THROWBACK: On patriotism and democracy

In one of Redstate’s previous iterations, several years back, some of us maintained a running debate on the meaning of patriotism. The old archive site does not lend itself to facile searching, so I fear that much of what follows will be both repetitive and inadequate; but this was always (for me at least) a fruitful conversation, despite its many difficulties and frustrations, and I see no reason why it should not continue.

The parties to this debate are many, their individual nuances and complexities abundant, but the main lines of argument cluster around a series of questions. (1) How much of the content of patriotism is ideological, that is, how much does the love of one’s patria depend upon the political ideas associated with the patria? (2) What is the role of pre-rational passion or affection or veneration in the formation and maintenance of patriotism? (3) How do the reasoning and feeling aspects of man bear upon his love for his native land?

Each of these questions presents us with some presuppositions and some implications. Question (3), for instance, presupposes that man is a dualistic creature; that reasoning and feeling mean different things, but are each part of what it means to be man. Question (1), meanwhile, implies a disputation not merely over what political ideas should be included in patriotism, but even over whether political ideas, of any kind, should be included at all.

Let us briefly consider a single political idea, or at least a single category of political idea, in its relation to patriotism: democracy. The word means rule by the many, which in practice translates to some kind of majoritarian, plebiscitary, or representative rule. Democracy also strongly implies political equality as a driving principle. This brings it into some tension with another common political idea, namely freedom, because freedom, in order to have any meaning, must allow for possibility of unequal outcomes. Democracy, especially when it is preached as a universal ideal, also comes into tension with particular loyalties. Strictly speaking, the natural family is an offense against equality: its internal arrangements are hierarchical and particular, especially with respect to those outside it. And from the universal perspective, favoring one’s own nation or people is certainly an offensive against equality.

So already, after only a paragraph of exposition, obvious difficulties arise with any attempt to conceive of an ideological patriotism that embraces a vision of universal democracy. Democracy looks askance on any notion of a favoritism or hierarchy. It cannot really allow the possibility that my love of country will issue in my prejudice in favor of my countrymen. Such things are disreputable according to the principle of equality.

Consider some possibilities under democratic forms:

What if, let us say, the democracy, the majority opinion, the general will, decides that dispossession of the property-owning classes would be a good policy? What if, that is, a sovereign democracy settles upon a policy of full-on socialism? To me the obvious answer to that is obvious enough: the democracy is dead wrong, no matter what degree of majoritarian opinion it commands, and ought to be opposed by all patriotic men. Patriotic men do not stand idly as their neighbors are dispossessed. My answer, in other words, is that patriotism and democracy may stand in posture of polar opposition.

Or what if the democracy tries something even more subtle. Let us say that instead of looting the property-owners to fund itself, the democracy connives at enslaving a certain class? Let the democracy conspire to rob men of their labor instead of their property. If the slavery is concealed and denied, it is not hard to see how the democracy may even come to forget that slavery exists. In any case, again I say the greater patriotism is to resist, hamper, delay, and frustrate the advance of the servile regime, at all points, with an eye toward throwing it off completely.

Okay, I hope what I have kept so far unspoken may now be presented more baldly, but with comprehension:

Any theory which infuses into the content of American patriotism the idea of democracy as the highest state of human politics is a dubious theory indeed.

But of course, the fact is that any ideological construct — democracy, freedom, equality, order, tradition, whatever — can be subjected to the same sort of critical examination which I have just now applied to democracy, and be shown by that examination to be wanting. This leaves us at the broader possibility that:

Any theory which infuses ideological content (of any kind) into patriotism is dubious.