After 9/11 highs, America's back to good ol' patriotism

Christine Finch feels patriotic every time she enters a voting booth.

"Jefferson and Washington are in there with me," says the water-conservation worker from Richmond, Calif. "Americans took a risk [230] years ago, and I'm reaping the benefits."

With many Americans, as with Ms. Finch, there's a timelessness to their thoughts on patriotism. In Monitor interviews conducted during the July 4 weekend, words such as "love" and "loyalty" toward America flow easily, as do expressions of belief in the ideals of freedom and democracy. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the latest global survey on "national pride," a close cousin of patriotism, found that Americans ranked No. 1 among the 34 democracies polled.

"We've always been at or near the top," going back at least 50 years, says Tom Smith, author of the report released last week by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Of the 10 areas the survey gauged, the United States ranked highest in five – pride in its democracy, its political influence, economy, science, and military. (The other five areas were history, sports, arts/literature, fair and equal treatment of groups, and social security system.) Given America's status as the world's only superpower, the top overall ranking comes as little surprise, says Mr. Smith. The surveys were conducted in 2003 and 2004.

Now, in the summer of 2006, with the Iraq war, immigration, and the American flag occupying political discourse, a snapshot of US patriotism looks more tempered. A Gallup poll released July 3 finds that American national pride has sunk back to pre-9/11 levels, with 57 percent of Americans saying they are "extremely proud" to be American, compared with 55 percent in January 2001. Among the seven subsequent Gallup surveys asking that question, the high point for "extremely proud" was 70 percent in June 2003.

Fervor declines from post-9/11 highs

The numbers have declined among all political subgroups: Conservatives have declined from an average of 79 percent "extremely proud" in the 2002-2004 period to 71 percent today. Moderates are 56 percent "extremely proud" today versus 68 percent in '02-'04. And liberals are down to 40 percent "extremely proud" today, from 55 percent before.

Still, when the "very proud" column (25 percent overall today) is added to "extremely proud," the picture is clear: American national pride remains healthy. In interviews conducted in Boston, Nashville, Tenn., and Marin County, Calif., Americans demonstrated a range of attitudes toward patriotic expression.

"I'm proud to be an American, but that doesn't mean I have faith in the government," says Steve Williams of Shawnee, Okla., on vacation in Boston with his family. "There was a sense of not saying anything negative about the war because of patriotism. I think it's become evident that there needs to be some strong, critical debate about getting our troops to safety."

"I think we need to realize that there's a lot of different views in the world besides ours," adds Mr. Williams, echoing recent surveys showing that America's reputation in the world has continued to decline. "We need to be a little more tolerant of people's opposing views."

Lexi Roig, a seven-year-old from Methuen, Mass., in Boston with her family, sported an American flag on the cast on her leg. "Lexi's very patriotic," says her father, Alex Roig. "She wanted to see John Kerry on her birthday [and] dress as John Kerry for Halloween," he adds, referring to the senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

Mr. Roig then throws in his own two cents about the war: "I back it no matter what. You can agree or disagree with the president, but you have to stand behind the troops."

Ralph Key, a retired police officer in Nashville, prefers to wear his patriotism on his chest: He is wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with one word: "America." But, he says, he demonstrates his American pride by living as a hardworking, responsible American.

Patriotism is "honoring your country, doing what's right," says Mr. Key, who served stateside during the Vietnam war as a musician in an Army band. "I don't have any liberal wool over my eyes," adds Key, a supporter of President Bush and the Iraq war. "As a conservative, you have to stand up for what's right."

Tim Copeland, a loan officer from Nashville, describes patriotism as "loving your country, being loyal to your country, and believing in the ideals that we have here ... [including] freedom, democracy, and freedom of speech."

"I love America. It's the greatest country in the world," says Mr. Copeland, speaking outside a Kroger's grocery store. "There's no other place I'd rather live.... I'm just really proud of America for all we've achieved in a very short time. We're a very young country."

Copeland points to the nation's high standard of living, which allows Americans to share their wealth and help less-fortunate nations. He draws a sense of patriotism from the war and believes it is for a just cause, but he says he would like to see soldiers come home soon.

In Marin County, Calif., where Senator Kerry took 74 percent of the vote in 2004, locals agree that America has many fine attributes, but the term "patriotism" makes some skeptical. "Patriotism makes it sound like our country is better than your country. That starts a lot of wars," says Laura Sottile, shopping in Mill Valley, a town north of San Francisco. Ms. Sottile, a first-generation Italian-American, isn't a fan of American flags on homes, either. "It limits you," she says. "I prefer the flags that show the earth or butterflies."

Michael Knotz, a social worker, worries that patriotism lets Americans set themselves apart from the rest of the world. "To me, the way that patriotism is understood is very narrow-minded," he says, enjoying a coffee drink in downtown Mill Valley.

Mr. Knotz says he believes in a kind of global patriotism – although he acknowledges that his philosophy sounds a bit "Northern California touchy-feely."

If the Monitor interviewees, selected at random, have fallen into certain regional stereotypes, that may in fact reflect the Gallup finding – that American national pride has returned to its pre-9/11 state. The next question, heading into this fall's elections, is whether Republicans will succeed again in using "patriotism" as a wedge issue against Democrats.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, notes in his new book, "Talking Right," that briefly in 2001, patriotism seemed to unite America. But ultimately, he writes, 9/11 "confirmed it as the property of the right."

In the 2004 elections, "the Republicans had no trouble asserting their own patriotism; it was automatic that they were patriotic," says Professor Nunberg. "So they didn't really have to defend themselves against charges of being unpatriotic" the way the Democrats did.

Democrats need to push a mission

Today, Nunberg says, the answer for Democrats is not to fly the flag more ostentatiously. "They have to reclaim patriotism in a new sense of American mission," he says. "Certainly, [Franklin] Roosevelt during the New Deal or [Harry] Truman didn't have a problem presenting themselves as patriotic."

Todd Gitlin, in his book "The Intellectuals and the Flag," calls for a renewed "liberal patriotism" based on sacrifice and participation in public life – not mere armchair negativism. He points to the wave of Democratic military vets running for office as an example. He also cites the nonpartisan group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and its efforts to send blood-clotting supplies to Iraq.

Sometimes, says Tricia Dela Paz, a nurse in Sacramento, Calif., patriotism means things as little as picking up your trash. "It's doing your part to make sure your country is a better place to live in," says Ms. Dela Paz, who immigrated earlier this year from the Philippines. She is not a US citizen, but she plans to become one.

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