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OPINION

American pride now a partisan issue?

By CHARLES LANE | The Washington Post | Published: July 9, 2019

To the lengthy list of issues that divide Republicans from Democrats, add this seemingly nonpartisan question: How proud are you to be an American?

According to an annual Gallup survey, released two days before Independence Day, only 45% of U.S. adults consider themselves “extremely” proud to be American, the lowest level recorded since 2001. (Twenty-five percent are “very” proud; 18% “moderately”; 12% “a little” or “not at all.”)

Yet the overall figures obscure a deep divergence in feeling between members of the two parties. Democrats account for most of the recent decline; since 2016, the share of that party professing “extreme” pride has fallen from 44% to 22%, while the Republican figure has grown from 68% to 76%.

The Trump presidency is the key variable. It reinforced the national pride of older, whiter people, who tend to vote Republican, while inducing the opposite reaction in the younger, more diverse Democratic base. And with Trump again on the ballot, the 2020 election may hinge not on foreign policy, the economy or health care, but on pride — who gets to feel it, and why.

President Donald Trump staked his claim in a Fourth of July speech that was bombastic, kitschy — and calculated to appeal to the extremely proud 45% of Americans. (That statistic, probably not coincidentally, corresponds to the 44% of adults who approve of the job he is doing as president, according to the latest Post/ABC News poll.)

This is “the most just and virtuous republic ever conceived,” Trump declared, in unstated but obvious defiance of the current national reckoning over the ugly, but long avoided, details of slavery, lynching, eugenics, sexual assault and other systemic ills of American history.

Trump’s election on a nativist right-wing populist platform is itself a reason we are having that discussion, since it reminded people that certain demons lurking within our vaunted democracy had not been vanquished after all.

Yet in words bound to be replayed in campaign ads from now until Nov. 3, 2020, Trump told his voters, in essence, that they have nothing to apologize for, and associated them — and him — with institutions in which Americans are most likely to take pride, according to Gallup.

He lavished praise on the armed forces (of which 89% of Americans are proud), but there was also a shout-out to the “creativity and genius that lit up the lights of Broadway and the soundstages of Hollywood” (“culture and the arts” make 85% of Americans proud). Leukemia researcher Emil Freireich got a laudatory mention from the president, though Trump referred to him as “Emmanuel.” American “scientific achievements” stir pride in 91% of American hearts.

Note that the creative and scientific communities are not exactly hotbeds of Trumpism today. No matter. The president even dared praise heroes of the struggles for emancipation and civil rights, all the way back to Harriet Tubman — even as his administration scuttles plans to honor that abolitionist by putting her image on U.S. currency. Diversity makes 72% of us proud.

It’s easier to stimulate, or exploit, pride if you’re shameless, apparently.

The challenge for Democrats is that it’s in the skeptical, reformist nature of liberals and progressives to feel national pride less reflexively than conservatives do. The largest share of Democrats to express “extreme” pride since 2001 is 65%, compared with a Republican peak of 86%.

To a greater extent than other liberal Democrats, Barack Obama merged progressive themes and traditional national pride, recasting American history as a tale of progress from flawed origins, a long-term redemption of ideals in which all could take pride.

So far in the 2020 race, Democratic candidates seem to be promising less of a restoration of national pride than an elimination of national shame — the shame Democrats feel at living under a president who behaves the way Trump does, and a deeper shame at America’s failings and injustices, historic and contemporary.

The party’s front-runner, Joe Biden, has been forced to apologize for the part he allegedly played in the shameful past, while Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., promises we will no longer lag Europe on health care and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Julian Castro promise to expiate our racial shame through at least a discussion of reparations.

We shall find out soon enough which appeal — pride-promotion or shame-elimination — carries the day politically.

Meanwhile, among American institutions, there is one in which a clear majority of us do not take pride, according to Gallup. Ironically, it is the one that’s unique to the United States: our political system. Thirty-two percent of respondents told Gallup they were proud of it. The figures were 42% for Republicans and 25% for Democrats. After 230 years of constitutional history, that’s a real shame.

Washington Post editorial writer/columnist Charles Lane specializes in economic and fiscal policy.

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