Buening: American Nationalism is Corrupted


“fireworks” by SJ photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Sarah Buening, Assistant Opinion Editor


On the Fourth of July, Americans blow up fireworks and boast red, white and blue colors in celebration of our nation’s independence.

In today’s political climate, however, this celebration has become a partisan issue. Values of nationalism and patriotism shape the way we view what it means to be American — and not for the better.

U.S. nationalism and patriotism have grown more fanatical and polarized because of the country’s historical development and the popularization of right-wing narrative.

As we attempt to deconstruct this concept of nationalism, we need to reject any bias we may harbor against discomfort of criticism and openly embrace hard truths.

The Roots of U.S. Nationalism

Historically, the U.S.  has always held strong nationalistic values. In our initial pursuit of national sovereignty, the term “patriot” was attributed to those who supported the formation of the new nation-state. It also applied to those who developed its foundational, constitutional ideologies — democracy, freedom and limited government.

Patriotism, therefore, united the emerging country, and it continues to provide the nation with a sense of self, shared purpose and love for one’s country.

However, this sense of self can quickly turn sour. Nationalism occurs when people take simple patriotism too far. The lines between the two have been blurred in American history for far too long.

For example, during the 1800s, the idea of Manifest Destiny, God-inspired territorial expansion, became popular in public belief. This led to the forceful acquisition of new land and further genocide of Indigenous peoples during westward expansion. Americans defended these horrors in the name of the nation’s “divine” civilization.

Based on this history, U.S. nationalism originates from white supremacy, an extreme sense of sovereignty and the permission of violence. Those same values corrupt our nation today. The extreme nationalism we witness, particularly on behalf of far-right individuals, contributes to an inflated sense of superiority. But a history of nationalist exploitation and harm should not be something to claim superiority over.

A Culture in Denial

So why do so many Americans believe that we’re better than the rest of the world? One of the most harmful features of extreme nationalism is the refusal to acknowledge existing shortcomings or address past and ongoing injuries.

After all, the United States doesn’t lead in environmental performance, happiness or even education. Nationalism simply doesn’t encourage these values. Instead, its aggressive nature encourages superiority through military strength, which the U.S. can certainly claim in spades. Fake, uncritical patriotism safeguards these skewed priorities.

So-called patriotism often masks support for xenophobic, colonialist and violent movements that characterize nationalism. The romanticization of arbitrary American symbols proves this.

A Harvard Scholar article states, “Americans cherish national symbols—most notably the flag—to a degree unusual in advanced democracies.” For instance, the Pledge of Allegiance not only derives its origin from xenophobic sentiment but has citizens reciting this pledge since childhood.

More worrying, some also take pride in the Confederate flag. 31% of Americans honor this racist and violent symbol as a portrayal of “heritage.”

The right-wing narrative of nationalism glorifies worship of such national symbols and even claims American ideals for itself. Critics of the conservative views of patriotism or our country are said to be non-American by their standards.

We recently witnessed this between Georgia representative and far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene and New York’s left-leaning representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

At an Ohio Trump Rally, Rep. Greene spoke about Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s advocacy for the Green New Deal, saying, “She’s not an American. She really doesn’t embrace our American ways.” This type of rhetoric grows more amplified today, especially during and after the Trump administration, headed by a self-proclaimed nationalist.

Inwardly, we constantly see the harmful effects of such nationalism, especially with the increase of white nationalist groups and spikes in violence.

Outwardly, nationalism antagonizes those that don’t belong to the nation-state, such as immigrants. As President Joe Biden has worked to grant amnesty to many illegal immigrants, conservatives like House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy accused him of being “more interested in helping illegal immigrants than helping our own citizens.” This criticism undoubtedly comes as a response to Biden’s rejection of isolationist foreign policy, which is inherently nativist.

Healing the Harms of Nationalism

As we begin moving away from nationalist narratives and curbing their damaging effects, we must find a balance between pride and shame. In Richard Rorty’s 1998 novel “Achieving our Country,” he writes, “Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past — episodes and figures to which the country should remain true.”

The “episodes and figures” we currently teach in American education aren’t always beneficial. National holidays often celebrate bloody battlefield victories and honor war heroes, even detestable ones.

Erica Chenoweth echoed this idea in a Ted Talk addressing nonviolent civil resistance. “What if our social studies textbooks emphasized Gandhi and King in the first chapter rather than as an afterthought?” she asked. “And what if every child left elementary school knowing more about the Suffragist movement than they did about the Battle of Bunker Hill?”

Our success at healing, learning and improving as a nation relies upon our ability to walk the fine line between fanaticism and pride. Corrupted nationalism will continue to hinder our progression. Instead of branding critique of our country or its symbols as anti-American, we should be encouraging devotion to the kinds of moral, humane values that would ideally comprise what it truly means to be American.


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