Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dueling Patriotisms

John McCain Bio Tour

Are conservatives more patriotic than lefties?

It seems like the answer's straightforward: On the big issues of the day - which I see as the defense of traditional values (like
national greatness) and questions of war and peace - conservatives win hands down.

Simply, it's just hard to call yourself a patriot when you're rooting for the other side.

Yet, there's an interesting little kerfuffle on the topic breaking out in the blogosphere, with
Peter Wehner at Commentary taking on Joe Klein at Swampland.

Klein's clever, but he's badly outmatched by Wehner on this issue.

Here's Wehner's

In a rather stunning sentence that Ramesh Ponnuru flagged over at National Review’s The Corner, Joe Klein, in saying that the “chronic disease among Democrats” is their tendency to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right, wrote this:

This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature.

As Ponnuru points out, can you imagine Klein’s outrage if the charge had been made the other way - that the conservative message of national improvement is more “patriotic” than liberalism?

Read the whole thing, but especially Wehner's knockout blow:

Beyond that, is Klein really prepared to argue that the aim of the institutional strongholds of contemporary liberalism - whether we are talking about the academy or Hollywood or others - is to deepen our love for America and increase our civic devotion and pride? That their efforts will make us a more perfect union? Does Klein believe that during the last several decades liberals rather than conservatives have been more likely to reject cultural relativism and radical multiculturalism? Have liberals rather than conservatives been more vocal in arguing why the United States is better in every way than its totalitarian enemies? Is Ted Kennedy really more patriotic in his “liberal message of national improvement” than Ronald Reagan was in his conservative message of national improvement?

To be sure, patriotism is a complicated matter, as it has many elements to it and tensions within it. It is certainly not the property of any one political party. It is not blind support for America, just as it is not reflexive opposition to America. But what we can say, I think, is that ... part of what it has traditionally meant to be an American is to believe in our most cherished creeds - most especially that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Patriotism also demands that we hold an honest view of our nation — which, in the case of America, means we should acknowledge our injustices (past and present) even as we acknowledge that, in Allan Bloom’s words, “America tells one story: the unbroken ineluctable progress of freedom and equality.” And of course patriotism requires us to sacrifice for our country, to defend her when she is under assault, and to do what we can to help America live up to her founding ideals.

I like how Wehner notes how patriotism's a complex thing.

Not only should it be "bipartisan property," it's a shame that it's not more so, especially now, when being patriotic for many on the left is spitting on the troops with
endless portrayals about how military service-personnel have been "victimized" by the Bush's war policies. That's hardly patriotic, and that's just one example.

But here's Klein's most recent
rejoinder to the debate:

Pete Wehner, former chief White House propagandist for the Iraq war, has taken me to task for claiming that liberalism is more optimistic and therefore inherently more patriotic than conservatism. That takes some nerve. He would compare my statement to the constant drumbeat of right-wingnutters questioning the patriotism of those who do not support the Bush Administration's foreign policy foolishness. But I didn't do that at all. I didn't question the patriotism of conservatives: I simply argued that it is more patriotic to be optimistic about the chance that our collective will--that is, the best work of government--will succeed, rather than that it will fail or impinge on freedom.

In others words, it is more patriotic to be in favor of civil rights legislation than to oppose be in favor of social security and medicare than to oppose them...and to hope that the better angels of our legislators--acting in concert, in compromise--will produce a universal health insurance system and an alternative energy plan that we can all be proud of. Conservative skepticism has its place; it can be a valuable corrective when government goes flabby and corrupt or engages in wild neo-colonialist fantasies abroad.

If you read further, you'll see Klein backs off a bit from the private interest versus public purpose contrast.

But as he continues, he buries his own case for the left's patriotism by more vehemently condemning the Bush administration as an unmitigated disaster:

Those who have stood in the path of progress have been wrong far more often than they've been right. And those who spent the past seven years as propagandists for the one of the worst, and needlessly blood-soaked, presidencies in American history, have such a fabulous record of self-righteous wrong-headedness that they needn't be taken seriously at all.

Frankly, for all the problems of the Bush administration, it simply strains credibility to suggest conservative backers for President Bush and the Iraq war are servile "propagandists."

Klein's gone completely the other way: He suggests that it's unpatriotic to back the administration's forward policy of democracy promotion in Iraq. The historical record is actually more in line with the Bush's agenda - from McKinley to Roosevelt to Reagan - than Klein acknowledges.

So, who wins? Perhaps the notion of "bipartisan patriotism" isn't such a possiblity after all.

Photo Credit: New York Times