Leftist Democrats are struggling to come to grips with the extent to which pride in one’s country is becoming almost antithetical to the politics of the Left. There is a real sense of shame that Trump is our president, and there is a clear understanding that showing too much pride in Trump’s America would amount to a tacit acceptance of “the way things are.”
With kids in “concentration camps” and tanks rolling through Washington DC this July 4th, many feel more embarrassed and ashamed than patriotic. But on July 4th, we are supposed to set our politics aside and come together in a show of unity to celebrate our country. The cognitive dissonance on the Left today is almost unbearable.
Those on the Left must simultaneously protest and support the country they live in. Some have decided to stay home in protest. Others have struck a deal internally: maybe they will just go to the parade and skip the fireworks, or skip the parade and go to the fireworks, or skip all the pomp and just hang out by the grill during the family BBQ. But still, there is a sense of unease about this day, especially with all of the crude nationalistic imagery that Trump is adding to the ordeal with his tanks and military speeches. Leftist Democrats still want to celebrate some version of America, just not this version of America.
How do we pull this off?
The Right is quick to claim that Leftists are not patriotic, which is not true. The Left is critical of America and American myths of our founding fathers, especially when the retelling of these myths omits the inconvenient narratives of slavery which undercut the otherwise noble pursuit of freedom that these retellings emphasize. But being critical of one’s own country does not necessarily mean one is not also proud of the achievements of society and cultures within their country. There are of course, some Leftists for whom the sting of past injustice inhibits any feelings of pride in American identity. But for the majority of Leftists, this sting is also a helpful guide to what still needs to be done to make our Union “more perfect.” It is Patriotic to want to improve America.
The difficulty arises when our July 4th parades are infused with nationalistic rhetoric and cliché imagery that makes it impossible for the nuances of Leftist politics to shine through. There is simply no place for those on the Left in the jingoism of the celebrations this year, whether they be small-town parades or large city firework displays.
Some on the Left have responded to this state of affairs by attempting to reclaim the language of nationalism from the Right and spin into a vision of a better future. Why let the Right co-opt our symbols and national myths to suit their own partisan agendas? We can take those myths back and spin them to fit our own narrative. Leadership often involves behaving as if the desired future outcome is already the reality. In that sense, Democrats, and especially the Democratic candidates in the 2020 election race, must put forward a positive vision of an America that we can be proud of, a vision that makes room for a Democratic agenda within the nationalistic clichés of American life.
This is the spirit in which Elizabeth Warren announced her much anticipated Economic Patriotism plan last month, which involves ramping up investment in domestic manufacturing operations and technological innovations, subsidizing the export of American goods abroad, and building the infrastructure that will create jobs for working-class America. In short, she wants to spur economic growth using government funds to invest in manufacturing, which economists call economic nationalism. Her choice of the term Patriotism instead of Nationalism in the naming of her plan was a tactical move. Part of her goal is to reboot the sense of pride in one’s country that has been lagging on the Left recently. She also wants to reclaim the language of pride in one’s country that the Right has so firmly laid claim to. One problem here is that her attempt is running smack dab into the “America First” ethos of Trump’s economic nationalism. Switching out the word Nationalism and replacing it with Patriotism does not help much to distinguish her plan from Trump’s strategy, no matter how different they are, because it’s not clear that there is a meaningful difference between those terms to most Americans.
The problem with all of this rationalizing about the use of words and terms is that it does not address the core emotional concerns of the Democrats on this day of celebration. You can put lipstick on a pig. You can put an American flag on a Trump. But that doesn’t make this any easier.