In the last two weeks, the Supreme Court has
allowed police in Arizona to demand proof of citizenship from people
they stop on other grounds (while throwing out the rest of Arizona’s
immigration law), and has allowed the federal government to require
everyone buy health insurance — even younger and healthier people — or
pay a penalty.
What do these decisions — and the national conversations they’ve
engendered — have to do with patriotism? A great deal. Because
underlying them are two different versions of American patriotism.
The Arizona law is aimed at securing the nation from outsiders. The
purpose of the health care law is to join together to provide affordable
health care for all.
The first version of patriotism is protecting America from people
beyond our borders who might otherwise overrun us — whether immigrants
coming here illegally or foreign powers threatening us with aggression.
The second version of patriotism is joining together for the common
good. That might mean contributing to a bake sale to raise money for a
local school or volunteering in a homeless shelter. It also means paying
our fair share of taxes so our community or nation has enough resources
to meet all our needs, and preserving and protecting our system of
This second meaning of patriotism recognizes our responsibilities to
one another as citizens of the same society. It requires collaboration,
teamwork, tolerance, and selflessness.
The Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect, but in requiring younger and
healthier people to buy insurance that will help pay for the healthcare
needs of older and sicker people, it summons the second version of
Too often these days we don’t recognize and don’t practice this
second version. We’re shouting at each other rather than coming together
— conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican, native-born
versus foreign born, non-unionized versus unionized, religious versus
Our politics has grown nastier and meaner. Negative advertising is
filling the airwaves this election year. We’re learning more about why
we shouldn’t vote for someone than why we should.
As I’ve said before, some elected officials have substituted
partisanship for patriotism, placing party loyalty above loyalty to
America. Just after the 2010 election, the Senate minority leader was
asked about his party’s highest priority for the next two years. You
might have expected him to say it was to get the economy going and
reduce unemployment, or control the budge deficit, or achieve peace and
stability in the Middle East. But he said the highest priority would be
to make sure the President did not get a second term of office.
Our system of government is America’s most precious and fragile
possession, the means we have of joining together as a nation for the
common good. It requires not only our loyalty but ongoing vigilance to
keep it working well. Yet some of our elected representatives act as if
they don’t care what happens to it as long as they achieve their
The filibuster used to be rarely used. But over the last decade the
threat of a filibuster has become standard operating procedure,
virtually shutting down the Senate for periods of time.
Meanwhile, some members of the House have been willing to shut down
the entire government in order to get their way. Last summer they were
even willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States in
order to achieve their goals.
In 2010 the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to unlimited money
from billionaires and corporations overwhelming our democracy, on the
bizarre theory that corporations are people under the First Amendment.
Congress won’t even pass legislation requiring their names be
Some members of Congress have signed a pledge — not of allegiance to
the United States but of allegiance to a man named Grover Norquist, who
has never been elected by anyone. Norquist’s “no-tax” pledge is
interpreted only by Norquist, who says closing a tax loophole is
tantamount to raising taxes and therefore violates the pledge.
True patriots don’t hate the government of the United States. They’re
proud of it. Generations of Americans have risked their lives to
preserve and protect it. They may not like everything it does, and they
justifiably worry then special interests gain too much power over it.
But true patriots work to improve the U.S. government, not destroy it.
But these days some Americans loathe the government, and are doing
everything they can to paralyze it, starve it, and make the public so
cynical about it that it’s no longer capable of doing much of anything.
Norquist says he wants to shrink it down to a size it can be “drowned in
When arguing against paying their fair share of taxes, some wealthy
Americans claim “it’s my money.” They forget it’s their nation, too. And
unless they pay their fair share of taxes, American can’t meet the
basic needs of our people. True patriotism means paying for America.
So when you hear people talk about patriotism, be warned. They may
mean securing the nation’s borders, not securing our society. Within
those borders, each of us is on our own. These people don’t want a
government that actively works for all our citizens.
Yet true patriotism isn’t mainly about excluding outsiders seen as
our common adversaries. It’s about coming together for the common good.
Robert Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He writes a blog at www.robertreich.org. His most recent book is Beyond Outrage