Patriotism and Progress

This article originally appeared in Discourse Magazine on July 8, 2022. It has been republished with permission. 

Surveys show that patriotism is unpopular among progressives. To many of them, love of country is a divisive and backward-looking sentiment that stands in the way of progress. The reality, however, is just the opposite: Patriotism can promote the type of shared national identity and optimistic mindset that facilitates progress. If we want to build a better tomorrow, we need Americans on the left, right and in between to adopt a patriotic attitude.

The Progressive Patriotism Problem

Most Americans claim to be patriotic. For example, according to a 2021 Gallup survey, 87% of Republicans, 65% of independents and 62% of Democrats report that they are extremely or very proud to be American. A study I conducted in 2020 found that the vast majority of Americans—across political, gender, racial and income categories—are proud to be American. Other surveys paint a similar picture of Americans generally united by national pride. While they are increasingly distrustful of many institutions and are concerned about the future of the nation, they remain grateful and proud to be American.

But this patriotism is not shared by many on the progressive left. A 2020 report from More in Common indicates that only 34% of progressive activists are proud to be American. However, because progressive activists increasingly dominate academic institutions and popular media outlets, their negative attitude may have an outsized effect in undermining patriotism among young Americans.

For instance, in a 2021 survey conducted by the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, 45% of American college students reported that their classes and other academic activities had given them a more negative view of the United States. Only 11% indicated that their college classes and activities had given them a more positive view of their nation. And this wasn’t confined to students on the left: Both liberal and conservative students were far more likely to say their college experience had changed their view of the U.S. to be more negative than to be more positive.

More and more, universities are treating ideas, symbols and rituals that promote or even subtly support patriotism as problematic. For example, some American colleges have removed the American flag entirely from their campus, while others, such as Stanford, describe statements such as “America is the land of opportunity” as microaggressions.

A Positive National Identity Leads To a Progress-Oriented Mindset

Progressive activists may want to improve the world, but their negative attitude about their own nation is a psychological barrier to progress. It is important to judge people as individuals and be committed to personal liberty, but humans are a group-oriented species. Our tribal nature can lead to prejudice, discrimination and even violent conflict, but it also facilitates the shared goals, social trust, group coordination and personal sacrifice that advance society. Group identities are thus a central and often positive feature of human social and cultural life. When people have a positive attitude about a group they belong to, they are more psychologically healthy, which makes them more likely to have a progress-oriented mindset.

For instance, in a report recently released by the Archbridge Institute, I examined the relationship between American national pride and a progress-oriented mindset and found that, compared with Americans who are not proud of their national identity, proud Americans are dramatically more optimistic about the future of their nation, the world and progress on a range of specific national and global challenges.

In one part of this report, I focused specifically on American college seniors because they will play an important role in driving the future of our society, but only a slight majority (56%) are proud to be American. I wanted to see if the students who are proud to be American have a more progress-oriented mindset than students who are not.

The discouraging news is that college students are generally pessimistic about making progress on major national and global issues. But promoting patriotism among young Americans may inspire a more optimistic and progress-oriented mindset. For example, only 30% of students who reported not being proud to be American think humans will make significant progress on climate change in their lifetime. However, this number jumped to 64% among those who are proud to be American. Similar differences were found on the issues of poverty, racism and other forms of bigotry and political polarization.

Of course, it is possible that national pride is not responsible for the observed differences. Perhaps optimistic people are just more likely to have a positive attitude about both their national identity and the future. Or maybe these differences are driven by other factors, such as political ideology or socioeconomic status. But even when controlling for these variables, national pride remained a statistically significant predictor of positive attitudes about the future of the U.S., the world and progress on the specific challenges of climate change, poverty, racism and other forms of bigotry and political polarization. There appears to be something unique about the relationship between national pride and a positive attitude about human progress.

Optimism Is a Key Ingredient of Progress

Why should we care that national pride goes hand in hand with optimistic beliefs? Research indicates that optimism inspires the aspirations and activities that drive progress. When people are optimistic about the future, they are more goal-focused, persistent, innovative, cooperative and engaged in civic life. To build a better future, people need to have a positive vision and believe in their ability to make that vision a reality. Optimism energizes this type of thinking.

It is worth noting that national pride isn’t exclusively related to optimism about the future of one’s own nation. Proud Americans also have a more optimistic outlook about the world and about progress on challenges that are not nation-specific, such as climate change. Perhaps by helping people feel connected to something larger and more enduring than the individual self, a positive national identity cultivates the optimistic and progress-oriented mindset needed to address global challenges.

Patriotism offers a path toward reducing polarization and advancing progress. Americans have diverse opinions on what they see as the biggest problems that need our attention. And even when they agree about the problems, they often disagree on the best way to solve them. For example, on the issue of climate change, some Americans want stronger government regulation and coordination, whereas others believe private-sector entrepreneurship and innovation offer the best approach. If Americans with diverse viewpoints see themselves as united by patriotism, they may be less biased by left versus right ideologies and more willing to explore and test competing ideas and compromise when needed. In other words, patriotism might inspire pragmatism.

To successfully unite Americans around a shared positive group identity, it is important to distinguish patriotism from nationalism. In his Atlantic column, Arthur Brooks nicely captures the difference. He notes that patriotism reflects “civic pride in our democratic institutions and shared culture,” whereas nationalism is more of a “sense of superiority or identity, defined by demographics such as race, religion, or language.”

Americans on the far left appear to be equating patriotism with nationalism and thus labeling patriotism as a right-wing sentiment. This mis-definition surrenders the concept of patriotism to ideologues on the far right. But if progressives really want progress, they must reject this idea that patriotism and nationalism are synonymous. In a diverse society like America, nationalism is an especially divisive idea. It suggests a very rigid view of what it means to be an American. Patriotism gives more space for the diversity and dynamism that characterizes America.

When properly understood and promoted, patriotism isn’t a barrier to progress. Rather, it inspires progress by shepherding millions of people with wide-ranging personalities, personal goals, family histories and life experiences together in the service of something larger and more enduring than their individual lives. Fortunately, most Americans are patriotic. If we want America to remain a flourishing society and a global leader in human progress, we must help future generations of Americans see patriotism as a positive, inclusive and forward-looking sentiment.

Clay Routledge
Clay Routledge
Clay Routledge is the Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute. He is also co-editor of Profectus, an online magazine dedicated to human progress and flourishing. As a leading expert in existential psychology, Clay’s work focuses on helping people reach their full potential and build meaningful lives. Clay is a highly cited researcher who has published more than 100 scholarly papers, co-edited three academic books, authored three books, and received numerous awards for his research and mentorship. As a public intellectual, Clay has authored dozens of articles for popular outlets, and his work has been covered by numerous newspapers, television and radio shows, podcasts, and documentary programs. His newest book, Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life, was published in 2023.
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