Of Freedom, Patriotism, and American Exceptionalism
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Those lines from our National Anthem reflect what has been felt by most Americans over the years; that this country is the land of the free, and precisely because of those who are brave.
There has historically been a sense of pride in the level of freedom and liberty afforded Americans; a time when our National Anthem reflected a grateful people who lived in relative freedom from government coercion and tyranny. And as a people, we were proud of our heritage of liberty. But two new polls reflect a drastic change in how we view our freedom, and our pride in being Americans. There is perhaps no better time, than the celebration of our Independence Day, to reflect on what it means to be an American.
Just eight years ago, when Americans were asked in a Gallup poll how they felt about their individual liberty, 92% were satisfied, and felt they were living the American dream of optimal personal freedom. At the time, that was enough to earn the United States of America the top ranking, globally, in personal freedom. In just a few short years, Americans have responded to the same question in ways that reflects the diminution of liberty that comes from expansive government intrusion and a floundering economy that severely restricts economic freedom. We now rank #36 in the world, according to Gallup this week.
We were not the only nation to experience such a precipitous drop in our sense of freedom. Other countries that experienced comparable declines were Egypt, Greece, Italy, Venezuela, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Romania, Yemen, Pakistan, and Spain.
Certainly a significant contributor to this deterioration is the rise of governmental power and the micromanagement of nearly every aspect of our lives. Governments, and those who wield power within them, are historically the culprits in coercive erosion of freedom. But another component is likely economic, as it’s hard to feel free when jobs are scarce, good-paying jobs are even more scarce, and when the middle-class in America has taken a 9% trimming in real median household income, from $54,489 at the end of 2007, to $50,020 last year.
Perhaps even more disconcerting than the perceived erosion of our liberties, is what was revealed in an extensive typology survey released last week by Pew Research. One of their shocking findings in their 187-page paper researching American attitudes was that a full 44% of us are not proud to be Americans. They separated polling groups by substrata of political self-identification, but in the conglomerate, 60% of “strong liberals” answered “no” to the question of whether they “often feel proud to be American.” The only groups that solidly agreed with the statement were those on the conservative side, from 72-81%.
Patriotism is now quantified as a dying trait of 21st century Americans. There was a time not long ago when in spite of ideological differences, the common glue holding our nation, society, and culture together was a shared love of country, a commitment to leave her better than we inherited her. We recognized that we were all Americans, and that we were a unique nation established upon fundamentally correct principles recognizing the equality of man because of our God-given inalienable rights.
Reflect on how the nation coalesced for a time after the attack at Pearl Harbor, or even more recently, after the attacks of 9/11. As a nation we were unified with a love of country, a patriotic fervor, and a determination to overcome all obstacles and enemies that stood in the way of our perpetuity as a free and prospering nation. Flags, patriotic bumper stickers, and unifying messages on signs and placards were virtually omnipresent. Such unity is predictable from people filled with the American spirit, when we feel we are at risk and fighting for our survival.
I would submit that we are still fighting for our survival, and the risks are no less onerous or menacing now than they were in 1941 or 2001. But even more than those exogenous threats to our physical existence, the policies of governance today, which are so intuitively antithetical to those upon which the nation was founded, are a fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson’s fear. As he said, “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” The greatest threat unraveling America today is domestic, and ideologically driven.
There is nothing erudite or chic to those who harbor antipathy toward America. It may indicate some deep psychological maladies, but it’s certainly not “cool.” Not only is it possible to love America and all she stands for while still being critical of politicians and policy, but I think that’s what is meant by dissent being the ultimate form of patriotism: a devotion to America and a commitment to her perpetuity so great that we speak out in opposition to those policies that we’re convinced challenge the unique position America bears as an ensign of freedom to the world.
There are some incontrovertible facts about America that must be recognized across the entire political spectrum, for they are historical verities. For example, we all should recognize that for the first time in history, a nation, even this nation, was created by people, for people, based on a series of principles and tenets recognized to be God-given, not government bestowed. As James Madison said regarding the patriots who founded this nation, “Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society.”
For the first time in history, a group of agrarian subjects united to throw off the tyranny of their monarch, and establish a new nation founded in the notion that rights are not simply granted by the ruler, but by God. And that since they were granted by God, they were inalienable, meaning that they were unable to be separated, surrendered, or transferred. And that among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the essence of American exceptionalism.
Even those who engage in national self-loathing, lamenting America as the cause of all the world’s grief, must recognize the power behind a country founded on the principle that for a government of free people to be legitimate, its powers must be derived from the consent of the governed.
America’s greatness is not based in an arrogant presumption of supremacy on our part, but on a recognition of our unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, distinctive political and religious institutions, and of America’s qualitative dissimilarity from all other nations. It is not arrogance to claim greatness in this young republic; it is historical and empirical fact. Our Declaration reduced government from master to servant for the first time in history, regardless of the fact that the role has in recent years been reversed.
Our United States of America is not perfect. No temporal entity operated by man can be, yet the principles upon which this country is founded are fundamentally correct, based in freedom and individual liberty, and the resulting government by and for the people, at one time was the best on earth.
Patriotism is not a matter of waving a flag, but is rather manifest in how we talk of America, and how we treat her and our fellow citizens. Adlai Stevenson admonished us that our patriotism should not be “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
In this context, to be true patriots, we don’t just fly our flag on the 4th of July, but we live lives of dedication to preserving this land, and passing it on to later generations in better condition than we received it from our forbearers. To fail in this most basic task is to fail as Americans.
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” To which we answer unwaveringly, “Yes!”
Associated Press award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho and is a graduate of Idaho State University with degrees in Political Science and History and coursework completed toward a Master’s in Public Administration. He can be reached at [email protected].