I didn’t manage to catch as many speeches as I would have liked at the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte (other than the Big Four: Barack, Michelle, Bill and Biden). However I am now convinced that the era–of my lifetime–of Democrats being vaguely apologetic for overt patriotism and flag-waving? Over. It’s done. In fact, comparing it to the GOP’s party in Tampa a week earlier, not only have the Democrats gotten out of their defensive crouch, they have succeeded at being the stronger party at conveying American optimism and unabashed patriotism.
The first Republican convention I can (sketchily) remember watching on television was George HW Bush’s nomination in 1988. I remember the surprising Quayle VP pick and the brouhaha over it. I remember the ridiculing of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and his campaign blunders. I also remember a speech (if anyone can tell me who it was or where I can find a clip–MUCH OBLIGED!) in which a Republican orator gave a dripping-with-mockery speech about how the other team (Dems) requested flags and bunting that were less solid colors, in order to come across better on camera at their convention. The speaker then went into a tirade about how of COURSE the Republicans would never do that! The RED standing for the blood of our soldiers who died in battle! The BLUE of the great American sky….well, maybe not that…I’m sketchy on the details. Looking back I wonder if the “let’s use toned-down flags” really happened or it was just rhetorical flourish from the Republicans. What I do remember is the takeaway message: Democrats are namby-pamby and weak; Republicans are patriotic and strong.
We all know it wasn’t always like this. Nixon’s use of flag label pins to indicate the “Silent Majority” who supported US action in Vietnam, Baby Boomers and flag-burning as protests to it, and other more subtle cultural side-taking nuances spawned in the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up in the aftermath of that period but the narrative had been set: Republicans are the party of God, Guns, & Guts (I think I saw that on a bumper sticker). The reaction to that extreme rhetoric is that suddenly the US flag (in some quarters, not all) became shorthand for a certain type of politics: uncomplicated and blindly nationalistic. Some would demure from flying an American flag too often (or at all) because they didn’t want others to think they were either of those things. It’s a vicious circle: they (right-wingers) believe they are the patriotic ones because they are in-your-face about it, they (left-wingers) are not overly in-your-face about it because they don’t want to come across as jingoistic. By the 1990s a sort of snide elitism had set in on the Left: we don’t need that excessive flag-waving because we know love-of-country means so much more than that. Or worse, it was perceived as somewhat declasse or tacky: like a rusting car on cinder locks right in the front yard.
I felt I was immunized against falling for either partisan stereotype until I had a conversation with some Canadians while vacationing in Puerto Vallarta. Go to any gay beach where there are a lot of Canadian travellers (and that’s most) and you’ll be bound to see a few muscled arms or torso imprinted with that instantly recognizable Maple Leaf. Since I assumed that most gay guys would veer at least center-left in their politics, I thought there must be an element of post-modern irony contained in a flag tattoo. Or a military connection. Nope. At least to those I talked with, it was fairly straight-forward: “I’m Canadian. I’m proud of it” (and presumably also favor tattoos). No political messaging was going on there. Also, no Seattle/Portland irony-of-the-ink which flows thicker than coffee where I live. I got it wrong.
This past Memorial Day a reader wrote to Andrew Sullivan with this:
Here’s my story about liberals and the flag; or: “What my father taught me about patriotism.” We are Jewish, from Brooklyn, and very liberal. My parents were New Deal Democrats, and worshipped FDR, JFK, and the Great Society. In 1968 and beyond, we opposed the war in Vietnam and supported anti-war candidates. During the Moratoriums and other anti-war protests in 1969, Nixon (whom we all despised – rightly, as it turned out) called upon the “Silent Majority” of Americans who supported him and the War to fly the flag on the upcoming holiday (I think it was Memorial Day, actually). Come Memorial Day, my liberal father hung out his American flag.
“But Dad,” my then-teenaged sister, brother and I protested, “How can you do that? You’re showing support for Nixon and the War!” “Let me tell you something,” my father – who immigrated from Poland in 1929 at the age of 11, and had fought for the U.S. in North Africa, Italy and France – replied: “That’s MY flag, too; and that bastard isn’t going to take it away from me!”
I blame conservatives for politicizing the flag. I blame liberals for letting them. And I credit the lesson of my father, unabashed liberal, critic – and patriot.
In Charlotte the Democrats clearly have taken a page from this man’s father’s book. The chanting of U-S-A, the flag-waving, the thanking of the troops, never seemed like a pale imitation of when Republicans do it. I think the tide has turned over the last few years and progressives–like those of the FDR generation–are comfortable with a little loud and traditional patriotism again.