Why do so many Americans consider themselves more patriotic than most other Americans?
Independence Day is a perfect occasion to reflect on some of the more curious aspects of what we call American patriotism.
Most of us — 60 percent, according to a poll of a few years ago — consider ourselves just as patriotic as the next guy. But fully one-third of Americans say they are more patriotic than most other people. Forty-three percent of Republicans and 51 percent of self-described Tea Party types feel that way.
This sense of superior patriotism is also far more common among senior citizens than among younger folks. It’s also far more common among people who are especially critical of the federal government or highly critical of President Obama.
Some of these same folks are quick to embrace any theory, no matter how far-fetched, that Obama is not sufficiently patriotic.
A few years ago, for example, a big deal was made of the news that Obama would not be attending the traditional Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
But the critics were hypocritical on several counts. They ignored the fact that George H.W. Bush skipped the Arlington ceremonies in each of his four years as president. And they said nothing about Ronald Reagan snubbing the Arlington doings on four of the eight Memorial Days during his presidency. (He was at his California ranch or something.)
The worst part of this knock on Obama’s patriotism was that it ignored the fact that he attended Memorial Day services that year at a military cemetery in Chicago.
Such phony impugnations of Obama’s Americanism are part and parcel of what I call “competitive patriotism” — the curious penchant among some people to cast themselves or their groups as more patriotic than thou, as if love of country is a competition. My flag is bigger than yours. I get bigger goosebumps than you do when I hear the National Anthem. I love America more than you do.
Republican politicians are far more likely than their Democratic counterparts to let everyone know that their patriotism is boundless. They do that, I’m sure, because they sense that their political base is largely comprised of these competitive patriots.
Mitt Romney carried this penchant to ludicrous lengths one day last year when he offered this bit of gibberish: “I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.”
The proclivity among some people to brag about their patriotism has always struck me as phony. I prefer American historian Maurice Garland Fulton’s definition: “True patriotism is quiet, simple, dignified; it is not blatant, verbose, vociferous.”
Another worthy definition came from Adlai Stevenson II in a speech 61 years ago this month at an American Legion convention:
“We talk a great deal about patriotism. What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility which will enable America to remain master of her power — to walk with it in serenity and wisdom, with self-respect and the respect of all mankind; a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”