The Lost Promise of Patriotism cover

"Just when the patriotism of Americans who disagree with specific policies of the government is being called into question, Hansen's judicious and incisive book arrives to remind us how vigorously leftists of a century ago refused to yield the flag to the White House. The debates involving Theodore Roosevelt, Eugene Debs, William James, Woodrow Wilson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Horace Kallen, and a host of others during the crises of the Spanish-American War and World War One, Hansen shows, remain relevant to today's disputes over what it means to love and defend one's country."
—David Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley

"This beautifully written study provides vivid portraits of major thinkers and activists who pondered the new meaning of nationalism when the United States emerged as a world power a century ago. As Hansen demonstrates, they envisioned a form of patriotism more cosmopolitan than the provincial Americanism of their day, but more robust than the thinned-out universalism of the Enlightenment. By providing a sturdy historical foundation for contemporary arguments offered by thinkers such as Michael Walzer, Amy Gutman, David Hollinger, and Werner Sollars, Hansen establishes himself as a major contributor to debates among political theorists and historians over the meaning and possibility of American patriotism. At a moment when many American intellectuals consider the idea of national loyalty irreparably damaged, he shows why we should think again."
—James Kloppenberg, Harvard University

Real Patriots Talk Back
or, Why Dissent Can Be Patriotic
An interview with Jonathan M. Hansen
author of The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920

Read an excerpt from the book.

Question: In The Lost Promise of Patriotism, you use the term "cosmopolitan patriots" to describe a group of Progressive-era American intellectuals. Who were these cosmopolitan patriots, and what concerns did they share?

Jonathan M. Hansen: My cast of cosmopolitan patriots comprises, among others, the philosophers William James, John Dewey, and Horace Kallen; the settlement-house leader Jane Addams; the socialist agitator Eugene V. Debs; the civil-rights advocate W. E. B. Du Bois; and the future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. These intellectuals and social critics shared the sense that the rights and privileges of American citizenship—which have been unfairly distributed throughout American history—were newly imperiled at the turn of the twentieth century by industrial exploitation, racism, and sexism. Labor exploitation, racism, sexism, and other forms of unfairness remain problems today, of course; what distinguished the cosmopolitan patriots from contemporary progressives was their harnessing of patriotic rhetoric to the cause of social and political reform. They believed, quite reasonably, I think, that reform initiatives undertaken in the name of America as a whole would be more likely to succeed than those carried out under the banner of individual interest (or "identity") groups.


Question: Can you give us a little background on the world the cosmopolitan patriots lived in? Did it have any similarities to our own historical moment?

Hansen: Though history does not repeat itself, the cosmopolitan patriots' universe bears striking resemblance to our own. Theirs was an increasingly global, or interconnected, world, into which the United States thrust itself with great bravado and considerable naivet‰. Their period was marked by tremendous economic expansion whose material fruit remained grossly maldistributed. Progressive-era America was inundated by immigrants, many of them unfamiliar in origin and allegedly threatening to America's cultural and republican institutions. Finally, theirs was a time of vigorous labor, feminist, and civil rights agitation, all of it unsettling to established political, cultural, and economic elites. In short, the cultural struggles and political challenges confronting contemporary Americans have clear analogs in the Progressive era, making the response of the cosmopolitan patriots potentially quite illuminating to us.


Question: A lot of people today take "patriotism" to mean a simplistic, jingoistic "rah rah America" stance held mainly by conservatives. What did patriotism mean to the cosmopolitan patriots? Does their definition have any relevance to America today?

Hansen: One could argue that the "simplistic, jingoistic, rah-rah Americanism" that passes for patriotism in our day first emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, as corporate and political elites attempted to stifle dissent and defend their interests under the rubric of patriotism. The cosmopolitan patriots insisted, first, that love of country need not imply hostility to other countries, and, second, that dissent—or critical engagement with one's country—constituted an essential form of "love." They vigorously denied the notion ascendant in their day that patriotism entails uncritical loyalty to the government and to the military in wartime. America was born of an act of defiance toward Britain, after all, making the "dissent=disloyalty" argument patently absurd. The cosmopolitan patriots sought to realize equal opportunity and equality before the law for all Americans, and they associated America with these political ideals. They simply did not equate "country" with a given political administration, nor with the American military—both of which seemed as likely to pursue policies unfavorable to liberal democracy as those conducive to it. When the McKinley administration promoted liberal democratic values and fair play—in ridding the Western hemisphere of Spanish tyranny, for example—the cosmopolitan patriots supported it; when it compromised those ideals—in annexing the Philippines in December 1898, for instance—the cosmopolitan patriots vigorously opposed it.

How is this relevant today? Citizens can disagree, of course, about whether U.S. policy in the Middle East promotes or erodes liberal democratic values, but to impugn the loyalty of those who dissent from Bush administration policy is, to paraphrase John Dewey, to be a traitor to democratic principles. Opposition to Bush policy has nothing to do with supporting or not supporting our troops; the cosmopolitan patriots readily acknowledged the valor of citizens who would sacrifice themselves for their nation. But to distinguish troops fighting to promote liberal democracy from, say, Spanish troops that fought to maintain possession of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898, one has to keep a critical eye on the political validity and moral rectitude of the cause at hand. In the absence of such critical vigilance, patriotism becomes utterly arbitrary.


Question: What did the cosmopolitan patriots think about the American flag? What did it mean to them, and to their opponents?

flag imageHansen: The cosmopolitan patriots did not make a fetish of the flag. They admired the flag in so far as it symbolized liberal democratic principles like equality before the law and equal opportunity. They decried conservative use of the flag as a truncheon to silence dissent and democratic deliberation in the interest of the political and economic status quo.


Question: Contemporary conservatives often brand those who critique the dominant society as "unpatriotic." How would the cosmopolitan patriots have answered that charge?

Hansen: The cosmopolitan patriots would have been mystified by the suggestion that dissent is somehow un-American. America was born in an act of defiance; the American republican experiment can be declared dead once political minorities lose the right to dissent publicly. Social and political progress depends on dissent. Those who would quash dissent are inherently reactionary and self-serving—indeed, unpatriotic. Recent evidence that the Bush administration exaggerated accounts of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as many critics feared, highlights the necessity, nay imperative, for citizens to critically scrutinize government policy. As cosmopolitan patriots like James acknowledged, nowhere is critical scrutiny of government more necessary and more difficult to maintain than in the area of foreign policy, with all its "classified" secrets. In this arena perhaps more than anywhere else, citizens have to ask questions and speak out.


Question: What did the cosmopolitan patriots think of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. imperialism, such as its interventions in Cuba and the Philippines? What do you think they would have to say about twenty-first century U.S. involvement in globalization?

Hansen: The cosmopolitan patriots opposed America's annexation of the Philippines in December 1898, though they approved of the nation's effort to expel the Spanish empire from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. As for globalization, like many politicians and intellectuals of their day, the cosmopolitan patriots generally equated moral and political progress with material development, often not realizing that material development could jeopardize the global cultural and social diversity they admired.

That said, at their best, James, Addams, and Du Bois, especially, distinguished the global diffusion of conditions conducive to self-realization and democratic governance from the forced imposition of American institutions and Western civilization on allegedly laggard peoples. James warned that it is hard for one people to understand another people's ways and needs; hence, he remained deeply skeptical that Americans could recognize, much less promote, the interests of the Filipino people, once they were free of Spanish oppression. Addams insisted that the will to self-government was by no means the province of the West, and that Americans could learn as much about self-government from, say, the Filipinos as the Filipinos could learn from us. In sum, the cosmopolitan patriots aimed to promote genuine social and cultural reciprocity between Western and non-Western nations, though they perhaps inadequately appreciated how difficult it is to achieve reciprocity in the face of economic and political inequality. This seems a lesson in need of constant reinforcement, in our day as well as theirs.


Question: How did the cosmopolitan patriots respond to World War I? How do their responses compare to liberal takes on the second U.S.-led war on Iraq? Can an antiwar protestor be "patriotic"?

Debs imageHansen: None of the cosmopolitan patriots emerged from World War I with their reputations much intact. Debs and Addams, who opposed the war, were sidelined—Debs by a conviction under the Sedition Act, Addams by a flood of anti-pacifism. Debs's and Addams's confidence that the world was outgrowing the propensity for armed conflict, whether via socialist universalism or general humanitarianism, appeared simply nave. Dewey and Du Bois supported U.S. participation in the War, at least initially. Both seemed to have become caught up in the emotion, or passion, that war elicits and subsequently surrendered their skepticism and critical judgment. Whether this exposed some radical flaw in their thought, as their critics charged, or was simply an inevitable if regrettable effect of war's psychological effect on two usually incisive critics depends on one's perspective, I suppose. War makes losers of all parties.

If the experience of the cosmopolitan patriots during World War I can teach contemporary liberals anything, it is the seemingly obvious but nonetheless constantly overlooked lesson that war unleashes consequences that simply cannot be anticipated. Dewey especially came to understand that war is an unlikely vehicle for progressive change, as many liberals and neo-conservatives today count on it to be. Were the cosmopolitan patriots around today, they would undoubtedly sympathize with America's immediate military response to 9/11, but they would not be among those liberal and conservative voices that refuse to connect the events of 9/11 with a broad and deep-seated, historically-rooted hostility to American global hegemony. The cosmopolitan patriots would be skeptical of the Bush administration doctrine of pre-emptive military intervention, first, because it seems likely to lead to unforeseen and unwanted consequences, and second, because it ignores a less costly, more morally defensible type of pre-emptive action—namely withdrawing U.S. support for autocratic political regimes around the world while promoting individual well being via investment in global health care, sanitation, and human rights. Above all, the cosmopolitan patriots would regret the ideological hubris, sanctimony, and self-righteousness issuing from liberal militarists and conservatives alike, which has very nearly quashed democratic deliberation in today's America. That, too, has its analog in World War I—in Woodrow Wilson's steady descent into ideological purity, really a form of blindness. Let's hope we can avert the disaster that ensued thereafter.


Question: Americans live in an increasingly fragmented society, with people of a variety of cultural, religious, and social backgrounds struggling to find common cause. Do the cosmopolitan patriots have any advice that we might find helpful as we try to balance nationalism and pluralism, keeping America strong and safe with safeguarding individual liberties and seeking social justice?

Hansen: The cosmopolitan patriots too lived in an era ostensibly rent by social and cultural cleavages. In general they argued that the best way to retain a sense of national solidarity, or loyalty, was to demonstrate the importance of the national solidarity—specifically the federal government—to the well-being of all Americans rather than simply to the interests of the elite few. E Pluribus Unum meets Quid Pro Quo. The cosmopolitan patriots did not regard local loyalty (whether ethnic, racial, religious, regional) as anathema to national loyalty, or national loyalty, in turn, as necessarily inimical to global affiliation. They recognized, as we say today, that identity is "dialogical": that is, that our identities develop in relationship to the constraints entailed in and opportunities provided by various sorts of communities. For example, we first learn what loyalty means at the local level; without the education in obligation we get at the local level, national loyalty would be impossible.

The cosmopolitan patriots defended cultural pluralism—the right of different ethnic and racial groups to flourish—but never as an end in itself. Their end was political, rather than cultural. Above all, they prized the right of individuals to self-realization achieved through politics and the vehicles of equal opportunity and equality before the law. True liberal individualists, they were always suspicious about claims to cultural authenticity because they knew, first, that culture is never static, and, second, that such claims typically advance the interests of the arbiters of authenticity rather than the well-being of the ordinary members of cultural communities. In short, the cosmopolitan patriots recognized that solidarity is perhaps the most potent form of power. And that affiliations change with context. When America is attacked by terrorists, the citizens of America will come together to defend and assist one another. But such solidarity will inevitably diminish . . . until the next attack. Meanwhile, more local and/or global affiliations move to the fore. This practical fact does not mean that our various affiliations are inherently contradictory—though they may, indeed, conflict. But conflict is what makes life interesting, challenging, both morally and politically. A patriotism that defines itself in opposition to local interests and global needs undercuts its two most crucial sources of sustenance and support.


Question: Which of our current political figures most resemble the cosmopolitan patriots?

Hansen: It's virtually impossible to point to any major figures, so deaf have we become to patriotism's potential association with progressive reform. Who among our politicians has the vision to recognize, let alone the courage to announce, that we can best protect our rights and liberties not by jealously guarding them but by broadcasting them as broadly as possible? Of all the lessons offered us by the cosmopolitan patriots none seems more important than this: for a nation founded on putative universal values, promoting those values universally constitutes the ultimate form of self-defense.

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Jonathan M. Hansen
The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920
©2003, 278 pages
Cloth $60.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-31583-6
Paper $19.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-31584-3

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Lost Promise of Patriotism.

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