Ever since Grenada, and even before, the phrase has been unfurling like a flag - ''The New Patriotism.'' In fact, the sale of flags has boomed. Statisticians have also noted an increase in enlistments, with the Army reporting that it satisfied 104 percent of its quota in 1983. The ROTC, once an endangered species on campus, has grown by 65 percent in the past five years, suggesting that ''The New Patriotism'' may not be quite so new.
Theodore Lowi, a professor of American civilization at Cornell, has frowned over the phrase, arguing that Americans have always been extra-powerful patriots , just waiting for the occasion to bring their Yankee Doodle emotions to the surface. In spite of Lowi's caution, patriotism, along with the idea of romantic love, seems to be positively blooming as the mid-'80s roll in.
After Grenada, the President told the country, ''What you saw 10 days ago was called patriotism,'' and amid all the controversy, nobody disputed that particular observation.
We have been talking so far about a marching beat. How naturally, how necessarily is patriotism a martial emotion?
Among the young, ''The New Patriotism'' wears the fashions of combat clothing and sports a military haircut. The prickly word ''pride,'' as used by recruiting sergeants, is back in vogue. An ROTC trainee looked the CBS-TV camera in the eye and said, ''Students take pride in wearing uniforms, and rightly so.''
A New York Times poll on the subject of patriotism disclosed a gender gap. Of the men questioned, 59 percent described themselves as ''very patriotic,'' compared with 49 percent of the women. The difference became specific when the issue was war, as in the question: ''Would you be willing to risk the destruction of the United States rather than be dominated by the Russians?'' Among the men, 62 percent answered yes, but only 48 percent of the women.
Possibly the best answer to questions like this is another question: Why do we have to assume there are only these two unacceptable alternatives? Why the either-or between ''The Day After'' and slavery?
But patriotism, by its nature, tends to simplify. In this confused century, ordinary people have been forced to become philosophers and wrestle with The Big Dilemmas. What do I believe in? What am I living for? Is there anything I would die for?
Patriotism is the quickest, most definite answer if you're fleeing ambiguity, just as a soldier is the simplest form of hero if you're looking for old-fashioned heroes. And aren't we all?
But if patriotism is, and always has been, the instant access to a value system, what price does the patriot pay for his quick surge of certainty? The cost is hinted at in the desperate assertion: ''My country, right or wrong.''
A rather large 45 percent of those polled answered yes to the question, ''Do you think that when Americans criticize the president - any American president - it hurts the country?''
Free speech is another American passion, and it indicates just how patriotic patriots can be if they are willing to forgo the national pleasure of blunt opinions openly expressed - the day-to-day essence of democracy.
The overzealous patriot may give up even the supreme American privilege of humor. He will not be able to enjoy James Russell Lowell's poem, ''The Pious Editor's Creed,'' or at least the line where that satirist writes, ''Uncle Sam I reverence,'' thus hinting in all good humor that the excessive patriot may be directing toward country the feeling he should reserve for God.
At its extreme, ''The New Patriotism'' has begun to raise a number of practical concerns among the most loyal Americans. When you are waving the flag, are you inclined to neglect other less exciting duties of state and turn life into a parade? Can runaway patriotism inadvertently sacrifice the domestic needs of the society it is so determined to protect? Walter Mondale appears ready to bring up the question in his campaign.
Pope John Paul II seemed to challenge patriotism on similar grounds when he remarked at Christmas just after a rousing performance by an Italian military band: ''Look with the eyes of the newborn child upon the men and women who are dying of hunger while enormous sums are being spent on weapons.''
This is the ultimate risk that patriotism runs. All that pride, all that heady excitement from standing tall can distract us from an equally universal emotion: compassion.
''The New Patriotism'' may look good after the Age of Me, but not if it turns into a too-exclusive Age of Us.
One can play just so many tunes on the drum and bugle. Patriotism is a virtue , but only when it is balanced against other virtues and grows into something beyond itself.
As the flags wave extra enthusiastically, it may be a suitable time to remind ourselves of the obvious - that the brotherhood of men and the sisterhood of women transcend national identity. With Christmas still fresh in the memory, we may remember that we have been instructed to love far more than just our fellow countrymen as we love ourselves.