Resolute Square

Patriotism Means Celebrating America's Multiracial Democracy

How have threats to democracy changed the way you view patriotism and its symbols?
Published:July 6, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Two years ago, I published this July 4 essay. Lucid was just a few months old and it did not get much engagement. Perhaps now is a better time for its message. In 2022-2023 op-eds essays and books have appeared calling for patriotism and its symbols to be reclaimed from the far right, and the Lincoln Project has weighed in with “We’re Taking Back the Flag.”

Let’s start a conversation about patriotism today and how threats to our democracy may have changed what it means to you.
The Declaration of Independence "sounds like a fairy tale," said Russian state television host Dmitry Kiselyov, engaging in the favorite Kremlin habit of mocking American democracy. In one way, Kiselyov's correct. Freedom, including freedom of the press, can only be fantasized about in autocracies such as Russia, which encourage collective dreams about national greatness but stifle individual autonomy and initiative.

It is this freedom to dream, and the idea that it is possible to transform one's life and the destiny of one's family, that has distinguished America in the global imagination and made it a destination for millions of impoverished, oppressed, and ambitious individuals.

The America of immigrants' aspirations was and is a place where everyone could find their community and everyone, in theory, could have a chance, with dizzying improvements in standards of living possible within the scope of one or two generations, both for immigrants and for people born here of every race and religion. 

It is time to harness this sense of pride and potential, this ability to dream, and make them central to a new brand of patriotism that celebrates America’s multiracial character as a generative force.

When democracy is stable, talking about patriotism may appear unseemly. Patriotism is associated with flag-waving, saluting soldiers and defending "the American way of life,” which is often code for defending the interests of White Christianity.

Yet when democracy is under attack, as it is today in America, talking about patriotism is essential. To make it appealing, we must find a new language, one that can mobilize new generations of voters and constituencies who may not be inclined to display the flag.

Creating passion and excitement around America explicitly as a multiracial democracy is one way in. It directly confronts the GOP's attempts to disenfranchise non-Whites, impose silence about past and present racial crimes, and engineer and enforce rule by a White minority. 

Celebrating America as a multiracial democracy is also forward-looking and pragmatic. The latest census document confirms that the non-Hispanic White population is shrinking. People classified by the Census Bureau as belonging to "Two or More Races" are the fast-growing group, followed by Asians and Hispanics.

Faced with these changes in the American population, the GOP has chosen to retrench rather than reform. When shifting demographics are seen as an existential threat, being racist is twisted into a patriotic act. Nothing is off the table to save the country and reverse the course of history.

The Jan. 6 coup attempt, in this light, was not just an operation to keep the “right” person in office (Donald Trump), but an attempt to keep the wrong people, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, out.

Kamala Harris before a crowd
Vice-President Kamala Harris speaks at the Carpenters International Training Center, Las Vegas, July 2021. Joe Buglewicz/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

To counter this authoritarian agenda, we must explicitly associate patriotism with defense of democracy, and highlight the stability and productivity of America as a multiracial society. The aspiration of freedom for everyone is no fairy tale. It reflects our best traditions and civil rights history. A patriotism built on that heritage can be powerful indeed.