With the Winter Olympics in full swing, it is hard to spend 10 minutes without seeing an overt display of nationalism. Between “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants or some hokey image of an American flag waving to the strains of “America the Beautiful,” American iconography is inescapable. The United States is unique in that sense; our brand of nationalism is particularly aggressive. American exceptionalism is a bipartisan issue: The U.S. is perceived to be number one and that’s how it is and always will be.
This intense patriotism appears to be little more than overcompensation for the U.S.’ dearth of national identity. As an immigrant nation, the U.S. never had a universally salient cultural background. In its absence, the self-proclaimed exceptionalism we now recognize as patriotism evolved. Like Jay Gatsby, America sprang from a Platonic conception of itself. We said we were the best, so surely we must be.
Americans love to quantify their country’s greatness by easily measureable categories: military prowess, national wealth and, yes, Olympic medals. More abstract measures like civil liberties consequently fall to the wayside and become less important to policymakers. Former President George W. Bush’s evisceration of civil liberties via the Patriot Act never hurt him as much as military victories such as the capture of Saddam Hussein helped him. As long as Americans are given a highly publicized victory to rally around, however small, we are willing to look past the decline of what once made this country exceptional.
Therein lies the danger of internalizing blind patriotism. If we allow our perceived superiority to become our defining quality, we lose the capacity for self-criticism. Being that the U.S. is lagging behind in education, economic growth, incarceration rates and more, we should absolutely be taking a critical eye to the institutions that have gotten us to where we are today.
Of course, there are greater forces at play responsible for the gradual decline of America as a world power. It is curious, though, that fervent patriotism would survive, and even thrive, amidst this rough patch in American history. Patriotism seems to be America’s comfort blanket. After 9/11, flag sales surged, as did Bush’s previously dismal approval rating.
In the U.S.’ most vulnerable moments, its citizens can still cling to the far-flung myth that theirs is the greatest country in the world, as if such a title is even possible to designate.
Even more telling of the country’s steadfast commitment to unfettered patriotism is its ubiquity across party lines. In a political climate in which even the minutest issues are politicized, both Democratic and Republican rhetoric is littered with an almost absurd level of patriotic sentiment.
In a speech given when he was running for president in 2008, President Barack Obama said, “For me, as for most Americans, patriotism starts as a gut instinct, a loyalty and love for country rooted in my earliest memories.”
Obama’s statements are key to understanding how patriotism manifests in American culture. His words reinforce the ludicrous myth that America’s superiority is so predestined that a young child could infer it.
The core problem with patriotism is that it glorifies an abstraction. When someone chants, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” what exactly are they cheering for? If they were to be cheering for the sum of American history, they would endorse some truly wretched institutions. Instead, patriotic gestures are merely a celebration of the qualities one ascribes to the United States, correctly or incorrectly, and nothing more.