Talk about patriotism comes up frequently in the American political arena. Too often I get the feeling that politicians use the term to try to convince voters they’re more patriotic than their opponents, that their party is more patriotic than the other party. We need to broaden our understanding and expression of the concept, because it’s central to securing America’s future.

One of the more common contexts in which Americans talk about patriotism is when we express support of our men and women in military service. Acknowledging and showing appreciation for those who disrupt their lives and risk death is very important. Honoring those who serve in our armed forces acknowledges the benefits all Americans get when young men and women put their lives on the line to defend our nation. It is good; it is patriotic to do so.

One particular experience illustrated for me how important it is to show such appreciation in a genuinely sincere way. I met an elderly relative for the first time at a family reunion some 20 years ago. Conversation revealed that he had served America in World War II. I thanked him for his service and noted the sacrifices he and his family experienced. He was clearly moved by my expression of thanks, and I vowed to make a point of thanking veterans and those currently serving whenever I discovered their service status.

A common display of patriotism that goes beyond words is wearing a U.S. flag pin. For a while after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the pin became almost a literal requirement among politicians in Washington and beyond. Some fly the flag in their yard. Bumper stickers, attending Memorial Day and July 4th events, and specific clothing declare: “I am patriotic.”

It’s very appropriate and important to be patriotic in these ways, but if that’s all we do, it’s not enough. We need to broaden our actions to show patriotic support of the United States. The samples below list some ways, their variety suggests there are more.

• It’s patriotic to do the things that improve our personal health. It’s good for us as individuals and it’s good for our nation when we don’t claim unnecessary health care expenses. Both actions reduce workplace insurance costs or reduce Medicare and Medicaid costs.

• It’s patriotic to put in an honest day’s work at whatever level of business or nonprofit or governmental organization gives us a paycheck. Every honest worker helps our nation compete internationally.

• It’s patriotic to pay taxes, and it’s patriotic to expect that governmental revenue is spent wisely.

• It’s patriotic to assist individuals within our communities who need a helping hand — whether the need stems from a personal crisis (for example, extended illness or severe accident or injury) or a large-scale disaster (events like Katrina, 9/11, tornadoes).

• It’s patriotic for us to support ourselves just as much as we are able, so we don’t place unnecessary burdens on our families, community, state and nation.

• It’s patriotic for businesses to charge customers (including the government) reasonable rates above real costs.

• It’s patriotic to dialogue with an open mind even when we don’t agree with someone else’s position.

• It’s patriotic to work toward consensus, realizing that nations can be destroyed from within when partisan divisiveness replaces consensus building as the norm.

We in the U.S., like people of any nation, need a feeling of cohesion, a feeling that we are best off when we work together and support one another. Our men and women in the military certainly deserve our support. Wearing American flag pins, attending Memorial Day and July 4th events, and waving the American flag are patriotic actions. But our patriotism is most powerful when we also live our lives, every day, in ways that help our nation succeed.


Jon Oleson is a public schoolteacher and principal and a former member of the Bloomington City Council. A shorter version of this commentary appeared on his website when he ran for Congress in 2010. He is at