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On the Fourth: Reclaiming the American Flag

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 14:45
Durell Godfrey

On this Fourth of July, we need to say clearly that the American flag belongs to us all.

In the past, this would have been self-evident. But there’s been an attempt to hijack the American flag for partisan purposes, to make it seem like the exclusive property of one political party or one person. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. The American flag belongs equally to all Americans — Democrats and independents as well as Republicans. 

In fact, George Washington warned we should always “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” This is founding-era speak for don’t follow the person who tries to divide Americans into warring tribes by pretending that they are more patriotic than their fellow citizens. Real patriotism means focusing on what unites us, not what divides us, as Americans.

On this 248th anniversary of American Independence — four months away from a hugely consequential election — look around you here in Suffolk County, as you attend the parade in Port Jefferson, the fireworks over Bald Hill, or a barbecue at your neighbor’s home — as we celebrate together with friends and family and our neighbors what we in Suffolk County know is this: Patriotism and nationalism are not the same things.

Nationalism can exist in any country, propagated by any tin-pot dictator seeking to coalesce power around national identity. But American patriotism is different from mere nationalism. That’s because the United States was the first nation in the history of the world founded upon an idea rather than a tribal identity.

Nationalism is about blood-and-soil identity politics. It is the opposite of our animating belief that all men and women are created equal.

Patriotism means putting love of our country over any political party. Patriotism means loving our country even if your political party loses an election. Patriotism is not idolatry toward a particular politician. It is government of, by, and for the people. It means equal justice under law, where every person’s vote counts equally, no matter how much money you have in the bank or what political party you belong to. 

Independence Day is a good time to remember that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t even mention political parties. This was not an oversight. The founding fathers wanted members of Congress to represent their constituents, their conscience, and common sense — and not to walk in lockstep with a political faction or follow one leader. In fact, the founding fathers constantly warned about the dangers of faction to our democracy — what we would call hyper-partisanship — more than any other factor. 

The founding fathers were focused on the danger of a demagogue dividing America into warring tribes to accumulate power on the “ruins of public liberty.” That’s why George Washington warned in his farewell address that part of the problem of hyper-partisanship was that it would foment “occasionally riot and insurrection.” Those words hit harder now. The least patriotic thing I can imagine is attacking the U.S. Capitol to overturn an election while brandishing the American flag. 

So yes, reclaiming the American flag is an essential obligation of our time. 

Real patriotism requires acknowledging the good, the bad, and the ugly in American history — but it also requires the humility to understand that we have always been imperfect people struggling to form a more perfect union.

We’ve got to acknowledge that, as polls show, patriotism has been downgraded in the eyes of some. This strain of self-loathing needs to be corrected. America is not a perfect place because we are a human enterprise. Perfect is never on the menu. As the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one.” 

I’m a first-time candidate for Congress but a longtime student of American politics and an occasional writer of history books. Democrats need to embrace the American flag, cultivating a liberal patriotism, armed with the understanding that progressive leadership is most effective when it calls on fulfilling the promise of our founding values.

That’s why I created a bumper sticker that expresses the sentiment I’ve been wanting to see: It says “Proud American” and underneath that “Proud Democrat.” I know that will short-circuit some people’s preconceived notions, but it’s an important message and in the right order.

It is because of the intensity of our current political debates — and the very real dangers our democracy faces — that we need to reclaim the American flag for us all. Because the ideals of liberty and equality apply to all of us. 

Democracy depends on an assumption of good will among fellow citizens. And though good will has been tested in our time of hyper-partisanship, on this day above all others, we must remember that there is always more that unites us than divides us as Americans. That’s what the American flag symbolizes.

We are citizens, not subjects — and we have a sacred trust to hand our nation better to the next generation than it was handed to us. The eyes of history are on us to see whether we meet that task on this and every Fourth of July.

John Avlon is a candidate for the House of Representatives in the First Congressional District. He lives in Sag Harbor. 

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