Ronnie Chapman has hidden away his American flag for much of the past eight years.”I felt it was no longer a symbol of the country I love, but of Bush and support for his war,” said the 48-year-old pharmacist from Cary, N.C.
“The first thing I did the morning after the election was take it from my den and fly it proudly in front of my house.”
Chapman’s response to the presidential election reflects the emergence of an unusual _ and some might say contradictory _ new figure: the flag-waving liberal.
After a divisive presidency and strident campaign in which patriotism was used as a wedge issue, supporters of President-elect Barack Obama are hanging flags, donning Old Glory lapel pins and humming the national anthem.
“We just feel this pride and this swelling of joy,” said Cheryl Kimmel, 49, of Cary, who worked on Obama’s campaign with her 18-year-old daughter, Jeanelle Alexander. “We’re extremely proud to be Americans today.”
“For years it’s felt like patriotism was a Republican thing,” said Raven Moeslinger, 21, a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Now I feel like we’ve reclaimed it.”
“The night after the election, I got in bed and started reading the Declaration of Independence for the first time in a long time,” said Sherry Harmon, 55, of Cary. “I felt I needed to touch base with our roots because I think we need to refresh our ideas of who we are as Americans.”
Though many Republicans _ including President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain _ have hailed the election of the first African-American president as a watershed moment in which Americans should take pride, others view the outburst of patriotism with feelings that range from chagrin to bewilderment. They find it ironic that Obama has inspired such feelings.
After all, they say, he’s the same man who refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel, whose longtime spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had chanted, “God damn America,” and whose wife, Michelle, had said during the campaign: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.”
These Republicans see Democrats as sunshine patriots, stirred more by partisan victory than love of country. “In my circles, we have always been proud of what America represents,” said David Smudski, 52, the chairman of the Durham County Republican Party. “We are happy that people are proud to fly it (the flag) again. We think it should have been flown all along.”
The surge in patriotism is a particularly American response, anchored in contemporary political culture and the broad currents of American history. It reveals the alienation many Democrats felt from their government during a controversial wartime presidency, as well as the pivotal role that patriotism has long played throughout our history.
Where most other nations are bound together by ethnic identity, America has been united by concepts such as equality and justice. This foundation is powerfully inclusive, enabling people to arrive here from far-flung corners of the globe and consider themselves Americans.
But it is also a fragile one. In a nation that has not always lived up to its soaring ideals, people have long debated the meaning of America and how to honor it.
“Conservatives look at this country and are grateful for the opportunities,” said Smudski, the Durham Republican. “Progressives, as they’re calling themselves now, look at this country and see the warts and say, ‘Oh, this is such an ugly country.’ They haven’t been proud of America because of those warts.”
Democrats counter that constructive criticism and dissent are the highest forms of patriotism. They complain that during the Bush years, the flag became shorthand for loyalty to Bush’s policies.
“For eight years we were told that if we didn’t support his wars and his policies that we were unpatriotic,” said Kim Yaman, 48, of Cary. “We heard how we were traitors and how we hated America.”
Cynthia Ball, a 55-year-old mediator from Apex, said, “Flying the flag, for many years, meant negative things. It meant prejudice. It meant money over everything. I thought the flag, unfortunately, represented injustices.”
Ball now displays a flag outside her house, and she wore red, white and blue on Election Day as a symbolic effort, she said, “to take back the flag.”
Tim Ayers, 28, a Raleigh resident, carried the flag on Election Day because he felt it was “important for the Democrats and the liberals to not let patriotism and the flag be hijacked.”
Gil Troy, a historian who teaches at McGill University, said that while Democrats accuse Republicans of co-opting patriotism, they’re also guilty of giving it up.
“One of the great failures of the Democratic party during the last few decades is how they have ceded God and the flag to the Republicans,” he said. “Even as many Democratic voters have continued to wave the flag, party leaders and elite liberal opinion leaders have equated patriotism with (rednecks) and deep faith with dangerous morons.”
H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, said that Democrats became uncomfortable with only a certain type of patriotism _ the exclusive variety. Primal and powerful, it appears most forcefully during times of war, whipping up fervor through an us-versus-them mentality, squelching most dissent in the name of national unity. It was on broad display, Brands noted, in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Inclusive patriotism, by contrast, sees the country as part of a broader world. It works to unite people’s shared values and ideas, casting most criticism as a healthy force for change.
For much of our history these forms of patriotism, trumpeted at different times by both parties, have waxed and waned, Brands observed.
The American people generally accepted the restrictions required by exclusive patriotism because wars were relatively short and rare. That changed after World War II.
“With the long Cold War and Bush’s ongoing war on terror, Americans have found themselves in these seemingly endless battles, and exclusive patriotism became the norm,” he said. “That’s proved problematic and helps explain why patriotism has become such a divisive issue.”
Some Democrats, however, reject the idea that patriotism is something new to them.
Mary Perry, an NAACP leader from Wendell, says she has spent much of her life registering people to vote, an act of patriotism more meaningful than hanging a flag.
“I felt like I was an American all along,” she said.