Symbols and patriotism

As a progressive, I lament that fellow liberals have granted US conservatives near exclusive ownership over the symbols of patriotism. After all, why does the flag have to mean: “Insufficiently low marginal tax rates.”? Or “Health care is a privilege, not a right”? Or “We believe in limiting the rights of gay people”?

Yet these symbols have clearly been co-opted. A Harvard Kennedy School of Government Study in 2011 concluded that participation in Fourth of July events - parades, fireworks displays - all full of patriotic symbolism - increase potential voters’ identification with Repulican candidates and increases their likelihood of voting for Republican candidates. Furthermore, US Republican voters are more likely than liberals to claim their pride as a US citizen.[1]

What is “the best”?

In my experience, one of the most striking empirical differences between liberals and conservatives on the subject of patriotism, is the unwillingness of the latter to openly question the idea of American exceptionalism. Ask a conservative: “Is the US the greatest country in the world?” and the answer is almost always an emphatic affirmative. Ask a liberal; and the response is more nuanced. “Yes, but the NSA spies on our own citizens. And we’re still unlawfully detaining people at Guantánamo Bay.”

What does it mean to be “the best”?

Best at education? Hardly. On a widely applied, validated examination, US students were well below average.[2]

Best at health care? Wrong again. Our infant mortality rates are higher than in most developed countries. Even among adults, the improvement in mortality rates year-over-year shows signs of a plateau. This plateau is not evident in similar data from Sweden and Australia.[3]

But we have our freedom, right? Sure, like every country in Europe - most of whom outperform us in education and healthcare. And most of those countries don’t feel the need to spy on their own citizens.

OK, well, we’re the happiest. Wrong again. We ranked 17th in the UN World Happiness Report 2013.[4]

###The unexamined life###

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living” meaning that there’s no instrinsic value in living an existence without the introspection that yields personal growth and development. In the same way, unquestioned American exceptionalism does no one any good. We need to let go of our Cold War beliefs and look critically at where we find ourselves now in history. Other countries are passing us by in productivity, education, health care, happiness, and environmental sensitivity.

Preference for symbols

There is a particular disorder in the preference for the symbol over the thing that it represents. No less sad is the preference for an obsolete meaning of a symbol. If flags, fireworks, parades, and lapel pins once meant American exceptionalism, it is objectively wrong to make that association today.

Data, rationalism, and a way forward

Only awareness of objective data about our international standings and rational evaluation of their causes can drive us out of the doldrums of confused patriotic symbology. We must ask ourselves critically what it means to be the best. What strongly-held opinions are slowing our progress? What have other countries figured out that we’re missing?

Every assumption must be questioned.


  1. Gallup poll, 2013 This poll published in 2013 showed that 89% of self-identified conservatives are extremely proud to be an American citizen, in contrast to 76% of US liberals surveyed.

  2. U.S Students Slide in Global Ranking on Math, Reading, Science The Program for International Student Assessment, PISA, collects data on 65 countries and ranks countries by their students’ academic performance. In mathematics, 29 countries outperformed the US.

  3. N Engl J Med 2010; 362:98-99

  4. UN World Happiness Report, 2013 The top 5 countries in order are: Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Sweden.