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The last refuge of the GOP

Republicans purport to be the party of patriotism, but the flag they're waving is becoming a bit frayed.

September 09, 2006|Geoffrey Nunberg | GEOFFREY NUNBERG is a linguist at UC Berkeley's School of Information. His new book, "Talking Right," is about politics and language.

'WE WERE not Democrat or Republican on that horrible day. We were not liberal or conservative. We were Americans, by God!" As it happens, those sentences appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Sept. 13, 2001, but you could see the same thing everywhere you looked in the days and weeks after 9/11.

For a moment, it really did look as if everything was going to be different. "Sept. 11 made it safe for liberals to be patriots," George Packer wrote in the New York Times, as many of them found themselves hanging flags and making other unfamiliar gestures.

Thoughtful liberals denounced the "one-eyed left" -- as Todd Gitlin describes them -- who called the attacks payback for American crimes.

Thoughtful conservatives recoiled at assertions by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson that the attacks were God's punishment on abortionists, feminists, gays and the ACLU.

It couldn't have lasted. "America Unites," read the banner at Fox News in the days after the attack, but what it really meant was "Welcome aboard." For the last 30 years, after all, conservatives have treated patriotism as their own gated community.

"Patriotic liberal" may not be an oxymoron, exactly, but it's an unexpected collocation, like "dour Italian." On Google, it's outnumbered by "patriotic conservative" by 20 to 1. So the right took the liberals' tentative displays of patriotic feeling as an admission that they had seen the error of their America-blaming ways -- a sign, as David Brooks put it in the Daily Standard, that "the most reactionary liberals amongst us are capable of change."

Yet liberals were hardly "rediscovering" patriotism; most of them had been deeply devoted to this nation all along. Even before the attacks, a large majority of Democrats described themselves as "very proud" or "extremely proud" to be an American -- not quite as many as Republicans, to be sure, but still vastly more than the citizens of long-established nations such as Britain, France and Japan. Such unanimity isn't usually the stuff of which wedge issues are made.

BUT SINCE the Vietnam War era, liberals have been wary about the displays and avowals that have always given American patriotism its singular character. "It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840. And Europeans ever since have marveled at our enthusiasm for showing our flag and expatiating on our national virtues -- not just for the edification of foreigners but as a reproach to other Americans whose undemonstrativeness suggests a want of proper patriotic devotion.

It's a curious characteristic of American patriotism, in fact, that most of us think we're more patriotic than the next guy. In surveys, Americans greatly exaggerate the "patriotism gap," dramatically underestimating the proportion of their countrymen who say they're extremely patriotic. In a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, two-thirds of us -- and 80% of Republicans -- claim to be more patriotic than the average American. In short, we like to think that patriotism is a lot more exceptional than it actually is.

So it's no wonder that patriotic gestures are so often laced with partisan belligerence. Wearing an American flag in your lapel, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan said approvingly a few years ago, is "a sign that says, 'I support my country, and if you don't like it, that's too bad.' "

And since 9/11, Republicans have taken with high zest to depicting Democrats as lacking in patriotism.

True, Republican elected officials tend to avoid the p-word itself. Sometimes the charge is made obliquely; during the 2004 campaign, Vice President Dick Cheney volunteered on at least 30 occasions that he wasn't challenging John Kerry's patriotism, often repeating the point so it wouldn't be lost on anybody. But President Bush and other Republican officials have made the message clear with language like "undermining troops in the field," "making politics the bottom line in the war on terror," "encouraging our enemies" and the recent "Defeatocrats."

And Republicans have been able to slough off Democratic suggestions that real patriotism might not include passing wartime tax cuts for the rich or slighting domestic security needs. How could Republicans be unpatriotic when the rhetoric of patriotism is theirs alone to deploy?

Still, it's striking how formulaic and awkward that rhetoric is coming to sound. It may be a wholly new type of war that we're watching on TV, but the score often sounds as if it were taken from "The Green Berets" -- or maybe from "Watch on the Rhine," to listen to the administration's recent talk about "fascism" and "appeasers."

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