The Waning of American Patriotism

While scrolling through the hyper-political wasteland of Twitter, I recently found something deeply concerning: a majority of liberal or liberal-leaning college students are not proud to be American. Conservatives are overwhelmingly proud to be American, as are a clear majority of moderates and independents, according to a 2021 American College Student Survey.  The study is simply disheartening, and the new culture of self-loathing is never more obvious than in the days around our holidays.

With the Fourth of July just behind us, the ubiquity of national antipathy among Americans – especially younger Americans – is especially poignant.  American holidays are meant to be days of celebration, commemoration, and gratitude.  I will not dignify the question of whether this country is worth celebrating by arguing on its behalf.  Indeed, I take it for granted that America is the exceptional nation, and that American Exceptionalism is what most federal holidays are meant to honor.  Just this month, the Senate unanimously passed (and the House passed by a margin of 415-14) the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which created a federal holiday to honor the titular occasion.  

I will not dignify the question of whether this country is worth celebrating by arguing on its behalf.  Indeed, I take it for granted that America is the exceptional nation, and that American Exceptionalism is what most federal holidays are meant to honor.

The recognition of the Juneteenth holiday should be a moment of national unity and pride.  The official end of slavery in the United States is unquestionably a moment worth celebrating.  Since 1865, some Americans have commemorated the reading of General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, which announced and extended the emancipation of African-American slaves to the last of the confederate states.  Americans have rightly marked the occasion with barbecues, street fairs, family reunions, and more.  The United States ended slavery about 90 years after the Founding.  Ninety years.  Of course our racial troubles were far from over in 1865 – and we continue to make maddeningly-slow progress on this issue today – but we expunged, as a matter of law, the great evil that stained our Republic with historical speed.  Slavery existed in the British Isles, for example, since before the Roman occupation and well through until the early 1800s.  West African nations engaged in slavery for centuries, with some unofficially continuing the practice as recently as World War I and beyond. Mesoamerican civilizations from the Mayans to the Aztecs also widely practiced slavery for centuries.  The most unique thing about American slavery is how swiftly it ended, bringing us one giant leap closer to fulfilling the ideals of our founding charter.  Yet, instead of being treated as a moment of American triumph, it seems that many people are using Juneteenth as a cudgel to stoke division and anti-American sentiment.

The most unique thing about American slavery is how swiftly it ended, bringing us one giant leap closer to fulfilling the ideals of our founding charter.

The country’s two hundred and fiftieth anniversary is just five years away.  I suspect that the manner in which this occasion is marked will vary greatly depending on which party is in power.  Just like our 1976 bicentennial, there should be extravagant festivities in 2026.  Yet it seems as likely we will instead get somber speeches from politicians bemoaning America’s failure to fully achieve its promise, rather than celebrating the boldness – the “audacity,” as one politician might say – of that promise.  Holidays and other occasions of national pride seem not to be celebrations anymore.  Instead, they are “reminders” of our continuing insufficiencies or “how far we still have to go” rather than remembrances of how far we’ve come since a group of gentlemen who “assume[d] to themselves an unalienable right of talking nonsense” took on the greatest military power in the world.  

Holidays and other occasions of national pride seem not to be celebrations anymore.  Instead, they are “reminders” of our continuing insufficiencies or “how far we still have to go” rather than remembrances of how far we’ve come since a group of gentlemen who “assume[d] to themselves an unalienable right of talking nonsense” took on the greatest military power in the world. 

We cannot expect to make progress or find cohesion as a nation if only a slight majority of college students, 56%, are even proud to be American.  National pride among Americans is falling behind that of other Western democracies. A greater proportion of German, French, and British citizens are proud of their country most of the time, according to Pew Research Center.   Across national borders, it is true that conservatives are much more likely to express national pride.  It is a cliche, but if so many are ashamed of our great nation, then perhaps they should move to another country of their liking.  Why do they stay in a country they condemn? 

Barack Obama famously said on the campaign trail in 2008 that he planned to “fundamentally transform” the United States.  People do not “fundamentally transform” things that are good, or that they are fond of.  If we have become such a spoiled society that we do not understand the overwhelming good the United States has been for the world, then we may not deserve the fortune we enjoy.  I am optimistic that national pride among college students can change for the better; proudly observing our holidays is the best place to begin.

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About Chris Coffey

Michigan Review contributor Chris Coffey is a sophomore studying economics and history with a minor in classical civilization in the LSA Honors Program. In his free time, Chris is an avid tennis player and runner.