Patriotism has been lower in recent decades and it continues a steady decline in the United States. It’s even lower in some other Western countries, such as Britain and Germany. And of course, patriotism drops lower and lower as one looks down the generations. The youngest Americans, going back many years, are split on the issue. Many of them have a positive opinion of other countries. It isn’t that most of them believe America is a bad place but that they see it as one decent country among many other worthy countries. It’s less of an us-vs-them attitude. It’s a sign that Cold War dogmatism is fading away, while the older generations die off to be replaced by those who have little to no memory of the prior century of ideological conflict and imperialistic hyper-nationalism.
Much of this has to do with each new generation having increasing rates of immigration, a trend beginning with Generation X. A large number of young Americans are immigrants, have immigrant parents, have traveled internationally, regularly interact with foreigners/foreign-born, follow international news, and are well educated. The young simply have more knowledge and experience of the world outside of the United States and that experience is personal and often positive. They are less likely to see foreign lands as scary places and foreign people as threatening. In general, increasing diversity contributes to a worldview of social liberalism, particularly for the generations that grow up in that diversity as a normal experience. It’s simply the process of Americans growing familiar with the larger world they are part of. We are finally fulfilling the revolutionary promise of our country’s founding, in slowly coming to an identity as citizens of the world, something more than a few of the American founders espoused.
To help understand this shift, it might be useful to study Joseph Heinrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World. Also, a historical perspective might be needed to understand what patriotism has meant across the generations and centuries. Americans are among the most WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) and we have been the most patriotic of the WEIRD countries, often far more patriotic than non-WEIRD countries (particularly in Asia). That still majority-held patriotism, however declining, might seem odd in this context of a society born out of Enlightenment liberalism and revolutionary radicalism. We now associate patriotism with conservatism. But it’s easy to forget that large-scale nationalism was a modern invention. In its original form, the nation-state as an ideological power structure challenged the local authority of the feudal ruling elite. It helped overthrow the ancien regime and paved the way for democratic reforms and civil rights.
In the centuries prior to the rise of fascism and other regressive forms of statism, nationalism was linked to creating unity in divese multicultural societies. It sometimes was a force of tolerance, egalitarianism, and universalism. All citizens were equal, in theory. The modern nation-state emerged out of the colonial empires that had unleashed a mixing of populations like never before. Let’s look at the origins of American culture. Once a British government was created, a British identity had to be formed out of that immense mixture of people with their own separate cultural traditions (English, Irish, Scottish, Scots-Irish, Welsh, Palatine Germans, etc). One of the places that diversity took hold early on was in the American colonies, several of which had the ethnically English as a minority. The Pennsylvania Colony had so many non-English speakers that official announcements had to be printed in multiple languages. That diversity increased with mass immigration once America became a separate country. Without a shared tradition of ethnic culture, Americans too had to invent a new collective identity.
Patriotic nationalism was related to Whiggish progressivism that has a bit of a bad reputation now, but was extremely liberal for its time. The WEIRD forces, such as literacy, have typcally been associated with increasing liberalism and one might note that nationally-mandated public education was central to this process, often initially motivated by the radically new Protestant nation-states that promoted not only education and literacy but also individualism. A progressive impulse toward reform, in general, has long gone hand in hand with nationalism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a devout nationalist and the New Deal was part of the patriotic fervor that fed into the Cold War vision of America as a societal project not only in defense of freedom but also committed to social responsibility. The Civil Rights movement was able to succeed because it tapped into this increasingly powerful progressive nationalism that held up the WEIRD ideals of egalitaranism, fairness, and justice.
The context has changed over time. In the past, traditionalists, conservatives, and reactionaries often were critics of nationalism in upholding more local identities of kinship, ethnicity, religion, community, and regionalism — even to the point of seeking to secede by attacking the federal government to start the American Civil War because they saw nationalism as a threat to local power, authority, and identity. Now the ideological descendants of those anti-nationalists have become the strongest nationalists. That is common. Much of what is considered conservative today was once radically liberal. And as the political right embraces what liberals fought for in the past, this opens a space for liberals to push further into unknown ideological territory. So, conservatives today are more liberal than liberals were a century ago. That is how nationalism became normalized and, through revisionist history, became an invented tradition of nostalgia. It was treated as if it had always existed, the living memory of its origins having disappeared from the public mind.
So, even though patriotic nationalism was once a liberalizing force, as it became established, it has since often been seen as a reactionary force. The liberal impulse of WEIRD societies pushes toward ever larger collective identities. Nationalism used to serve that purpose of creating a shared liberal identity in a liberal society. But now nationalism has come to be used for xenophobic reasons in attacking, rather than in welcoming, immigrants. As each following young generation embraces ever more liberalism, progressivism and social democracy (even socialism as well), the WEIRD mentality grows stronger and the desire for a greater universal identity ever more takes hold. People don’t lose the desire for group belonging nor feel less loyalty, but the shared identites grow larger and more inclusive over time.
Patriotic nationalism is still holding strong and yet quickly weakening as something else appears on the horizon. We are living in the equivalent of the late Middle Ages when the enclosure movement eroded the foundation of feudalism, but few could imagine that it would be replaced or with what. Such societal transformations caused anxiety for some and hope for others. It’s maybe unsurprising that the younger generations who are the least patriotic are also the most optimistic about the future, as they embrace what is new. The Amercan identity has always been vague and amorphous. It was constantly shifting right from the start. Some generations forget this history, but it has a way of forcing its way back into the public mind and, in doing so, inspiring radical imagination. If nothing else is certain, to be American has meant adapting to change. Young Americans don’t hate America. They just have a different and maybe larger sense of what they love.