We should be very grateful to Francesco Duina for his new book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country. He begins with the following dilemma. The poor in the United States are in many ways worse off than in other wealthy countries, but they are more patriotic than are the poor in those other countries and even more patriotic than are wealthier people in their own country. Their country is (among wealthy countries) tops in inequality, and bottoms in social support, and yet they overwhelmingly believe that the United States is “fundamentally better than other countries.” Why?
Duina didn’t try to puzzle this one out for himself. He went out and surveyed patriotic poor people in Alabama and Montana. He found variations between those two places, such as people loving the government for helping them a little bit and people loving the government for not helping them at all. He found variations between men and women and racial groups, but mostly he found intense patriotism built around identical myths and phrases.
I think it’s worth pointing out that wealthier Americans are only slightly less patriotic than poor Americans, and that the moral question of why one should love an institution that creates great suffering for others is identical to that of why one should love an institution that creates great suffering for oneself (and that the greatest suffering the United States government creates is outside the United States). I suspect that much of what Duina found among the poor could be found in some variation among the less poor.
Duina is very respectful of everyone he spoke with, and very academic in his prose. But he quotes enough of his interviewees’ statements to make it quite clear, I think, that their patriotism is largely a willfully delusional religious faith based on ignorance of and avoidance of facts. Just as the less wealthy are a bit more religious, they are also a bit more patriotic, and they draw no clear line between the two. Duina reports that many of the people he spoke with assured him that God favored the United States above all other nations. One man even explained his own and others’ extreme patriotism as a religious need to believe in something when struggling, something to provide “dignity.” There is, of course, a parallel to U.S. racism, as many poor white Americans for centuries have clung to the notion that at least they are better than non-whites. The belief that at least one is better than non-Americans is widespread across every demographic.
Duina notes that even for those struggling most desperately a belief that all is right and just with the system around them can be easier on the mind than recognizing injustice. If people were better off, paradoxically, their patriotism might decrease. Patriotism also declines as education increases. And it seems likely to decline as particular types of information and attitudes are conveyed. Just as people have been found to favor bombing a nation in inverse proportion to their ability to correctly locate it on a map, I suspect people would be marginally less likely to believe the United States treats them better than a Scandinavian country would if they knew facts about Scandinavian countries. They currently decidedly do not.
Duina quotes people who assured him that every Swede flees Sweden as soon as they’ve completed their free college education, that Canada may have healthcare but is a dictatorship, that in Germany or Russia they’ll cut off your hand or your tongue, that in communist Japan they’ll cut off your head for speaking against the president, etc. Can all of these beliefs, all in the same direction (that of disparaging other nations) be innocent errors? One man assures Duina that other nations are inferior because they engage in public executions, and then advocates for public executions in the United States. A number of people declare the United States superior because it has freedom of religion, and then reject the idea that any non-Christian can ever be U.S. president. Homeless people assure him that the United States is the quintessential land of opportunity.
Many speak of “freedom,” and in many cases they mean the freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights, but in others they mean the freedom to walk or drive. They contrast this freedom to move about with dictatorships, despite having little or no experience with dictatorships, although it seems best contrasted with something poor Americans are likely to have a lot more familiarity with: mass incarceration.
The belief that wars on foreign nations benefit their victims and are acts of generosity seems nearly universal, and foreign nations are often disparaged for having wars present (with no apparent awareness that many of those wars involve the U.S. military which is funded with millions of times the funding that would be required to eliminate poverty in the United States). One man believes that Vietnam is still divided in half like Korea. Another believes the president of Iraq invited the United States to attack it. Another simply takes pride in the United States having “the best military.” When asked about the U.S. flag, many immediately express pride in “freedom” and “wars.” A few libertarians expressed support for bringing troops home, blaming other nations for their unwillingness to be civilized — including those of the Middle East, which has “never been civilized.”
There is similar strong support for the incredibly destructive proliferation of guns in the United States as something that makes the United States superior.
One fault attributed to other countries is taking children away from parents, yet one assumes that at least some who condemn that practice have found a way to excuse it or not become aware of it in recent news from the United States.
One of the more common faults, though, is chopping people’s heads off. This seems such a common view of what is wrong with foreign countries, that I almost wonder if U.S. support for Saudi Arabia is in part motivated by such an effective means of keeping the U.S. population sedated.
Somehow, the U.S. public has been persuaded to always compare the United States with poor countries, including countries where the U.S. government supports brutal dictators or imposes economic suffering, and never with wealthy countries. The very existence of countries that are worse off, and from which immigrants flee to the United States is generally taken as proof of Greatest Nation on Earth status, even though other wealthy nations are better off and more desired by immigrants.
The results include a passive public willing to absorb huge injustices, a public willing to follow politicians who promise to screw them but to do so patriotically, a public supportive of wars and dismissive of international law and cooperation, and a public willing to reject advances in healthcare or gun laws or climate policies or education systems if they are made in other countries.
This book tells us more about where Trump came from than the past 18 months of cable news, but Trump is the least of it.
David Swanson’s books include Curing Exceptionalism.