Patriotism has always been a little complicated — at what point does it cross the line into jingoism, xenophobia and bad foreign policy? But now there are so many new paradoxes to being patriotic that it’s become more complicated than ever (some might say poisonous) in a year of polarizing political slogans, Brexit and a slow steady Bern.
As we head into our most momentous weekend of patriotic fervor in the US — July 4th — I wanted to take a look at the state of patriotism across the globe. The first thing I’ve noted is that increasingly, patriotism is being conflated with self-interest. Whereas once patriotic citizens wanted to spread their ideals, share the best of their cultures and be a force for good in the world, now it seems a lot of them are buying into ideas like the one that posits that America needs to be "made great again" … by blowing up foreign relations, erecting walls and banning certain immigrants. The leave voters in the Brexit decision were likely motivated by similar desires — i.e., to protect what they feel is rightfully theirs.
On a flight from Paris to New York, I rounded up some friends and colleagues (all marketers) via Facebook. When I mentioned where I was working on this post, ad guru Tom Messner, once upon a time MVBMS Euro RSCG (today Havas), pointed out that, "Tocqueville, too, wrote of patriotism, partisanship and democracy on the way from Paris to New York, but he rode by coach, and then boat, and had many days and nights to contemplate democracy in America. Plus, he had Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren to consult with." Point taken.
My own "advisers" shared their thoughts on the paradoxes of patriotism in 2016, and their responses were illuminating.
My friend (and former colleague at TBWA Nederlands) Friso Westenberg, a Dutch marketer, put it like this: "What is patriotism today? Simple: I vote for me, myself and I." Brian Elliot from Amsterdam Worldwide, noted on Amsterdam Ad Blog, "For most of history there was a general idea that we should act with a view to the next generation, not only the interests of our own."
But the Brexit vote changes that, as a majority of people under 44 voted to remain, and the majority of people over 45 voted to leave the European Union. Elliot, by way of Westenberg, continued: "A broad fact, which crosses the political spectrum, is that older people (Boomers+) enjoy a variety of benefits, pensions, etc., that they will not give up or modify in the slightest, and which they have the political power to defend. Unions have acted in the interests of the pensioner, not the apprentice. French students are not rioting for revolution; they are rioting for benefits their parents jealously guard for themselves. Younger people live in a much more uncertain world, and are condemned to pay not only for their own children, but for the unsustainable benefits to their elders who now live decades longer than was envisioned when the system was set up."
Immigration only makes this situation more complicated. "The clash between the entitlements, comforts and certainties of earlier days and an uncertain future is at the heart of the problem in the UK — and all over Europe," added Elliott. "Whatever is wrong with ‘us,’ the ‘other’ is to blame. The Dutch even have a saying: ‘Buitenlanders uit’ (foreigners out). A generation of English politicians, including Cameron himself, thrived by creating a bogeyman, if not an outright enemy, out of the EU. They are now reaping what they have sowed."
"Patriotism can be a great thing, but that doesn’t mean you should go blind in love of nation. There is a very fine line between being patriotic and being fanatical," says Piyush Pankaj, an Indian colleague working in the UK. "I do love my country, but I also love my work country and sing the national anthem of both with equal pride. I call myself a thoughtful patriot who doesn’t get offended if someone raises a question about my country, but I try to debate it so that we can iron out anything the person may not know."
Native Brit Helen Jones, once upon a time a key trade journalist covering Mad Ave London-style, is less sanguine: "There was a feeling among Leave voters and campaigners that it was patriotic to vote for Brexit ‘to get our country back.’ They thought that being proud to be British and also being part of the EU were mutually exclusive. Well, they got what they wanted, and the UK economy is in free fall, and we will be standing around on the sidelines shouting about important things but not part of the club. Patriotism got us here. It’s a disaster."
On this side of the Atlantic, author and critic Jesse Kornbluth (ex-AOL, Vanity Fair, and author of lots of business books), wrote on his Head Butler blog about the disaster of patriotism as it stands in the US: "This is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said, but real patriotism is the exact opposite of what those fools — mostly male — mean when they chant ‘USA! USA!’ It’s the exact opposite of hating Obama because of — you say — Obamacare when you really mean the N-word. The exact opposite of hating anybody because hating is the only way you can feel anything."
He’s not the only one who is uneasy about the direction he sees patriotism going. American marketer David Wecal, creative director, spring, said, "Patriotism to me growing up was going to Fourth of July parades and seeing all the old men marching with their world war medals. They built this nation and seemed to give society a spine. [But] we evolved into a nation driven by growth and greed. Now we have the poster child of patriotism in Donald Trump, and I fear if we don’t redefine the concept, we are in deep trouble. And I don’t think the answer is renaming your beer ‘America.’"
Whether via the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack or the way people in the US sort themselves into liberal and conservative states, the notion of "patriotism" is being exploited, torn and twisted by both sides. It’s no wonder ordinary voters are feeling pulled apart.
Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America.