For Millennials, patriotism doesn’t mean compliance

“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” – Mark Twain

What do President Teddy Roosevelt, author Mark Twain and theologian G.K. Chesterton have in common?

Each understood what patriotism is—and, more importantly, what it isn’t.

Each also understood it in a way that is, unfortunately all too rare today.

Recent polling research has revealed not only that the Millennial generation is more politically independent than our elders, but also that we’re less patriotic… or at least, that’s how the poll results are presented, with dire headlines like, “A generational gap in American patriotism.”

But is this actually true? It depends on what you mean by patriotism.

Young people are about 15% less likely than average to say the U.S. is the greatest country in the world (32% vs. 48%), and only half say the phrase “a patriotic person” describes them well. Millennials also more likely to criticize or question the government in wartime, and the majority thinks, “that the US is too involved in other countries’ affairs.”

While pundits like David Frum bemoan a future where Americans are “less united by patriotism,” I’m far less concerned about my generation.

You see, it’s not actually patriotism that Millennials lack. What they reject is unconditional support for whatever our government does.

And that’s where Roosevelt, Twain, and Chesterton come in. What they understood—and what commentators like Frum don’t get—is that patriotism doesn’t simply mean uncritically backing government action.

In fact, the opposite is true. Patriotism doesn’t mean compliance.

Twain put it most succinctly: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” And does most of what our government does deserve Millennials’ support? No, it doesn’t.

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in foreign policy. My generation can scarcely remember a time without constant war, and Millennials are far more in favor of an America with a more humble, actually defense-based foreign policy. Skeptical of overseas interventionism, Millennials have made a “Jeffersonian swing” toward practicality about the human and financial costs of war, staunch moral opposition to civilian casualties, and support for the rule of law.

These days, a growing majority of Americans support a non-interventionist foreign policy of peace and trade, but our government isn’t taking the cue. And the Republican and Democrat establishments which constantly promise to fix this mess? Well, they haven’t exactly been successful in our lifetimes—and they don’t offer truly distinct solutions.

So yes, it is true that Millennials aren’t exactly DC’s biggest cheerleaders.

Can you blame us?

Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t. “Patriotism,” he said, “means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country.” Roosevelt continued:

It is patriotic to support [the president] insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.

Roosevelt’s vital connection of patriotism to truth is best preserved in the Millennial generation, the age group with the strongest support for whistleblowers like NSA exposer Edward Snowden, who take immense personal risk to tell the truth about government. Millennial support of Snowden reveals that we’re not unpatriotic; we’re just unwilling to support the government in its efforts trample all over our liberties.

Big difference.

As Chesterton vividly put it, “’My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” Though Millennials are more critical of our government than other generations, we’re also more optimistic about getting mom to sober up: 55% of young people say “the country’s best days are ahead” of us.

And how are we going to get to these better days?

Well, that’s the one subject on which Americans of all ages agree: 90% of us say our freedoms are the top reason we are a successful nation.

So rather than judging patriotism by America’s willingness to embark foolish, misguided and costly adventures abroad, maybe we should instead do more to promote liberty at home?

That would be truly patriotic.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *