Don’t cede patriotism to Republicans. Democrats must rediscover the radical potential of the American flag and values like equality and social justice.
It wasn’t a big story, and it wasn’t even true. But it spoke volumes, nevertheless.
“Not a single American flag at the Democrat Debate,” someone posted on Facebook last June, following the first debate to determine who will challenge President Donald Trump next fall. The post went viral before it was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation.
And yet, as PolitiFact noted, the graphic behind the stage was full of flag imagery: stars and stripes and lots of red, white and blue. And at least four candidates wore American flag lapel pins.
But the story stuck, at least for a while, because it confirmed a common political narrative: Republicans are more patriotic than Democrats. And that’s precisely what the Democrats need to rebut, if they want to replace Trump in 2020.
Donald Trump is a flag-hugger
From his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan to this summer’s July Fourth military parade in Washington, D.C., Trump’s appeal has rested heavily upon patriotic themes.
In a 2016 address to the American Legion in Cincinnati, Trump vowed to “strengthen respect for our flag.” And at a campaign rally in Tampa, while supporters chanted “build that wall,” Trump paused his speech to bear-hug an American flag on the stage. It wasn’t the first time.
“We all salute the same great American flag,” Trump said at his inauguration. But he has also questioned the patriotism of others, especially of immigrants. “We want to make sure that anyone who seeks to join our country shares our values and has the capacity to love our people,” he told a Kennedy Center audience during Fourth of July celebrations in 2017, following a speech by the virulently anti-Muslim preacher Robert Jeffress.
And if you go onto the web, you’ll find a huge mail-order industry of patriotic Trump paraphernalia. The product-aggregating site guide.com lists “22 things to buy if you just love Donald Trump,” including Trump socks, a Trump coffee mug and even a Trump Chia Pet. Not surprisingly, all three are festooned with the Stars and Stripes.
Social justice is a patriotic value
In the face of these displays, it’s tempting for Democrats to write off patriotism as a conservative or reactionary impulse. According to a recent Gallup survey, 76% of Republicans say they are “extremely proud” of their country, while only 22% of Democrats say they are.
But that’s shortsighted, and also self-defeating. Social justice and equality across our differences are patriotic values, too, and we should be deeply proud of them. Instead of ceding patriotism to the GOP, Democrats need to rediscover its radical potential.
That means remembering Frederick Douglass, who called on “every colored man able to bear arms to rally around the flag” during the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans did exactly that, enlisting in the Union Army and embracing the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of racial progress and justice.
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When segregation and second-class citizenship for blacks ensued, another generation of freedom fighters rallied yet again around the flag. At places like Birmingham and Selma, civil rights demonstrators literally wrapped themselves in the Stars and Stripes. That way, policemen and other people who brutalized them were also attacking our national symbol.
Women demanding a constitutional amendment for the vote — which Congress passed a century ago — carried American flags up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. So did labor organizers in the 1930s, anti-war protesters in the 1960s, and gay rights supporters in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nobody has a monopoly on the flag
To be sure, the flag was also embraced by bigots and charlatans. Ku Klux Klan members hoisted American flags during their own marches up Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1920s. Fascist Gerald L. K. Smith published a monthly journal called The Cross and the Flag in the 1940s, warning against race mixing and Jewish conspiracies. And in 1976, during the battle over school busing in Boston, photographer Stanley Forman snapped a picture of a white student using a United States flag to assault a black civil rights lawyer.
Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, which he pointedly called, “The Soiling of Old Glory.” To Forman and others, the flag remained a symbol of freedom and justice. But it was being dragged through the mud by racists, who turned it into an emblem of hatred and exclusion.
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In short, nobody owns a monopoly on the flag; instead, it’s a moving target. That’s why the Supreme Court dismissed a 1974 case against a student who was arrested for superimposing a peace symbol on the Stars and Stripes. The flag has “a spectrum of meanings,” the court wrote, and Americans should be free to decide which one was best.
If Democrats want to capture the White House in 2020, they also need to capture the flag. They should decorate every single flyer, poster and bumper sticker with the Stars and Stripes. And they should frame every argument — on immigration, taxes, health care and more — in patriotic terms, proclaiming their pride in America’s finest tradition: liberty and justice for all. Don’t run away from patriotism, which has a spectrum of meanings. Show that your meaning is best.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Emily Robertson, of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”
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