Presidents’ Day in a Fractured Republic

Presidents’ Day in a Fractured Republic
AP Photo/J. David Ake, File

The first Presidents’ Day of the Donald Trump era finds the country in the midst of what could be a steep increase in political division and fractiousness. But it is more than just a widening of the polarization between left and right, or an extra-long bitterness of a surprise election shock along with a president breaking new ground in executing the duties of the office. Conservatives remain as divided and disoriented over Trump as they were during the campaign season. But more than just Trump, conservatives are arguing amongst themselves about how Trump is catalyzing the revival of American nationalism.

Nationalism has been in a foul odor for a long time, seen as a cause of wars, chauvinism, and ethnic strife. American style patriotism—sometimes understood as “American exceptionalism”—has always been a remedy for the pitfalls of nationalism. But many liberals disdain American patriotism, too, in favor of a cosmopolitan transnationalism. That is one of the cultural affectations that Trump exploited so effectively in his campaign. Maybe the time is overdue for a recovery of an older American patriotism, which is not necessarily the same thing as nationalism.

The political philosopher Harry Jaffa argued that “Patriotism is civic friendship. Patriotism is the link between justice and friendship in its purest or transpolitical form.” But he also warned: “Those who see each other as utterly alien cannot be fellow citizens.” We’re close to that point where groups of Americans no longer recognize what we have in common with other Americans who hold different opinions on a range of issues. In his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson celebrated that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Today this necessary condition of common citizenship is in peril.

Ronald Reagan liked to talk about what he called “informed patriotism,” by which he meant the self-conscious recollection of the fact that an American is a patriot not merely because he was born here, but because of the ideals of the country which makes it possible for anyone, as millions of immigrant have, to become an American in the meaningful sense of the term. “Europe was created by history,” Margaret Thatcher observed, but “America was created by philosophy.”

One of the better guides to meaningful patriotism is Walter Berns’s last book, Making Patriots. Berns noted that patriotism “is not natural, but has to be taught, or inculcated, or somehow acquired.” American patriotism is based on ideas, a fact best grasped by noting that, as Martin Diamond once pointed out, the terms “Americanism,” Americanization,” and “un-American” have no equivalents in other countries. “This is not by chance,” Berns noted, “or a matter of phonetics—Swissism? Englishization?—or mere habit. What would a Frenchman have to do in order to justify being labeled un-French? . . . An American patriot is a better patriot than a Spartan who loves his country simply because it's his country and doesn't know anything else.” Here I think we can begin to make out the distinction between nationalism however understood, and American patriotism.

Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns, who died coincidentally on the same day two years ago after decades of feuding with each other, found themselves in close agreement on this important subject. Both men liked to direct students to a particular passage from Abraham Lincoln’s eulogy to Henry Clay in 1852: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country, and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature.”

What are some of the core ideas that have become lost or confused? The central idea is equality, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and reaffirmed by Lincoln at Gettysburg. The idea of equality at the time of the founding was rooted in the equality of natural rights, which required respecting unequal results based on individual differences of effort and talent.

Today the principle of equality has slipped its moorings, and has become the scourge of our time, the founding modern principle for every conceivable grievance and demand for redress. The effacement of the distinction between natural rights and positive rights has opened the door to the endless expansion of “rights,” with the ultimate object of creating a “right” to other people’s property and, increasingly, and even the “right” to control other people’s speech. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted the passion for equality would become a “delirium,” in which equality would trump liberty: “But for equality they have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery.” When groups or individuals make equality the basis for making claims and demands for the property of fellow citizens, the reality of common citizenship comes to an end.

At the time of the founding, several state constitutions began with the injunction, first voiced by George Mason, that “a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” is necessary for the preservation of liberty and self-government. Presidents’ Day is a good time to take in this advice once again. Otherwise, the day will become yet another occasion for further division and erosion of our common citizenship.

Steven F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, and the author of Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Redefined American Conservatism, published this week by Encounter Books.

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