What does it mean to be a patriot?

The United States flag torn and cracking

When you look at the imagery associated with the people who boast most vociferously about their God-fearing patriotism, there are a couple motifs that you might notice: Support for the troops; remembering 9/11; flags (really any flags, quite ironically including Confederate flags); eagles; pickup trucks; and a generally brazen attitude about how the consequences of our actions and policies don’t really matter as long as AMERICA! In other words, for these “patriots”, patriotism means blind loyalty – blind loyalty to some version of America that doesn’t really exist.

Their idea of America is some Frankenstein’s monster of snippets from our country’s history – a bloody mixture of bombs, angry rock music, a smattering of various pseudo-capitalist economic policies, randomly motivated militias and their right to carry war-grade weapons, unbridled exploitation of natural resources, all drenched gratuitously in a red, white, and blue mucous.

I reject this kind of patriotism, and I reject it fervidly enough to call it downright treasonous. True patriotism is not blind loyalty at all. Patriotism has nothing to do with how loudly you scream the name of your country while you rape the principles upon which the country was built. We were a nation built by some of the most progressive minds in history.

True American patriots rally behind a progressive agenda, they don’t hide behind the curtain of conservatism. Note that when I talk of a progressive agenda, I don’t mean to suggest that there is a single set of beliefs that any one person should have beyond the core principles of respect and equality of opportunity and access, but rather that a true patriot’s agenda should seek to progress the country rather than conserve it. The men and women who envisioned this country, who designed the flag, who wrote the policies, who have fought and died to defend the country, did not imagine a stagnant nation. They dreamed of a country that would always be one step ahead of the rest. Complacency in a political system rots a country from the inside out.

Take, for example, the idea that how enthusiastically a person uses fossil fuels is somehow tied to how much a person loves America. This is a fun one. Let’s break it down – In the past half century or so, debates about the consumption of coal, petroleum, and natural gas have really heated up (Get it?). From a purely political perspective, we can say that much like big banks or tobacco or the auto industry, there are huge corporations generating unthinkable revenue thanks to the free market policies that their well financed lobbies have earned them.

In the same time frame, the Republican party has supported those free market policies, and Democrats have generally pushed for more environmentally minded policies that promote exploration of alternative green energy sources and more stringent regulation of the fossil fuel industries. Without giving credence to either side, we can all agree that it’s clear why this is a political issue and why Republican lawmakers and fossil fuel companies enjoy a symbiotic relationship. What isn’t as clear is how this one political issue has somehow been warped into a litmus test of patriotism. While we might trace the patriotic undertones of free market capitalism to Jeffersonian Republicanism and the corresponding efforts to quell the power of a large central government in favor of agrarian democracy, that still conflates economic policy with patriotism.

This conflation, I surmise, was exacerbated when the Cold War pitted two economic systems against each other and the American propaganda machine sold capitalism as the economic policy of freedom and democracy. Though if that’s the case, then allow me to add some context for those conservative Baby Boomers who grew up during the Cold War and the height of this propaganda: As much as you may be appalled by Millennial/ Gen-Z support of more socialist economic policies, as a generation, we haven’t benefited from the kind of free reigning capitalism that you did. We are a generation burdened with decades of debt ahead of us and fewer paths to fiscal independence. We are more like the generation of young adults who lived through Roosevelt’s New Deal policies – to us, there is nothing patriotic about a government that supports big business at the cost of our own opportunities and access to success. For us, we can believe in social-leaning economic policies and still be proud to be an American – this is not an inherent contradiction like it may have been in previous generations. Plus, there’s no such thing as pure socialism or pure capitalism – there’s no one alive right now who hasn’t benefited from the mix of these systems, and the sooner we can agree on that, the easier it will be to recognize that patriotism isn’t tied to economics.

So why then, if patriotism isn’t tied to economic beliefs, do so many people think that responsible regulation of the fossil fuel industry and a forward-thinking investment in clean energy is anti-American? In my estimation, there is nothing more American than investing in innovation and controlling tyrannical corporations.

Another point of contention we are witnessing is the fact that some athletes kneel during the National Anthem. While the Star Spangled Banner is quite literally a song about a 19th-century U.S. military victory, its adoption as our national anthem just over 100 years ago takes it beyond its literal meaning as a simple ballad dedicated to one military battle and propels it into that ethereal realm of patriot symbolism. While it’s true that the National Anthem does pay tribute to those serving in the military, its fundamental purpose is to pay tribute to the country over which the flag flies and the battles we all must overcome to have a great nation. In today’s America, inequality is the “perilous fight” and we are all either soldiers battling against it or bystanders watching “o’er the ramparts.” The fact is, the National Anthem is exactly that – an anthem of the nation. The military doesn’t own it, and if our citizens want to kneel because our nation is hurting, then it is their anthem to kneel for as well.

One-size-fits-all patriotism is a divisive myth cunningly crafted to promulgate the infamous fallacy: You’re either with us or against us. This false dilemma sells the notion that, “If you don’t practice patriotism exactly as I do, then you’re not a real patriot.” But such a narrow scope of patriotism could only apply to an equally pithy nation, and if you do believe that the United States is truly a great nation, then you couldn’t possibly believe that there is a singular way to be a patriot.

An increasingly common refrain that is echoed over and over in response to protest in any form is, “If you don’t like this country, then why don’t you leave?!” Looking beyond the absurd concept that a U.S. citizen could simply defect the country and assume barrier-free citizenship in some other country even though our country is the poster child for nightmarish immigration systems, this response is ridiculous for a much more basic reason: Protesting IS an act of patriotism. When you don’t like your living room carpet, you don’t buy a new damn house – you replace the carpet. When people protest, it is because they DO want to live in this country, because it is their country, but they want their country to be more accommodating to them. Protesting is a tremendous act of faith in the United States and the democratic republic we have built- if protesters didn’t really believe in our country’s ability to prevail, to overcome the barriers we face and the challenges we encounter, then why would they bother protesting?

Supporting our troops, remembering the harrowing tragedy of 9/11, and honoring our fallen soldiers is not mutually exclusive of wanting a better America. The troops that we say we support are fighting for their country abroad, so it is our job here at home to make sure the country they risk their lives for is one worth defending.

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the highwater marks in our country’s history and feeling pride, but anyone who thinks that America’s greatest moment was yesterday should really question their patriotism. Our country is a work in progress and real patriotism is an unquenchable, effervescent belief that if we fight for what we believe in, tomorrow will be our nation’s greatest day.

Published by Brian Bayer

With a degree in journalism from John Carroll University, Brian's post-collegiate road took him to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he spent three and a half years wearing various hats, including as a teacher, a community outreach volunteer, and a freelance writer focusing on themes of social justice, poverty, and healthcare. While bearing witness to incredible injustice and inequity, he decided to seek the solutions by returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh and to pursue a graduate degree in International Development, which he earned in 2021. He is a proud fellow of the New Leaders Council, alumni of the Johnson Leadership Portfolio program, and serves as a board member with the Sto-Rox Neighborhood Health Council. As the founder and editor-in-chief of The Progress Pages, he hopes to provide a creative outlet for innovative minds seeking to elevate progressive ideology.

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