristotle’s Ethics, he argued that all of the virtues represent a mean point between two extremes on either side. For example, he says that courage is a mean point between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness, on the other hand. Cowardice is a deficiency of courage, while rashness is an excess of it. I began to think about this Aristotelian approach to virtues as a model with which to think about patriotism.
We see in our world today a repudiation of patriotism on the cosmopolitan and multicultural left. For them, it’s not only that patriotism inhibits personal identity. They see patriotism, at its best, as a refusal to engage critically with the failures of our country, and at its worst as a mask for racism and xenophobia.
On the other hand, patriotism has never really been a problem on the right in a certain sense; love of country is not a problem over there. But the problem is: what kind of country do they claim to love? And that’s where I argue that patriotism and nationalism have morphed. In fact, nationalism as it grew up in the nineteenth century was originally a kind of liberal doctrine. Nationalism was associated with national liberation and self-determination, and all the great statesmen were nationalists of different kinds. I argue that it’s only in the twentieth century that nationalism has taken a more sinister turn, and that it’s often associated with ethnicity and race, and it becomes a doctrine of exclusion—who’s in, who’s out.
Both of these dispositions that we increasingly see on the left and right are different from patriotism. Patriotism is somewhere in the middle.
JB: Given the ways in which you suggest that the left and right have taken these regrettable turns, how do you think we should define and think about patriotism?
SS: I don’t have an eccentric definition of it. Patriotism is love of country. But as Edmund Burke famously wrote, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” What does it mean to have a lovable country, and what should the honest patriot do or think? The book makes a defense for what I call “enlightened patriotism.” In a way, the hero of the book is Abraham Lincoln. I use Lincoln as my ideal patriot, based on three features of our national experience.
First, Lincoln was an egalitarian. He believed strongly in the principles of human equality and human dignity. Second, Lincoln was inclusive in his patriotism. He made clear in his many debates and speeches that patriotism, or being an American, was not limited to people of a given race, with a given ancestry—that the table was open to immigrants and to people of all backgrounds if they were willing to sign on, as it were, to the basic American creed. Finally, patriotism in Lincoln’s view was progressive. I don’t mean that in the same way as modern progressivism. He believed that America was not then—as it isn’t now—what it ought to be. We are a continual work in progress. He believed that politics and history entailed working toward those ideals, which would maybe never be fully instantiated, but which always served as a goal. That is what I take from Lincoln’s teaching, and what I want to put at the core of what I call “enlightened patriotism.”
JB: On that final point, you describe America as a work in progress, a journey. If patriotism is a virtue, would that be relevant to Aristotle’s view that virtues need to be fostered and cultivated?
SS: First, I should note that I’m not giving a theory of patriotism in general—I’m focused on the American case, so I don’t claim to legislate for other places. But American patriotism has a rational component to it—“all men are created equal”—going back to our mission statement, our core document. There’s a universalist and rationalist core to it, and yet that’s not the whole story. Aristotle said we’re the rational animal—that’s true, but we’re not only the rational animal.
This is where I draw on another Aristotelian concept that isn’t unique to him but that he speaks about in the Ethics. It’s the idea that our patriotism is an ethos, a way of life. Aristotle uses ethos to mean a kind of moral habituation: we are morally habituated into a way of life, and our virtues are cultivated through practice. In a certain way, Aristotle is the founder of the old joke about the tourist who asks how to get to Carnegie Hall, and the answer is: practice, practice, practice! That’s Aristotle’s answer: virtues are things that need to be practiced. And patriotism is a product of education—which is very important for Aristotle—and practice.
We’re not born being patriots. It’s not something that’s inscribed in our moral DNA; rather, it’s something that has to be cultivated. This is why many people don’t have it, and some people have it in the wrong ways. In Aristotelian terms, they haven’t been cultivated or educated properly. You don’t have to be a political philosopher—if that were true, there’d be about ten patriots—but there is a core understanding, a combination of logos and ethos. This refers to reason and habit, or reason and moral sentiment, which are terms not only common to Aristotle, but also figures like Hume and Burke, too—and Lincoln, who often speaks this language of the habits that we have. Logos and ethos working together are very important for fostering patriotism.
JB: Since patriotism, as you see it, is not just an intellectual concept, but a virtue or a habit to be cultivated, are there concrete ways in which we can practice patriotism in our everyday lives?
SS: Yes, there are very familiar ways that need to be established and reestablished, such as simply celebrating what we think of as the birth of our country on the Fourth of July, and gathering together to read the Declaration of Independence. That sounds obvious, but let me tell you a story about a student of mine who just graduated. He suggested to a group of his friends that they should get together on the Fourth of July. One of his friends said that he couldn’t do that, and that he was going to “unfriend” him on Facebook because he thought this was politically unacceptable. If that’s what we’re up against, I think reaffirming basic civil rituals like the Fourth of July becomes extremely important.
There are other things I have in mind, too. As we all know, we live in an increasingly polarized environment. This might not have been obvious until recently, but I think one way of expressing patriotism today could be simply to listen to each other. To believe people who you may disagree with are just people you disagree with. They’re not evil; they’re not the enemy; you may share different views, and you may want to try to convince them. Ultimately, the ability to talk—to carry on a civil conversation—may today be a very strong form of reaffirming patriotism.
In terms of a policy recommendation, I think the best way we could help reaffirm love of country would be to have some form of national service. That doesn’t necessarily mean military service, although I think that would be good, but national service can take many forms, such as teaching or working in under-served communities, where people come to know each other. We live in a vast country, and people don’t know each other—the world outside might as well be a foreign country. We would be better off if we could have a way to break down these barriers of suspicion and hostility.
On this point, one of the things I’ve discovered in college teaching is that after graduation students are hungry to do something for their country. The universities are much better at lining them up for a job on Wall Street than they are in helping them find something in the domain of public service.
JB: Your model of patriotism is based on the idea of America as a work in progress. On this view, patriotism is not just a statement about who we are, but what we could become. But what would you say to someone who wants to base their patriotism on America as it is now, rather than a hypothetical country, and who doubts that your aspirational vision represents a strong foundation for patriotism?
SS: Yes, that objection has arisen in some of the pushback I’ve gotten. That is the nationalist claim; it’s against this aspirational vision. It’s concerned about the country we have. It’s like the Rumsfeld statement, “you go to war with the army you have.” Let me respond to that in a couple of ways.
First, usually what people who say that really mean is, it’s not the country we have now, because many of them hate the country we have now. Their claim is just as aspirational; it’s about the country we wish we had. But it depends when they think we had it: was it the 1950s, or the 1920s, or the 1890s, and so on? So that’s usually an argument made in a certain kind of bad faith.
Second, I think my view is far more connected to the American experience than the objection you just raised. Long before the constitutional framers, the Puritans came here and proclaimed that what we had was a city on a hill. On this view, the way we acted could be a model for other people, and the eyes of the world were on us. From the beginning there was a sense of this aspirational quality to what we are. I think in a secularized way the constitutional framers took over some of that, as did Lincoln. I think our best patriotism has never forgotten that we are a people—if not exactly a people of the book, we are a people of books. Those founding texts have been for us a kind of aspirational goal for about 300 years.
JB: You attributed that objection to the nationalist right. Where has most of the criticism of your work originated? And how do you see the state of nationalism today?
SS: Most of the critique has largely come from the right. I think that is in part because the book is just read by more people on the right. On the right, a lot of it was a repudiation of what I was calling this aspirational or progressive side of patriotism. On the right there was a recent lovely symposium about the book in The Political Science Reviewer, with Wilfred McClay, Sanford Levinson, and Michael Walzer, among others. There was discomfort for a couple of them just with the idea of patriotism. In fact, I had a little back and forth with Michael Walzer about that. He prefers nationalism, but his version focuses on national liberation, not the kind of nationalism we were talking about earlier.
More broadly, I think nationalism is on the rise, which I regret in many ways. It’s far more potent than my views, unfortunately. It’s a potent source of contemporary mobilization. I feel nationalism is becoming toxic in the American environment. You can use the term “white nationalist,” and it makes sense, but if you use the term “white patriot” it doesn’t make any sense at all. Nobody uses that term. The use of these terms tells us that we have different words for a reason. The words we have are the distinctions we find worth making. This isn’t just a linguistic difference; it’s a very important distinction—we have nationalism, we have patriotism, and what’s the difference? People lump where they should split, and that might give some idea of the important differences between my position and others.
JB: Overall, do you feel optimistic about the prospects for your vision of patriotism in the years ahead?
SS: I’d like to be optimistic. In fact, the book ends with a discussion of hope, which I take to be a democratic virtue. It ends more specifically with a stanza from a great anthem of hope, Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a beautiful song that captures so much of what I try to convey. I want to be able to have Bruce’s optimism about this.
It feels to me like we’re in a time of transition—but transition to what is very hard to say. As Lincoln said in his “House Divided” speech, “if we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Well, how do we know where we’re tending? None of us can look into the future and predict, and for the most part prediction has got a pretty inglorious history behind it. It tends to be guesswork more than anything else.
I want to be hopeful. I want to think that this too will pass, and we will move into a world where we can lower the temperature, we can learn to listen, and we can once more engage with an intelligent form of patriotism. It will be up to us to decide.