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Steven B. Smith on Reclaiming Patriotism

A new book tries to revive Americans’ love of country without going to extremes.

Bob Zadek
13 min readApr 14, 2021


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When Steven B. Smith told his Yale colleagues about the topic of the book he was working onReclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes — he was met with bewildered and even troubled looks. Perhaps they viewed patriotism (following British critic of the American Revolution Samuel Johnson) as the last refuge of scoundrels. Or perhaps something else is at work that has turned Americans off to the idea of love for one’s country. There seems to be a skepticism of our own history and national values, which in the extreme erodes any semblance of patriotism.

Smith is careful to distinguish patriotism from nationalism, which often accompanies ethnic chauvinism, while also warning against the dangers of excessive cosmopolitanism that is so fashionable among elites in academic institutions and government.

Can patriotism be reclaimed in a way that brings these two extremes of American politics closer together under one banner? It turns out a certain amount of skepticism about America can be healthy and is even part of what makes our country so great. Professor Smith helped me understand first of all why patriotism has gotten such a bad rap, and secondly, how it can be revived without stoking the flames of international conflict or invoking a dangerous “us vs. them” mentality.


Patriotism and Man at Yale

You’re at Yale. It is generally understood that in the Ivy League, patriotism does not get you invited to every important dinner party in town. I think Alan Dershowitz complained how he became a pariah over at Harvard when he became somewhat identified with Donald Trump. You’ve chosen to write a book that would mean you’re probably going to eat a lot of your meals by yourself. What prompted you to write the book?

The book, like most of the work I’ve done in the past, has grown out of my teaching. I spend my academic life mainly with students. I’ve noticed among students, there’s a great hunger to do something for their country, although their feelings are often inchoate. They don’t quite know what it means. They don’t even quite know why they want to do this but there’s a hunger to give back. They realize they’ve been the recipient of a good education, and they’ve had many benefits just being in America. They want to help but they often don’t know how to do it. Colleges and universities don’t even necessarily make it easy.

My books sort of grew out of this question, what does it mean to want to support and to defend your country? It grew out of a simple experience of trying to find a way to help students and others understand what love of country is and what loyalty to country is.

I don’t want to say that Yale is unpatriotic — that would be untrue. It’s not a question that tends to be raised by academics in our intellectual culture today. To a lot of people in academia are on the left, being regarded as patriotic is symptomatic of chauvinism. It’s symptomatic of me-first-ism — America-first-ism. It seems broadly unenlightened. It’s argued we should be citizens of the world. We should think in terms of the questions that unite humanity, not that simply focused on one nation or one people. The book was written to push back against that perspective.

Patriotism is a virtue. Patriotism is required by democratic societies. Democracies can’t afford to do without patriotism.

As far as eating alone goes, I probably haven’t done quite as much as Alan Dershowitz to make myself a pariah on my own campus, but I have to admit one of the hidden secret pleasures I had in writing the book was the look of barely repressed horror on the faces of colleagues and other university people when they asked me what I was working on, and I would say, “I’m writing a book defending patriotism.”

I haven’t been ostracized yet. Other than the COVID lockdown, I haven’t been taking an unnecessarily large number of meals by myself.

The Core of American Patriotism

What makes patriotism other than the sheer accident of birth? Are you expected to be patriotic? Is it automatic? If you’re born in Brooklyn, you’d better root for the Dodgers or else you’re a pariah. Tell me about whether a country has to earn patriotism, or whether it’s expected as a matter of the accident of birth.

My book is not a prescription for humanity.

I’m writing for Americans. American patriotism has been from the earliest times, from the 18th century, even before the Puritan founders when they came here in the 17th century, rooted in ideas and ideals about what America is. The Puritans thought of themselves as creating a new holy city based in a kind of New Jerusalem, based in the wilderness. The American Founding Fathers created the first written constitution based on ideas of freedom, equality, limited government, and so on. We have been a people of the book from the beginning. Our patriotism has a textual basis — we think of ourselves as a people of ideas.

Living up to those ideas and ideals is very important to what American patriotism is. It’s not just simply a matter of I was born here — my country, right or wrong.

“To be an American patriot is to always measure ourselves by the ideals and aspirations that we hold for ourselves as a country.”

Your plea is to forget the disagreements we may have about the issues of the day, go back to the root — to the ideals, to the concept of America. We have a common goal. We can work out how to get there. Is that an appropriate distinction to make to separate the humans from the ideal?

Particularly in America, patriotism is not loyalty to a leader, to an individual. That was very true in places like Fascist Italy, with the Duces and the Führers at the center of citizen loyalty. America has never been that kind of country. Our loyalty has been to our Constitution.

In the book, I use an older word that comes from Greek to describe a constitutional form. I call it a regime. Our loyalty and patriotism has been to a particular kind of constitutional regime. It is to a political form not to an individual.

That is not simply to say that that ideal has been a source of unity and consensus throughout American history. We have argued over 250 years exactly what our Constitution is. A great civil war was fought over exactly that fact. We continue to struggle with it even today.

“To be an American is partly to be engaged in an ongoing debate about what it means to be an American.”

I think part of our patriotism means accepting and willing to engage in that debate over what it means to be an American, and what our constitutional form, our democracy as it requires of us.

The Age of Extremes

The title of the book invites three concepts: patriotism, reclaiming, and the age of extremes. You talk about the two extremes of cosmopolitanism and nationalism. Help us understand why they are inferior, indeed adverse, to the virtue of patriotism.

Patriotism is a disposition that is required, and in fact, is indispensable for democratic societies.

On the left one finds, especially in educated and professional circles, people no longer really think of themselves primarily as citizens. That to them seems parochial. It seems old fashioned. It seems sort of unnecessary. We live in an increasingly interconnected world. We live in a globalized world made possible by travel, by trade, by all kinds of forces of modern technology, the internet and other things. Much of our time is spent dealing with issues that are not specific to our own countries. Many people think we are on the way to becoming citizens of the world. That is an old concept. It’s not a new one.

I talk about the history of cosmopolitanism in the book. It goes back to ancient times, but it has particular resonance today. Increasingly, again, we see our problems are global problems. We’re now locked down because of a global pandemic. It’s global warming. Many of our problems are genuinely global problems. It’s not a position I simply want to sneer at but it’s one that detracts from — it minimizes, if not even sort of despises — the idea that we are also citizens of particular countries with loyalties to our fellow citizens, and loyalties to what we are as a people. On the left, patriotism is challenged by what seems to be the globalization of the world.

On the right, on the other hand, patriotism is challenged by the upsurge that we’ve seen in recent years in particular of nationalism. Nationalism is an old phenomenon. It is nothing new, but it has come and gone in waves. What we’re seeing today, not only in the US but throughout the world, is a resurgence of nationalism.

Nationalism and patriotism actually grow out of a common root. They grow out of the desire of people to have their way of life, to have their country, to have their cultures strong and respected. That’s a legitimate and natural desire. Nationalism moves in a different direction from patriotism. Nationalism is an ideology of “us against them.” It becomes an ideology of grievance and resentment. Nationalist language is always looking for enemies, whether they are foreign enemies, or if they can’t find foreign enemies, domestic enemies to demonize and to villainize as somehow destructive of our national creed and beliefs.

“Nationalist language is always looking for enemies”

Nationalism and cosmopolitanism feed off of one another in an odd way. It’s very possible that the rise of nationalism has emerged in response to globalization and in a dialectical way. At the same time, nationalism has convinced many other people that we really need to double down on being cosmopolitans because we see that nationalism has an ugly side that cosmopolitans want to avoid. Patriotism is something clearly different from cosmopolitanism but it’s different from nationalism also. Nationalism and cosmopolitanism are the two alternatives — the two extremes that have put patriotism into question.

The Threat of the Other as the Justification for Nationalism

In discussing nationalism, there’s been a lot of discussion over COVID and 9/11, and the economic meltdown, that the government needs to have its constituency see a threat in order to seize more control. Once there is a threat, government power grows. Without a threat, there’s no reason to surrender rights to the government. Nationalism is the same thing. Without a threat, manufactured or real, nationalism dies a stillborn. Does that seem inaccurate?

If there were only one country in the world, the nationalists would still find enemies, domestic enemies of one form or another to stigmatize and to accuse. Usually it goes with accusations of betrayal, treason. We hear this all the time, “enemies of the people.” This was communist language and now it’s been re-appropriated for nationalist uses today, describing different categories, as enemies, betrayers and so on.

I put the difference between nationalism and patriotism this way: They do in many ways grow out of a common desire but they move in different directions. Patriotism is a bit like loyalty to family. We love our families not because we think our families are the best families. What would that even mean? We love our families despite our flaws and failures. That’s what makes them lovable to us in a certain way is their imperfections. What would it mean to say that my family is the perfect family and that’s why it’s deserving of my love and respect? I would say the same is true of patriotism. Patriotism does not require me to think that my country is better than yours or that my country is going to dominate yours. Patriotism is not an ideology of dominance and power. It is based on feelings of loyalty, of rootedness, of love and respect — mostly gratitude — for helping us become what we are.

It’s not that you love your family because they are better than another family. It stops with who your family is. It’s not competitive.

Immigrants and American Patriotism

On the one hand, we are a country of immigrants. Yet the patriotism that many people feel is not only to the ideals, but rather it’s this hypothetical, theoretical, cultural America.

You worry about the challenge of balancing this part of American existence is welcoming of immigrants in recognition of our founding of our history. You worry about whether that adversely affects or does it threaten the cultural part of patriotism. I found myself much less concerned about that because the whole concept of American culture is one of constantly changing music, food, and entertainment, as opposed to the governing political philosophy. The fact that it’s always changing is itself the change is part of our culture.

Can you expand upon why you’re worried because I don’t see that as a threat.

I believe in borders. I believe in states. We are a country of immigrants. Our immigration policy and our borders can be open. They can be generous but I don’t believe they can be infinitely open. I do believe in that.

Our patriotism is based in part on our ideals and aspirations. It’s based on what I call our ethos of patriotism as well. Our patriotism is rooted in ideas and aspirations but it’s also rooted in our habits, our customs or traditions, our way of life that comprises our language, our music, our foods, and even things like our body language. We know what these things are as Americans. Patriotism is very much a rootedness also in these cultural dimensions of American life. These are enriched by new groups, new peoples who come here, who add to this cultural cuisine that we have. That has, for the most part, been a very positive thing.

Can this be indefinitely expanded? When do we begin as it were to lose our sense of ethos?

There’s no right answer to that question. It’s a question of political judgment. It requires wisdom. It does not require demagoguery. It does not require laying down ethnic barriers to entry but it does require wise statesmanship and leadership to help us work on exactly where diversity and pluralism contribute, and where they may begin to depreciate our common sense of people?

It’s a lot easier to be patriotic, to be loyal to founding principles, the ideals, than it is to be loyal to the present constitution — of the house of the Senate and the presidency. That almost seems empty. I can’t find myself being loyal to Mitch Mcconnell. But you have to be inhuman not to be loyal to the principles. I think that part of your book is the key to invite people to test the principles against their own values. You have no choice in spite of yourself, you’re going to become patriotic.

The principles are under attack however. One of the things I tried to do in the book is to help us restore an appreciation of precisely the principles. Why are they under attack? Projects like The New York Times 1619 Project would have us believe that America is founded in racism and slavery — that slavery may have been abolished, but that racism and white supremacy has been the core of American national identity from 1619 to 2021. It’s not that these represent departures from the principles. They claim these are the principles. That is a deeply corrosive ideology. It is part of what I call the New Age progressivism that we see of recent times, to distinguish it from an earlier and older progressivism. This has become very much a part of the attack on American founding principles.

It’s not to say that American founding principles were born pure. We have argued about those principles from the beginning. We fought a great civil war over what those principles were. Abraham Lincoln, who is the hero in many ways of my book, put it in the best way. He understood that American principles were founded in the Declaration of Independence, particularly its clause of human equality. That provided the bedrock of what America as a nation was. He understood clearly that those principles had not been perfectly realized in 1776 or in 1861. We struggle to achieve those ideals.

I find it to be a betrayal to give up on those ideals as many on the left have done, and increasingly in many ways, those on the right have done.

Patriotism is a virtue. Like any virtue, it’s difficult. We’re not just born with it. It’s not just part of our DNA. We don’t become patriots like we eat and breathe and other biological functions. It’s something that has to be taught. It has to be cultivated. Like any skill it requires practice. It requires education. Being an American patriot is not easy. Part of my book is to try to teach people a little bit about how to reclaim it.

In law, there is a rhetorical tactic called creating a straw man. You create an artificial villain, and then you argue against that creation. You can’t attack the real facts because you lose. So you have to attack made up facts. The 1619 Project realized you can’t attack the American founding principles. Therefore you have to create fake principles, which you can attack.

Bring Back the National Service?

How does the nation reclaim the glorious principles?

It’s not just a question of going back, it’s a question of going forward as well. One of the things I think would be extremely important in trying to reclaim a sense of patriotism is to introduce some form of national service. I don’t know how you feel about this by being a libertarian, but I feel some form of national service — whether it’s military service, teaching in a public school, or working for an underserved community — is a way of bringing young Americans together, getting them to know each other. We live in cultural and educational silos. People should get some chance in life to meet people different from themselves. It would be a first and important step in helping us move forward in reclaiming some kind of American patriotism.