Correction to This Article
This article about liberals and patriotism misstated the age of folk singer Pete Seeger. He is 89, not 87.

A Liberal Revival of Americanism

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By Michael Kazin
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Barack Obama's rise to power has, to many people's surprise, once again made patriotism a liberal faith. At the pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, "This Land Is Your Land," lustily rendered by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, shared equal billing with "The Star-Spangled Banner." In his inaugural address, the new president evoked "obscure" Americans who "toiled in sweatshops" or "endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth" as exemplary citizens, while denouncing those who "seek only the pleasures of riches and fame." Before him stretched a crowd of some 1.8 million admirers; many, to paraphrase Michelle Obama's controversial words from last winter, were surely as proud of their country as they had been in many years. That throng on the Mall was probably the largest pro-government demonstration in U.S. history. That spirit is probably strong enough to withstand the news that some high-placed Obama appointees had failed to pay their taxes -- and may even be bolstered by the president's apology for "screwing up" the process.

The revival of Americanism on the left is as unexpected as was Obama's victory itself. Since liberals turned against the war in Vietnam 40 years ago, they have struggled to prove that they love their country even while opposing most of the policies of its government. Some abandoned the effort altogether, preferring to don a fresh identity as global citizens. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued in 1994 that patriotism is "morally dangerous" because it encourages Americans to focus narrowly on their own concerns and to minimize or disregard those of people in other lands. Meanwhile, conservatives led by Ronald Reagan defined patriotism as the need to stand tall against one's enemies and equated liberty with low taxes and a lightly regulated market. From the invasion of Cambodia to the invasion of Iraq, war protesters pleaded, "Peace Is Patriotic," but few on either side paid them much attention.

Then, quite unintentionally, George W. Bush convinced liberals that they should stand up for their own version of the national creed. They condemned his 2000 election as a betrayal of democracy, achieved only after he lost the popular vote and got an assist from a right-leaning Supreme Court. As the "war on terror" heated up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, liberals accused the president of violating the Constitution by snooping into library and phone records and unapologetically using torture. Then the bloody debacle in Iraq drove many a progressive to dust off the advice of John Quincy Adams that the United States should not go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy" because "she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."

Gradually, a liberal movement flourished, vowing to "take our country back." Activists made it clear they supported the troops in Iraq and criticized only the policymakers who had sent them there to find doomsday weapons that did not exist. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the creator of DailyKos, the movement's most influential Web site, is himself a proud Gulf War veteran who thanks the military for giving him "a sense of duty to my fellow Americans." "Those who wore combat boots," he writes, "looked out for each other and took responsibility for them." When such Bush defenders as Rush Limbaugh accused liberals of running the country down, the liberals would now return the charge -- with vigor.

That confident tone ran through Obama's coming-out speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. "Alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we're all connected as one people," asserted the young state senator from Illinois. That belief applied to "a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read," he continued, to "a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription drugs," to "an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process." His speech reminded listeners that compassion for the underdog was also a traditional American value.

During his presidential campaign, Obama went on to blend two of the most powerful and uplifting narratives in U.S. history into a single liberal vision, even though he did not embrace the dreaded L-word. Obama drew on his father's background and his own African name to illustrate the opportunities available to immigrants willing to work hard to realize their own version of the American dream. And he evoked the long crusade for black freedom to demonstrate that "there is no obstacle that can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change." Taken together, these stories suggested that the real America had always been a multicultural nation, filled with people struggling to put transcendent ideals into everyday practice.

In so doing, Obama built a movement behind his candidacy with praise for past grass-roots efforts that similarly sought to "let America be America again," as the poet Langston Hughes famously put it. Obama, the erstwhile community organizer, described such movements as the democratic soul of the nation. " 'Yes we can,' " he declared after losing the New Hampshire primary, "was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot . . . and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land."

In daubing Americanism with a tolerant, energetically populist hue, Obama and the liberals who flocked to his campaign were echoing their counterparts in the 1930s, an era whose economic hardships have made it relevant again. During the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the federal government hired artists to paint historical murals in post offices that highlighted the exploits of farmers and workers. The Works Progress Administration published guides to every big city and region, revealing the richness of local histories and cultures. In the new National Archives building next to the Mall, the republic's founding documents were displayed as if they were the relics of secular saints. Meanwhile, film-makers such as Frank Capra depicted America as one big, friendly house for ordinary people of all religions and races (even if, in the era of Jim Crow, the latter had to stay in their own rooms).

Left-wing movements allied with the New Deal trumpeted their patriotism as well. Labor organizers labeled their cause a fight for "industrial democracy" against "Tory" employers. Striking auto workers outside a Ford plant lambasted "King Henry V-8," and a picketer dressed up as Lincoln carried a sign reading, "I Fought for Union Too." In the late 1930s, pro-Soviet radicals even proclaimed that communism was "20th-century Americanism."

Woody Guthrie, a sometime columnist for the Daily Worker, wrote "This Land Is Your Land" to make the case that his beloved country ought to be governed for the benefit of its least fortunate people. One verse, routinely omitted when "This Land" is performed in elementary schools, expressed the anger of many Americans who had lost their jobs during the Great Depression: "In the squares of the city -- In the shadow of the steeple/Near the relief office -- I see my people/And some are grumblin,' and some are wonderin'/If this land's still made for you and me." Surprisingly, the 87-year-old Seeger -- Guthrie's old friend and comrade -- rasped out a variant of those lines when he and Springsteen appeared on the frigid steps of the Lincoln Memorial. To my knowledge, no prominent conservative lodged a protest. If a former communist can get away with singing a verse frequently considered too radical for schoolchildren at an event to honor a popular new president, something has definitely changed in the politics of patriotism.

Obama often says that he wants to move beyond the "stale debates" that, since the 1960s, have frequently made people who care about politics into bitter opponents. Arguments about who really loves their country are part of what he means, as are skirmishes over race, religion and sexuality.

But if Obama believes one can enforce a truce in the long battle over how to apply the founding ideals of the nation, he will be disappointed. Since the 1790s, when Vice President Thomas Jefferson accused President John Adams of betraying the republic's "true principles" with his Alien and Sedition Acts, this conflict has been a vital matter in our politics.

No one competing for national office can afford to be on the wrong side of Americanism, an immensely attractive and remarkably supple creed.

Liberals are still getting comfortable with thinking of themselves as the upholders of civic virtue. And conservatives will certainly try their best to recapture that image, as last fall's attacks on Obama as a European-style socialist demonstrated. But after decades in denial, progressives have finally realized that they cannot lead America if America does not hold a privileged place in their hearts. If Obama is as successful at running the country as he has been at recrafting the national story, his most fervent supporters might come to believe that a majority of their fellow citizens are also proud of them.

Michael Kazin's latest book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches history at Georgetown University.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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