Why is There a Patriotism Gap? | Opinion

President Donald Trump's announcement at the National Archives earlier this month of a forthcoming "1776 Commission" aimed at promoting "patriotic education" set off fireworks—and not in a good way.

"A nightmare," pronounced Slate. "Part of an ongoing effort to downplay and minimize the role of slavery," deplored the 1619 Project's Nikole Hannah-Jones. "I thought I was listening to Mao Zedong running Communist China," scolded Susan Rice, Barack Obama's former national security adviser. "Proof America is spiraling toward fascism," quivered The Guardian. Representing the ivory tower, the American Historical Association issued a florid one-pager all its own, co-signed by 30-plus groups, "deploring the tendentious use of history and history education to stoke politically motivated culture wars."

Such partisan hyperbole about the 1776 Commission might be expected so close to an election. But its critics should have stopped to ask what, exactly, might have inspired such a project in the first place. The answer is a grim reality that deserves bipartisan attention, and has for a long time now: America suffers from a patriotism gap. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to profess patriotism. Older people are much more likely than younger ones to be patriotic, too.


For once, the answer cannot be "because of Trump." Since at least 2001, according to regular tracking by Gallup, Republicans have been more likely than Democrats to profess themselves "extremely proud to be American"—and by wide margins. In both 2007 and 2009, for example, the patriotism deficit between Republicans and Democrats was a yawning 33 points (79-46; 78-45). In no year since 2003 has the gap been less than 14 points.

It is true that the widest split of all appeared after the election of Donald Trump. In 2020, only 24 percent of Democrats reported themselves "extremely proud" to be American, as opposed to a whopping 67 percent of Republicans. But again, Democrats were already lagging Republicans in pride of country.

A similar patriotism gap exists between younger Americans and older ones. In 2018, reported Gallup, only 33 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 reported themselves "extremely proud" to be American. Among people over 50, the percentage saying the same was nearly twice as high. This pattern, too, predates the 2016 election, and it, too, has been consistent for almost two decades. Pew Research confirms the trend. In 2011, to take a representative snapshot, only 32 percent of Millennials agreed that the United States was "the greatest country in the world." Among Baby Boomers that number was 50 percent, and among "Silents"—the generation before Boomers—it was 64 percent.

"I've never considered myself a particularly patriotic person," as Hannah-Jones put it in an interview with The New York Times. Such indifference may be commonplace on the left. But is it a net plus for everyone else? Does patriotism matter?

flag burning
A group of protesters burn an American flag in front of the Trump Tower during a Black Lives Matter protest in New York, NY on July 4, 2020. Pablo Monsalve / VIEWpress/Getty

Pace the leader of the 1619 Project, and no matter where you stand in the culture wars, patriotism does matter, for at least two reasons.

First are the exigencies of domestic politics—not least for the left. Democrats and progressives hope to capitalize on the diffuse anti-authority stances of Millennials and Gen Z at the ballot box. But the patriotism gap presents an obstacle for them. It is one thing for disaffected cohorts to turn out for protests and riots in the streets. It is another to expect them to produce identification, fill out forms, stand in a polling booth and otherwise put themselves out for a country toward which many are diffident, and some outright hostile. Motivation counts. Liberals and progressives ignore the patriotism gap at their own peril.

Second, patriotism matters for solidarity. Years of hand-wringing about "healing America's divide" amount to nothing unless America is a prize worth treasuring in the first place. Flag-waving Trump voters may be laughingstocks for sophisticates who think they're beyond such rituals. But as in military history, momentum is on the side of those who have something to defend. The trouble is not that a high percentage of Republicans profess love of country. The trouble is that so few Democrats do. Such tepidness bodes ill for a sprawling, diverse nation that cannot function—let alone thrive—without some kind of bipartisan common ground.

So since patriotism does matter, the question remains: what is smothering it among Democrats and younger Americans? This brings us to the elephant in the common room.

What, after all, do Democrats and younger Americans share that other Americans do not? Both are more likely to be found in institutions of higher learning. And as no one will contest, America's elite colleges have been, and remain, overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. According to Inside Higher Ed, the most thorough examination of political bias in academe—a survey of 1,417 full-time professors conducted in 2007—found that the number who identified as "conservative" was less than 10 percent.

Such findings track with other gauges of political affiliation, especially at the nation's most prestigious schools. A 2017 survey by the Yale Daily News of 314 faculty members found only 7 percent considered themselves "conservative." In 2015, the Harvard Crimson reported the results of a study of 614 faculty members and their political donations. Ninety-six percent of the Arts and Sciences faculty gave to Democrats. At Harvard Law School, that number was a North Korea-worthy 98 percent. In 2020, the Crimson surveyed hundreds of faculty members and found only four who identified themselves as conservative.

Liberal-left accounts of the United States trickle down to high school and other curricula. As Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has documented, K-12 education has been heavily revised as a result, especially in courses like AP U.S. History. If anything, given the pervasive focus on American vices and the denial of American virtues, the wonder is not that Millennials and Zoomers report themselves as far less patriotic than their forebears. It's that any declare pride in their country at all.

The bottom line is that progressivism's fabled long march through the institutions may have been the most successful non-martial campaign in American history. Half a century-plus of humanities faculties dominated by Marxism, Gramscianism, postmodernism, deconstruction and Critical Race Theory have done their work. If enough students are told enough times that the country is racist and sexist to its core, beyond redemption by anything but revolution, some of them will start to believe it.

Hence, the patriotism gap.

There is a profound irony in this dismal outcome, and it is visible in the outrage aroused by the 1776 Commission. Left-liberal dominance of the humanities, especially history, has finally given rise to something long in coming: an opposition aimed at undoing that dominance. For generations, the academy has inadvertently fueled that opposition by denigrating America's past and denying America's accomplishments and promise. Faced with the consequences of its own legacy, left-liberalism now declares itself indignant about the "tendentious use" of history. Orphans, meet chutzpah.

Mary Eberstadt is a senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Her writings can be found at maryeberstadt.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.