(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!)

On January 20th of this year, the nation anxiously watched the peaceful transfer of power, long a hallmark of democracy, after more than two months of heated claims of inaccurate presidential election outcomes, which culminated in a riot at the Capitol just two weeks before.  The day was marked with historic firsts – Kamala Harris’s inauguration as the first female, African American and Southeast Asian American vice president, and the inclusion of the first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, as one of the contributors to the ceremony.  Gorman’s inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, captured many profound insights, but also called Americans together to act, “It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” Her words demonstrate the challenges for a people with a complex history to reconcile and reform their country, rather than fully reject it because of past and present conflicts and injustices.

Reflecting on his experiences as a journalist in What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, Dan Rather offers his perspective on values that Americans have previously shared, and perhaps can once again, unite.  Centering his argument in a discussion of patriotism, he characterizes our duty to “see [our] love of country imbued with a responsibility to bear witness to its faults…we are bound together by a grand experiment in government, the rule of law, and common bonds of citizenship” (11-12).  Rather’s definition suggests a valuable approach for us to take with any human-constructed structure or system, as well as with those humans within it – individual error and corruption mean that we will always have mistakes to overcome and less noble impulses to curb. In evaluating the values that he sees as essential to the good of our nation, Rather reflects both Tocqueville’s recognition of human challenges in our system, as well as his optimism for its reform.

Among the five values that Rather suggests compose the central elements of patriotism, perhaps freedom is the most recognizable of our American experiment.   The appeals to rights and freedoms led colonists to declare independence, fight the revolution and create not one but two political systems – the first of which, the Articles of Confederation, was short-lived.  But ultimately, it is the importance of political freedom that is most essential to our system’s functioning.  Our country has been pushed to recognize the importance of all citizens being able have voice in our system and yet, we still lag behind most comparable systems in our voter turnout.  Not only do other nations make it easier for voters to participate, but we have seen measures over time designed to discourage or even prevent some Americans from voting. Rather highlights the grave concerns that such actions should hold for supporters of democracy noting, “[t]o suppress the vote is to make a mockery if democracy.  And those who do so are essentially acknowledging that their policies are unpopular” (31).  Beyond voting, our system of majority rule incorporates recognition of that they may not always have right on their side. The privilege of dissent, to “force all of us to question our dogmas and biases,” and the role of a free and independent press, to protect against “the corrupting effects of unfettered power on the discourse of democracy” through investigative journalism, are protected by the First Amendment (42, 53).  These elements allow our system to function more effectively, but Rather finds a dedication to freedom alone insufficient to define patriotism, as these freedoms exist within a shared social context.

The value of community as an element of patriotism reflects the fact that our work inherently obliges some collective work. Collaborating – or simply coexisting – with others requires a stance of inclusion, not only in recognizing individuals from marginalized groups have value and worth, but also voice (“Inclusion”).  Interacting with others who come from different life experiences means that we will not know their perspectives first hand, but from which we can learn – “[w]hen we live in a self-selected bubble of friends, neighbors, and colleagues, it is too easy to forget how important it is to try to walk in the shoes of others” (101).  The membership in our community continues to evolve from the earliest immigrants to those of the present day, further shifting our experiences of inclusion and empathy. Although the response to newcomers has not always been welcoming, Rather notes that America has been “a blended land of ever-increasing diversity that so far has proven the strength and wisdom of our great experiment” (120).  When we see the value of not only ourselves but others, we have the ability to leverage our multiple efforts for greater reward.

Rather situates his work with an epigraph from Tocqueville that captures the hope for our – or other – nations.  Within Tocqueville’s assessment on the functional governing of democracy, he noted that “[t]he Greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults” (Vol 1, Chapter VIII, Part III, par. 17.)  In this section of Democracy in America, as elsewhere in his tome, Tocqueville acknowledged that our chosen form of government has both areas of strength and weakness.  For him, the ability of democratic republics/ democracies to recognize their errors and make changes to law and structure was its saving grace. The people might not always, or even often, get it right but they have the ability to learn over time.  He questioned the ability for democracy to succeed in its foreign policy (Vol 1, Chapter VIII, Part III, “Conduct Of Foreign Affairs By The American Democracy”).  Yet the ingenuity of the framers’ design placed the primacy of external affairs in the hands of a single executive, limiting but not removing popular influence, and tempering executive power with checks by the legislature.  Despite some of the specific shortcomings of government based on the consent of the people, it offers greater opportunity than other systems.

Tocqueville valued the incorporation of various voices and a willingness to include them allow a nation to identify its errors and work to repair them.[1] Over the course of our nation’s history, constitutional, legal and social reforms have extended political rights to additional voices. The inclusion and empathy that Rather extols does not come without practice, which Tocqueville noted our political system affords us:

For in the United States it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfilment of a duty or the exercise of a right, and a constant though gentle motion is thus kept up in society which animates without disturbing it (Tocqueville, Vol 1, Chapter V, Part I, “Public Spirit Of The Townships Of New England,” par. 3).

Our commitment to the well-being of our nation and its people, not simply its persistence, requires something of us in turn; it also requires that we practice with a recognition that many others also belong within our community.

As we move through the initial days of a new presidential administration, especially in the midst of the pandemic and other pressing issues, it might be easy to continue to draw lines and pick battles rather than see how we can strengthen each other and our collective actions.  Certainly, we should condemn activities that are harmful to our nation’s existence, but we should also be careful not to use assertions of patriotism as a means to discourage change that can lead to beneficial changes.  Rather’s examination of patriotism as conceived from freedom and community, as well as the values of exploration, responsibility and character, offers a nuanced and thought-provoking set of options.  Likewise, in the closing lines of her poem, Gorman reveals the opportunity before us:

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover and every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it (The Hill We Climb).

If we frame our sense of patriotism not in terms of whether individuals speak and act in ways that we accord, but as ways in which we can identify the ways in which our nation may improve, we are most likely to ensure our nation’s continuation for ourselves and our posterity.

[1] Although not relevant to the central elements of this post, readers should note that Chapter XIII includes discussion of the impact of colonization on Indian tribes that reflects Tocqueville’s lack of knowledge as to how these populations constructed their own civilizations, different as they were from those of the earlier European culture that shaped the formation of government.


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