Why Patriotism Is Indispensable for Democracies

by Bruce S. Thornton


From its beginnings in ancient Athens, democracy has been bedeviled by weaknesses that paradoxically arise from its defining genius.

Political freedom was created and nurtured by replacing coercion and violence with public speech, laws, offices, and elections. Through these innovations, the citizenry now used codified and limited power for the benefit of the many, rather than the few wielding force for the benefit of themselves. The result has been the liberal-democratic order we prize today, in which those who use power are subjected to limits and accountability, thus insuring our freedom and our rights.

Yet the high value put on speech, electoral accountability, and the shuffling and reshuffling of office-holders has drawbacks and dangers, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted: “Democracy appears to me better adapted for the conduct of society in times of peace,” he wrote in 1835, “or for a sudden effort of remarkable vigor, than for the prolonged endurance of the great storms that beset the political existence of nations … But it is this clear perception of the future, founded upon judgment and experience, that is frequently wanting in democracies. The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.” These disadvantages, Tocqueville continues, also extend to the conduct of foreign affairs in general, for “a democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience.”

These flaws become particularly dangerous when a democracy is threatened by a hostile power that is not subject to the same limitations. Short electoral cycles and citizen accountability will make politicians unwilling to use force, often because they fear facing electoral punishment if force fails or is too costly in time, treasure, and lives. The presence of a scrutinizing media compounds this effect, for the setbacks, suffering, destruction, and mistakes that always attend the use of force are magnified and sensationalized, providing a dramatic weapon for political enemies. The demand for transparency, an important tool of political accountability, when pursued irresponsibly leads to the exposure of information useful for the enemy and harmful to long-term strategies. No wonder, then, that faced with these political contingencies and costs, many politicians find that the words of diplomatic engagement and negotiation are a seductive substitute for action and the attendant unforeseen consequences, setbacks, and mistakes that always attend the use of force.

The war against Islamic jihad has illustrated these difficulties on every front. During the Clinton administration, several opportunities to take out bin Laden or destroy the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan were lost because of the political risks to the President, particularly after he became embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. After 9/11 graphically illustrated the failure to “connect the dots” outlining a looming threat, Congress authorized the war in Iraq to destroy once and for all Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities. Yet within six months, Howard Dean’s meteoric rise from obscurity to a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination, one fueled by anti-war sentiment, compelled Senators John Kerry and John Edwards to repudiate the war for which they had both voted.

In 2007, at the nadir of our struggle in Iraq, Democratic candidates opposed the “surge” in forces that turned that conflict around. Candidate Barack Obama called the surge a “mistake” and a “reckless escalation,” Senator Harry Reid said, “this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything,” and Senator Hillary Clinton dismissed the evidence of the surge’s success presented by General Petraeus, saying his report “required a willing suspension of disbelief.” Meanwhile the media, led by The New York Times, sensationalized the mistakes, cruelties, setbacks, and casualties typical of every war ever fought, highlighting the more dramatic “present sufferings” at the expense of ignoring the more distant future “greater sufferings attendant upon defeat.”

All these instances of political opportunism, impatience, and the reckless pursuit of “accountability” have made it harder for us to “persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles,” thus compromising our attempt to serve our long-term interests by creating stable states in the Middle East.

So too has our misplaced faith in diplomacy, which is a convenient way to avoid all such political costs, while creating the illusion that something is being done. The crisis of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons illustrates the danger of this shortsighted expediency. For all Obama’s “outreach,” laudatory letters to the regime, protestations of his admiration for Iran, empty threats, toothless deadlines, and leaky sanctions, the mullahs continue to make progress toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Only their own technical incompetence or internal political schisms offers any hope that they will fail. But though we are in effect doing nothing significant to insure that they indeed do fail, and that we avoid the radical disruption of power in the Middle East that would follow their success, our diplomatic “outreach” creates the politically useful illusion of activity, replete with press releases and photo-ops. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime inches ever closer to nuclear capability, using our fecklessness to buy time and misdirect scrutiny.

Given such weaknesses, how is it that democracies have been some of history’s most lethal opponents? The answer is that, as Tocqueville points out, they are capable of “a sudden effort of remarkable vigor,” one made possible by the advantages of political freedom and autonomy that since Marathon has propelled the democratic citizen-soldier to victory over the minions of tyranny. Yet that “vigor” has in turn been dependent on patriotism: a fierce affection for the democratic way of life that makes the state the “common thing” of the citizens, and on the certainty that its shared ideals and values are superior to any other, and hence worth fighting, dying, and killing for –– and worth accepting the brutal costs of conflict, with its tragic mistakes, cruelties, and suffering.

In short, democracies have been able to overcome their weaknesses in times of crisis because of political virtue: courage, self-sacrifice, duty, and patriotism. For many today, however, patriotism has been discredited, tarred with the brush of a xenophobic and bigoted nationalism allegedly responsible for the great slaughter of the two World Wars. A naive internationalism and fealty to some fantasy “global community” is supposed to be our true object of affection. Worse yet, we have institutionalized in our popular culture, schools, and media the historical guilt and self-loathing that for decades has comprised left-wing intellectual fashion, and that legitimizes distaste for one’s own country. For how can anyone love such a global villain, the font of all suffering, war, exploitation, poverty, and environmental degradation, let alone kill and die for her?

It was patriotic energy that fueled the “sudden effort of remarkable vigor” America displayed after Pearl Harbor, and that made it possible to wage two wars against two of history’s most formidable military machines. With such energy, citizens can accept the tragic costs of conflict and overcome the weaknesses of democracies arising from a political culture that can favor short-term political advantage over long-term security needs. But without that patriotic fervor, those immediate costs and sufferings trump future dangers, and policies of appeasement become more attractive. Whether a critical mass of Americans has lost that patriotic energy will become evident in the coming years.

©2010 Bruce S. Thornton

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