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Defining Patriotism in the 2020 Election

Leave if you don’t like it.

If Trump wins, I’m moving to Canada.

Such is the language used to discuss what it means to be an American patriot (or detractor) these days. The narrative is: if you love America, you do so unabashedly, without equivocation or condition. Anything short, and you may as well be a traitor.

But this all-or-nothing attitude is a right-wing creation. Why, then, have left-leaning folks tacitly accepted it as gospel? It’s become common to hear the liberal crowd writing off the U.S. as a lost cause entirely, citing their wish to move abroad or else ignore politics altogether. Too often, rightful criticism of America leads to disillusionment and a withdrawal from civic life, simply because people don’t see a way forward. And this, in turn, only benefits right-wingers, who gain an edge in the game simply by being constant players.

The right’s nationalist narrative is pernicious, not least of all because it inspires a sort of knee-jerk revulsion among those that don’t subscribe. Those on the left should resist this and adopt a warts-and-all view. America, run-down Ford F-150 that she is, still has plenty to love. More importantly, her future is ours to make. If the left truly wants to make a comeback in this country, it must involve redefining patriotism.

Why do we accept a definition of love for one’s country that demands obedience and has no tolerance for dissent?

Elected officials among the nominal opposition party will offer platitudes about loving this country—it’s not like you can have a political career without using the phrase God bless America—but there’s an almost uniform failure to invoke the history of left-valued patriots in mainstream political discourse.

Slaves literally built this country. Abolitionists were fearless agitators. The same immigrant class that gets vilified today has been integral to our nation’s rise. The labor movement that won us a 40-hour work week are forgotten and glossed over in our history (the right-wing claim about public education being leftist indoctrination is a topic for another time).

Were these people not patriots in the truest sense of the word? Why do we accept a definition of love for one’s country that demands obedience and has no tolerance for dissent? The unparalleled James Baldwin said it best: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

It’s important to acknowledge our problems, but it is equally important to remain engaged long enough to actually address them. Shame is a paralytic; the American left can be patriotic and critical, proud of our progress and relentless in their push for more.

Prior to this pandemic, every so often I’d host friends from abroad and treat them to lunch, where they would inevitably be shocked at the amount of food. It’s one of the tired tropes used to criticize America as a land of excess. I’d explain that most restaurants here have oversized portions so that diners can take home leftovers, that a backyard barbeque will always see guests off with a to-go plate, because our culture values making sure that people have enough for now and for the future. When you take the time to look around, there’s a lot to love about this country.

NBA playoffs. Jazz. Tailgating. National Parks. Space Jam. Abstract expressionism. Funnel cakes. The Giant Pumpkin Regatta. There’s something for everyone here. The right would have you believe that to enjoy these things, you must turn a blind eye to the racism, economic inequality, police militarization, neo-imperialism, and invasive surveillance—and the left hasn’t countered this claim. If we are to build a better country, we have to make sure that people love it enough to save it.


John Garside is an Account Executive at JCI Worldwide, having first joined the company in 2016 as an intern finishing a degree in Public Policy, with a focus on labor relations. He now helps oversee multiple projects and campaigns, specializing in community relations, media research, policy analysis, and environmental issues.


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