4th of July Edition: Neoliberalism and the Decline of Patriotism

Polling indicates that the majority of Americans are still proud of their country. But patriotism has certainly declined since the late 1960s.  I suspect this varies greatly by class and region, with the greatest decline being in the North and West and among the bourgeoisie and wealthy.  My partner and I wondered why. Our thoughts (not that we both necessarily agree on all of this):

1. The New Left: In the 1960s, New Leftists chanted on college campuses, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Western Civ. has got to go.” After World War I, American colleges started teaching Western Civilization courses to try to cultivate pride in a common Western heritage and to celebrate the great values and contributions of the West, with the hope that a common Western identity would prevent a future world war. That didn’t work.  But the point is, college history departments defended and promoted the values of the West: individualism, pursuit of knowledge, democracy, etc. The New Left countered that Western civilization was about slavery, genocide, and imperialism, which were to be rejected.

Some New Left college students went on to become professors, journalists, and film makers, which enabled them to spread their contempt for the West and, therefore America.  One of the ways that the New Left accomplished this was with multiculturalism.  This made patriotism appear racist, bigoted, patriarchal, and imperialistic.  To be patriotic is to say your country and people are better than others.

2. Individualism: Capitalism and Liberalism (in the broadest sense of the word) lead us to view ourselves as atomized individuals – discrete and without roots.  We are entirely self-made and self-directed.  This view of ourselves makes it harder to identify with our country and our own people.  Indeed, it can lead us to doubt that we are a member of a people.  And one cannot be patriotic if one has no people to love.

The decline of patriotism serves the interests of neoliberal capitalism.  The more we view ourselves as atomized individuals and abandon the love our country, the easier it is to accept “free trade” treaties that contribute to the deindustrialization of America and mass immigration that brings down the costs of domestic labor.  If I am right that patriotism is strongest within the working class, then it is not surprising that it is so, because patriotism serves their class interests.  I don’t believe that’s the only reason they’re more patriotic; surely they are also less affected by the New Left, which was a middle class movement.

In the 1960s and 70s, to reject the powerful patriotism of the Cold War was rebellious and counter-culture.  Now, in the face of popular media and education shaped by the ironic alliance of the New Left and neoliberalism, it is patriotism that is counter-culture.

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