The Patriotism Gap and Other Disconnects

By Jill Lawrence

July 3, 2014 6 min read

Once I saw a presidential hopeful tear up, and I'm not talking about Hillary Clinton in a coffee shop in New Hampshire. This was Evan Bayh, then a Democratic senator considering a White House bid, and he literally choked up in a hotel function room as he recalled a citizenship ceremony he had conducted when he was the Indiana secretary of state.

I thought of Bayh as President Barack Obama talked about some of the guests invited to his annual Independence Day barbecue: soldiers who risked their lives for America before they were Americans. "That's how much they love this country. They were prepared to fight and die for an America they did not yet fully belong to," Obama said. Then he paused for a few beats, blinked a few times, and added that they would become naturalized citizens in a White House ceremony on the Fourth of July.

There's something about swearing in new Americans that summons emotion. Some of the passion in Obama's remarks was rooted in having to acknowledge failure — the reality that for now, with the Republican-controlled House refusing to move, there is no hope for comprehensive immigration reform. But some of it was born of the gut conviction that immigration makes us stronger.

That view is shared, of course, by many Republicans. But the GOP at the moment is dominated by conservatives who want to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, while Democrats would offer most an earned path to citizenship. The conservative position is that strength flows from the rule of law. The liberal position is that strength flows from change.

The contrast illustrates well-documented psychology and values gaps between liberals and conservatives. While there are obviously many exceptions, research has shown that in general, as summarized by Scientific American in a 2012 article, conservatives are more anxious, more attuned to potential threats, more orderly and more self-disciplined. Liberals, meanwhile, are more open, seek more novelty and are more concerned about fairness.

While immigration is a striking example of the disconnect, it is far from the only one. We keep hearing from the Cheneys and other neoconservatives that Obama is deliberately weakening the country. What they mean is he is not eager enough for their taste to ship out troops, rain airstrikes, arm rebel factions and set up no-fly zones. They view strength through the lens of force.

Conservatives also gauge strength by how the elite — "job creators" and financiers — is faring. Are their businesses and investments thriving? Would lower taxes and less regulation untie their hands and set off a boom? Their answer to those questions is almost always yes. Strength to most conservatives equates to a smaller government with minimal taxes and little or no debt.

For liberals, the country is only as strong as its middle class, its minimum-wage worker, its first-generation college student and, yes, its auto industry. They take a direct approach to jobs, education, health care, higher wages, better infrastructure, and competitive manufacturing — that is, we need to spend what it takes to make progress even if we have to raise taxes or borrow money or make the government bigger.

As if those divides are not enough, there's also a long-standing patriotism gap between liberals and conservatives. In fact, "solid liberals" in a new Pew Research Center survey were only half as likely as "business conservatives" to say they were proud to be Americans. Liberals practice the glass-half-full brand of patriotism: Of course I love America, but National Security Agency. Guantanamo. Iraq. Poverty. Slavery. There's a dark side to the conservative patriotism brand as well, exemplified by the 2004 attacks on John Kerry's military service and carping in 2008 about the absence of a flag pin on Obama's lapel.

New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote about the liberal-conservative split in his 2012 book, "The Righteous Mind." "He wants the left to acknowledge that the right's emphasis on laws, institutions, customs and religion is valuable," Scientific American wrote in summarizing his work. He says liberal values are needed as well, to limit harm done by corporations, to make sure the rights of the weak are respected, and to foster the diversity that leads to innovation.

We don't all fit neatly on one side of the line or the other. For instance, I personally am terrified by the federal debt but also believe that higher, fairer taxes are part of the solution. I agree with most liberal priorities, but I'm close to being persuaded that we should drop the Affordable Care Act requirement that large employers provide health insurance. Also, we display a flag at my house on patriotic holidays.

The fusion of ideas from the left and the right is the real source of our strength. Keep that in mind as you blow out the candles on America's birthday cake and make a wish for our future.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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