We know patriotism, right? Fly the flag, stand respectfully as it passes, applaud when uniformed soldiers are introduced, and zestfully sing: “I’m proud to be an American.”
Patriotism is love of country, and we should delight in celebrating our democracy, individual freedoms, diverse culture, stunning landscapes and, as the song says, fruited plains.
But patriotism is more than a shoutout for Old Glory or a standing-O for those who serve America in ways that most putting their hands together will never do, by choice. Patriotism is also respect for democratic institutions, a desire to make America better and a passion to defend against national threats.
Like democracy, patriotism itself needs regular checkups, especially now with an ever-widening social chasm that will surely become more pronounced through this election year. More and more, it seems, less and less attention is paid to citizens’ obligations in a democracy.
The military is part of all this, but so is every agency and bureau, and every court, public advocacy group and political party. “Thank you for your service” is deserved by all who choose public service at every level, elected and otherwise.
If you’ve ever told someone to “love America or leave it,” or called government “them,” or criticized political parties without even attending a caucus, then maybe your “patriotism” needs that checkup.
In the Pledge of Allegiance we affirm loyalty to the flag “and to the republic for which it stands,” without giving much thought to what the republic itself stands for.
The Declaration proclaims individual rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as basic to our nation, and the U.S. Constitution decrees that “We the People” commit to “form a more perfect union, establish justice … provide for the common defense [and] promote the general welfare.”
While democracy implies majority rule, our Bill of Rights uniquely protects against “tyranny of the majority” by guaranteeing individual and minority freedoms, including speech, assembly and worship.
To guard against autocratic power accumulation “checks and balances” limit authority among three purposely separate branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial).
Citizens elect a government “of, by and for the people,” making government profoundly “we.” Labeling it “they” sorely diminishes the profound duty of citizenship.
“An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic,” Thomas Jefferson said of that profound responsibility. Voters in any democracy must know something about those they vote for and about the offices they seek.
Public education’s bedrock purpose is to instill appreciation for our republic’s core values, together with an understanding of how public policy is formed and implemented. Once, schools and universities taught what we need to know about the nation and our role in it: History, humanities, civics, sociology, philosophy. But pressure to prepare students for focused career specialties has pushed liberal arts funding aside, especially over the last decade.
Shockingly, recent surveys from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania show that a third of American adults could not name one of government’s three branches. Nearly 40% could not name one guarantee in the Bill of Rights. And a quarter didn’t know which party controls each house of Congress.
Meanwhile, there are those in America who understand well just how government works, and their purpose is mostly to advance private, not public, interests. The big corporations, defense contractors, Wall Street financial firms and the ultrawealthy all enjoy direct access to power through well-funded lobbies and generous campaign giving.
Then, too, there is that “revolving door” where folks take government jobs with no desire for a public-service career. Rather, they seek insight into how government works and contacts, the better to go on to earn impressive incomes lobbying the very government they worked for — this time to benefit narrow special interests.
There is a reason why the U.S. has dangerous income disparities, why taxes on wealth have dramatically decreased, and why those with income from capital gains pay far lower taxes, as a percentage, than the rest of us.
Regrettably, most citizens live in a billowing bubble of indifference, unwittingly ceding power granted to “we the people” to those who prosper at the public’s expense.
Too often the general public satisfies its patriotic longings in giddy public displays whenever someone in a military uniform is introduced at a ballgame, often as a hero. All public service deserves respect, but donning camo is not ipso facto heroic.
Heroism is risking one’s personal safety to save another — diving into rushing water to save a stranger, flying an evacuation helicopter into a “hot fire” zone. We’re grateful to those who spend duty time in dangerous, distant places (not only the military); God bless them and all who have sacrificed.
But heroism isn’t a career as an army recruiter, or cataloging supplies at a National Guard base, or touring with the U.S. Army Chorus, or sitting in comfort while “flying” a heavily armed drone on a bombing run 7,000 miles away.
So, what does this have to do with democracy or patriotism?
In his 1961 Farewell Address, President Dwight Eisenhower famously beseeched the nation to guard against an outsized “military-industrial complex” (excessive arms spending, he also said, is taxpayer theft).
As a five-star general and World War II commander, “Ike” well understood how postwar euphoria might propel massive defense spending that would overwhelm social needs.
“Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals,” Eisenhower said, adding: “We want democracy to survive for all generations to come.”
Eisenhower was ignored.
At nearly $2 billion per day, U.S. defense spending equals the combined military budgets of Russia, China, India, the United Kingdom, Japan, France and Saudi Arabia. U.S. military outposts are artfully littered in every state, effectively assuring congressional support (politicians abhor base closings). In addition to its worldwide network of bases, the U.S. leads in arms exports, scattering lethal weapons to nations said to be strategic or friendly, at least for now.
The U.S. has as many aircraft carriers as all other nations combined — a score of them the nuclear mega-machines with crews of 3,200. Each $13 billion ship costs $1 million daily to operate, carries 80 aircraft costing $50 million to $80 million each, and when sailing is escorted by seven ships with crews of thousands more.
The U.S. has long-range missiles and fleets of stealth bombers ($100 million each) and technically advanced drones ($28 million each) that enable near-instant strike capability anywhere without sending ground troops.
Having all that firepower is incentive to use it. The well-connected Project for a New American Century think tank, formed in 1997, advocated using a dominating military to establish global supremacy, under the high-sounding subterfuge of spreading democracy. Its first goal, to topple Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, was done under “faux” pretext after 9/11, with key Project members in high government posts (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz among them; former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota was a founder).
Saddam went down in 2003, adding fuel to the Middle East cauldron of instability, forever wars and unimaginable population displacement. Tension with Iran is flaring anew, the Afghanistan war is now our history’s longest. Syria is a chaotic killing field, and U.S. global influence is tanking. So much for gaining “global leadership” with bombs.
Yet, the defense-contractor lobby and its congressional allies combine to expand already-staggering defense budgets with support boosted by every targeted campaign contribution — and by every wild cheer for the uniform. The patriotic dedication of those who serve is not in question, but the “military-industrial complex” uses boisterous support for the camouflage to help grease skids for yet more defense spending.
National defense is necessary, of course, but conspicuously excessive defense budgets rob from other critical priorities, as Eisenhower said.
We the People have mostly stood down in our patriotic duty. We might do well to remember what Abraham Lincoln identified as the dangers faced by democracy.
“If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln said, “we must be ourselves its author and finisher.”
He added: “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Ron Way lives in Edina. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.