What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

On patriotism and democracy.

Over of the years one of my fascinations has been the nature of patriotism. I have maintained a running debate on the subject at several websites including this one, as well as in hundreds of threads on email. Here is a wandering dilation I posted at Redstate some years ago: these posts.

The old Redstate archive site does not lend itself to facile searching, so I fear that much of what follows will be both repetitive and inadequate; but this was always (for me at least) a fruitful conversation, despite its many difficulties and frustrations, and I see no reason why it should not continue.

The parties to this debate are many, their individual nuances and complexities abundant, but the main lines of argument cluster around a series of questions. (1) How much of the content of patriotism is ideological, that is, how much does the love of one's patria depend upon the political ideas associated with the patria? (2) What is the role of pre-rational passion or affection or veneration in the formation and maintenance of patriotism? (3) How do the reasoning and feeling aspects of man bear upon his love for his native land?

Each of these questions presents us with some presuppositions and some implications. Question (3), for instance, presupposes that man is a dualistic creature; that reasoning and feeling mean different things, but are each part of what it means to be man. Question (1), meanwhile, implies a disputation not merely over what political ideas should be included in patriotism, but even over whether political ideas, of any kind, should be included at all.

Let us briefly consider a single political idea, or at least a single category of political idea, in its relation to patriotism: democracy. The word means rule by the many, which in practice translates to some kind of majoritarian, plebiscitary, or representative rule. Democracy also strongly implies political equality as a driving principle. This brings it into some tension with another common political idea, namely freedom, because freedom, in order to have any meaning, must allow for possibility of unequal outcomes. Democracy, especially when it is preached as a universal ideal, also comes into tension with particular loyalties. Strictly speaking, the natural family is an offense against equality: its internal arrangements are hierarchical and particular, especially with respect to those outside it. And from the universal perspective, favoring one's own nation or people is certainly an offensive against equality.

So already, after only a paragraph of exposition, obvious difficulties arise with any attempt to conceive of an ideological patriotism that embraces a vision of universal democracy. Democracy looks askance on any notion of a favoritism or hierarchy. It cannot really allow the possibility that my love of country will issue in my prejudice in favor of my countrymen. Such things are disreputable according to the principle of equality.

Consider some possibilities under democratic forms:

What if, let us say, the democracy, the majority opinion, the general will, decides that dispossession of the property-owning classes would be a good policy? What if, that is, a sovereign democracy settles upon a policy of full-on socialism? To me the answer to that is obvious enough: the democracy is dead wrong, no matter what degree of majoritarian opinion it commands, and ought to be opposed by all patriotic men. Patriotic men do not stand idly as their neighbors are dispossessed. My answer, in other words, is that patriotism and democracy may stand in a posture of polar opposition.

Or what if the democracy tries something even more subtle. Let us say that instead of looting the property-owners to fund itself, the democracy connives at enslaving a certain class? Let the democracy conspire to rob men of their labor instead of their property. If the slavery is concealed and denied, it is not hard to see how the democracy may even come to forget that slavery exists. In any case, again I say the greater patriotism is to resist, hamper, delay, and frustrate the advance of the servile regime, at all points, with an eye toward throwing it off completely.

Okay, I hope what I have kept so far unspoken may now be presented more baldly, but with comprehension:

Any theory which infuses into the content of American patriotism the idea of democracy as the highest state of human politics is a dubious theory indeed.

But of course, the fact is that any ideological construct -- democracy, freedom, equality, order, tradition, whatever -- can be subjected to the same sort of critical examination which I have just now applied to democracy, and be shown by that examination to be wanting. This leaves us at the broader possibility that:

Any theory which infuses ideological content (of any kind) into patriotism is dubious.

Comments (11)

It seems to me that the problem here is taking one of these ideas (such as "democracy") and exaggerating its claims into something like, for example, "Whatever the will of the people decide must not be opposed." But as you said above, one _can_ mean by democracy some kind of representative rule. It seems to me that the founding fathers of the American republic were very wise in that they put into place a system of checks and balances so that it should _not_ be the case (if the constitutional order is followed) that whatever the majority decides must be permitted. And at the state level, there is usually some mimicry of the federal set-up--a constitutional structure that limits what the legislature, elected by the people, can do.

The problem, then, is not with "any ideological content at all" but rather with being committed to one idea of governmental order at the expense of wise limitations on the way that idea should work. Yet those limitations can and have been built into the form of government itself. I maintain that one of the reasons I _should_ be proud of America is because, _inter alia_, the people are ruled by their representatives and have a say in their own government. That is part of what makes me proud to be an American. I'm not saying that every monarchy needs to be overturned or is evil. I am, however, saying that I'm proud that America was set up so wisely as something other than a monarchy: as a constitutional, representative republic. We aren't, under the American system of government, supposed to have a single, hereditary ruler with overwhelming power. And I want to keep it that way. That's part of my patriotism, and an important one--a commitment to our form of government, which includes a representative legislature as one of its branches.

I think that Lydia's comments deserved to be expanded. Types of governments are heirlooms of our civilization, and that is why they are loved. Having a say in your government is something that has been a part of the American tradition since its inception. You therefore appreciate its advantages and see it as inherently necessary for living a good life. This, though, is true because you are an American. The pre-rational love is what motivates the rational explication of the virtues of republican government. We can imagine a man who says similar things about his country no matter what government it had. A man under a monarchy will adamantly defend the virtues of kingship over the unreliable rule of the people. Likewise, a tribal people may find your admiration for having a say in your government to be almost unintelligible. Authority is inherent in your person by virtue of your birth, they might say.

All of this, though, is not to denigrate patriotism. In fact, it is liberalism which looks down upon pre-rational loyalties. America might be slightly different since it was founded upon certain tenets of classical liberalism, which bolsters the idea that our form of government is inseparable from that which is 'America.' It would probably be better, then, to look at the histories of other countries that do not share this apparent anomaly. We can all easily imagine a Frenchman loving his country whether it be monarchy or republic (or maybe they aren't a good example either).

I think that what obfuscates this issue is the modern world's claim that governmental authority lies solely in rational social contract. Throughout the history of the world, the types of governments that countries had were simply expressions of the way in which the people lived. Monarchy, for example, is a reflection of the authority of the father over the family.

The pre-rational love is what motivates the rational explication of the virtues of republican government.

Very well said, Edward.

Lydia, I think that the rational examination of the very high merit and endurance of the American political tradition will certainly bolster a patriot's depth of love and affection. But I do think the love was in most cases pre-existing.

It is true, of course, that some people only come to love their country later in life, after the age of reason, but I think that the natural way of making patriots begins in the pre-rational.

It is no doubt true as a matter of etiology that I have come to value representative government because I have been raised an American. On the other hand, millions of immigrants who grew up in countries with very different governmental forms have appreciated the virtue of ours sufficiently to want desperately to come here and become Americans!

I would add as another incredibly important idea that of freedom of religion. I am pretty unabashed in saying, now, as a considering adult, what I was taught to say as a taking-in child: We should thank God for our freedom to worship Him, which they do not have in Communist countries (or under sharia, though I didn't know about sharia then). But freedom of religion is not written on the stones or mountains of the United States! We could have sharia here, God forbid. My patriotism includes my pride in and love of the freedoms we enjoy. Can those freedoms be abused and twisted? Certainly. The Muslims _do_ want to twist freedom of religion to include freedom to preach and plot murder on our soil. But what of it? That some phrase can be treated as a slogan and taken to include things that it should not include hardly means that there is and should be no "idea content" to the reasons for our love of country.

Indeed, Paul, I would add that your eloquent writings on the evils of Communism demonstrate the very point I am making. Love of the place one was born per se says nothing either about the evils of Communism nor about what constitutes a good alternative to Communism. Sharia is an alternative to Communism! It is even one that arises out of the long traditions of a people--of many peoples. But it is not what we should want for our country. And in order to talk about what alternative we should want instead we must _inevitably_ talk about ideas--about freedom of religion, limited government, separation of powers, the evils of cruel and unusual punishment, the wrongness of slavery, and so on and so forth.

The pre-rational love is what motivates the rational explication of the virtues of republican government.

Well, I am pretty strongly in favor of the American enterprise (i.e. have a strong feeling for it), but I would suggest there are other grounds for rational love, and for holding the virtues of the American nation, than a rightly ordered pre-rational love of country. Whether you live under a monarchy or a republic, whatever you live in, that sovereign thing that you live in is the highest (current) expression of civil authority (and therefore the most complete expression of care for a civil common good) that you come into contact with. It is, I would suggest, natural (in what I take to be the meaning of "pre-rational") to love such an "object", since its authority and care for common good is itself a approach to and reflection of God (and comes from God, of course). This applies to all viable states, not just those of a certain type. So, I don't think that a pre-rational feeling of love for the highest human order in which you partake has a direct relationship to explaining why we want to make intelligible strong support for the American being.

One of the root rational supports for that is that America is the first, and still probably the best or one of the best, instances of taking to heart the ideal of subsidiarity - the notion that governance in an area belongs rightly at the lowest level capable of effecting the common good in that area. This is an important part of human nature as a political animal, and no other type of governmental system manages it quite so well (for all the flaws we can all point to). I don't see this rationale as springing from pre-rational love.

What an interesting comment, Tony.

There is definitely a very strong streak of subsidiarity in the American political tradition -- far stronger than most modern democrats give it credit for -- but I'm not sure I would go so far as to call it the "best or one of the best."

There is a deep spirit of expansion and acquisition and radical individualism in the American tradition. Our Leftist detractors will call this spirit imperial and oppressive, and some on the Right despise its libertarian streak, but in any case it is part of us -- especially part of those Americans hailing from the West. Call it frontier hardiness or wild West lawlessness, it stands in some tension with the communitarianism of subsidiarity.

I agree our expansionist past stands in tension with rightful ordering of the state (and some within the state) to various parties. I am not sure that I would say that the tension is with subsidiarity.

I would propose that in the first instance the tension is primarily in the correct application of an understanding of true "frontier" - as simply unheld territory - with only apparent frontier, and locales that are only imperfectly frontier (i.e. lands imperfectly held by others). While the final resolution of these mutually difficult tensions is not possible without at least some involvement of government, and in this involvement there will be some doubt as to whether subsidiarity is being applied correctly, I don't see that it is subsidiarity itself which is the basic matter in tension.

It is not apparent that most of our actual expansion was as a result of large government intrusion into the affairs of smaller communities. Rather, most of the expansion came about in the individual decisions of pioneers to seek a better life elsewhere, out in the frontier. Those individual decisions often pushed the American government into involvement as after-the-fact of expansion resulted in a need for governance and protection (eg the war with Mexico, coming after vast resettlement of pioneers in Texas and beyond.)

I agree that a considerable part of the "resolution" of the tensions (if the peace treaties with Indians and with Spain, etc may be called resolution) may have come about with a pretty simplistic, or even just plain wrong, idea about what we Americans had a right to view as frontier. But that idea is not to my eyes intimately tied to subsidiarity.

There is definitely a very strong streak of subsidiarity in the American political tradition -- far stronger than most modern democrats give it credit for -- but I'm not sure I would go so far as to call it the "best or one of the best."

Well, I admit that I am not intimately knowledgeable about the arrangements of New Zealand or Australia, but most other nations are not even in the running. The American experiment originated the idea of a limited federal government, one with sovereignty with respect to certain spheres of activity (e.g. common defense) but not with respect to all spheres, as embodied in the constitutional clause reserving to the states and to the people all powers not enumerated in the constitution. Compare that to the French notion of the country's Departments. In most places the states or provinces do not have the internal authority reserved to our states by the above clause.

If we limit our comparison to actually existing states, then I agree with you -- America is among the very best.

Broaden our historical lens, however (to embrace, say the textured society of the Middle Ages or even the antebellum South), and the comparison gets more complicated.

I agree - much more complicated. Not least because there were a whole slew of different sets of "rules" and customs regulating the relations between a baron and his liege-lord, and those rules were interpreted with wild abandon by people who often had little notion of the rule of law. (Has anyone mentioned yet the benefits we Americans enjoy through the concept of the rule of law bequeathed to us from British law? Or the drawbacks that accrue from it?)

It would be difficult indeed, if not impossible even theoretically, to make a sensible comparison between entities that existed before nation-states did, and current nation-states. But yes, I admit the possibility that in medieval times there might have been worthwhile instances of subsidiarity in governance, maybe better than what Americans have. However, I doubt it. For one reason: so far as I can find, it is only in sources since the late Renaissance that I have been able to locate explicit references to a principle that eventually came to be recognized as the concept of subsidiarity. If they did not express it, would they have been able to do it?

In discussing the American enterprise, I would set the antebellum South as distinct, except as a distinct part of the whole.


In discussing the American enterprise, I would not set the antebellum South as distinct from the US, except as a distinct part of the whole.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.