Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Altered Consciousness: The problem with partisan patriotism

Published: April 9, 2010
Section: Opinions

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

Conservatives and liberals seem to disagree on a huge variety of issues, to put it mildly.  Indeed, partisan battles wage on endlessly in Washington and state governments across the country.  At the heart of many of the differences between these political factions are what I would consider to be two competing conceptions of the idea of patriotism.

I would say that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, love their country, and only want it to succeed.  However, this devotion manifests itself in very different philosophical forms as one spans the right-left spectrum.

Firstly, it seems to me that patriotism for liberals means to actively seek change that will help America become a more perfect union.  These individuals are proud of their nation and what it has accomplished.  However, they also feel that there are real obstacles that prevent it from living up to its maximum potential.  Consequently, they believe that America needs to be improved in order for it to truly fulfill the core ideals it strives for, including freedom, equality, and opportunity for all.  These values, in addition to pragmatism and utilitarianism, serve as the guiding forces to enacting any kind of liberal reform.  In this sense, patriotism is a dynamic and fluid virtue that calls for energy and vigor from the citizenry and its leaders.

Conversely, conservatives believe that in order to love one’s country, one must also have a healthy and endearing respect for its institutions, values, and customs.  These people highly value the stability and constancy that is derived from the preexisting order.  As a result, they are highly suspicious of anything that would in any way disrupt this dynamic.  If conditions are so horrendous that change has to come then it should not transmogrify our country and radically alter its social fabric.  Rather, it should incrementally build upon what is already functioning and what seems natural, even at the expense of practicality.  In this sense, patriotism, while not completely devoid of vitality, values consistency over any sort of transformation.

Keeping these two definitions in mind makes it easier, in my view, to understand why our politics is so fragmented and divided.  Quite simply, we have two parties who not only virulently disagree with each other on policy, but also on philosophical issues, such as on what it means to love our country and how we should act based upon this loyalty.  Of course, there are a myriad of more tangible and political factors at play as well, but this analysis can perhaps elucidate a more theoretical basis for the traditional right-left dichotomy.

To illustrate this schism, let us use health care reform as an example.  Before any legislation passed, liberals were infuriated by the gross inequities and social injustices that plagued our health care system.  Consequently, the patriotic thing for them to do was to use whatever means necessary to fix them, prioritizing this over the value of continuity and stability resulting from the current framework.  For instance, many Democrats favor a single-payer, or Medicare-for-all model, which would undermine the health insurance market but would lead to universal coverage.

Conservatives were, in contrast, generally less incensed by these problems, and less inclined to ameliorate the situation.  Although they acknowledged the deficiencies associated with existing structures, they also believed that America had one of the best health care systems in the world.  Many thought that the costs of fundamentally reforming it could outweigh any of the benefits of such an initiative.  This, combined with a patriotic respect for the preexisting order, led to their resistance to the Democrats’ ideas.  In keeping with this mindset, the legislation they presented to Congress was far less ambitious than what the liberals suggested, and it entailed relatively minor modifications to the current system.

One may claim that by this logic, the right would support the left’s reform law, which preserves and even subsidizes and enhances institutions like say, insurance and pharmaceutical companies.  Indeed, the Democrats’ approach resembles Mitt Romney’s innovations in Massachusetts, as well as the Republican alternative to Bill Clinton’s plans in 1993.  However, conservatives primarily object to seemingly alien measures that violate the current state of affairs, such as the individual mandate and government regulations.  Liberals are, on the contrary, not very concerned with this supposed newness factor.

In conclusion then, underlying the mayhem and political chaos associated with democracy in America are truly divergent philosophies that approach ideas like patriotism in a completely non-uniform manner.