An interview with Eric Liu, co-author with Nick Hanauer of The True Patriot (Sasquatch).
PW: How would you describe The True Patriot?
EL: The book is an argument that we’ve got to reclaim patriotism in more progressive terms. It’s written in the style of a Thomas Paine pamphlet, and is meant to provoke debate about the ways in which over the last four decades patriotism as an idea has been hijacked by the right and surrendered by the left—to the detriment of both. We put the book out there to reframe the conversation and take it out of the realm of reflex and gauzy cliché and reground it in a set of moral principles. People have a list of clichés built up in their mind, either positive or negative, and they’re far removed from truly revisiting the moral core of what it truly means to put country before self.
PW: What impelled you to write the book?
EL: Both Nick and I agreed that, out of deep frustration with the course of our politics both left and right, there was the absence of a clear, compelling framework of principles. Before we start throwing stones we have to figure out what we believe. What we thought was going to be a quick two-week whiteboard session turned into a month turned into a year and before we knew it we had this document. Initially we just published it ourselves and shared it with some folks and realized there was a real appetite for this, given the political season and I think given even longer-term trends in our politics. With the onset of the campaign we wanted to get this out in a hurry nationally. So we looked to Sasquatch because they’re in our area and could do it on a hurry-up time frame. They were able to help us seize the moment.
PW: A reader on your Web site posted this comment: “You remind us of the ideals we should work toward.” What are those ideals?
EL: Our belief is in true patriotism—we didn’t call this book The Patriot or The Lukewarm Patriot or The Ambivalent Patriot—we called it The True Patriot. Embedded in there is the idea that true patriotism means putting country before self, or like the phrase John McCain popularized, country first. What does it mean to take these things seriously? If you unpack that term you end up with a set of values and principles like stewardship, mutual obligation, shared responsibility for the common good, a fair shot for all, service to others, a set of values that are inherently progressive. You can’t get from country first to “let the market sort things out” or “every man for himself” or “might makes right.” To sincerely wrestle with what patriotism calls on us to do and be is to find that you’ve got a set of values and principles that we believe are inherently progressive. I don’t mean that as a euphemism for the word Liberal. I mean it quite literally. We say in the book America—for all its flaws and faults and for all of the ways it has failed to live up to its ideals—remains exceptional in the world for a very simple reason: there is no other country on earth dedicated to a proposition. And our belief is that the purpose of our politics is to nudge ourselves a little bit closer to living up to those stated ideals and propositions of freedom and equal opportunity and a freedom worth having. Patriotism is not a mere profession of pride but earning that pride and what you’re going to do going forward to live up to the legacy that you’ve inherited.
PW: You worked in both of Bill Clinton’s terms in the White House. Did those experiences change your thoughts on patriotism?
EL: I think they helped form my thoughts on patriotism. Both in the very basic sense of it was an incredible honor to serve in that way. As grueling and brutal as day-to-day life can be in the White House, it just never got old. It shaped my views in a deeper way. Clinton was good at remembering that at the heart of American politics and life is a social contract. When he first ran for President he spoke of this new covenant but even as he moved on to other phases he talked about things in terms of a social contract. If you work hard and play by the rules it is the government’s job to make sure you’ve got all the tools to succeed in life. That language really goes very much at the heart of what patriotism’s all about. Patriotism is able renewing the sense of deal between you and me and the larger community.
PW: How has the definition of patriotism changed in our country?
EL: The definition of patriotism has changed in ways that reflect the tectonic shift in our politics and culture. Since Vietnam, a liberal take on patriotism is much more focused on dissent and protest. That’s important, but our argument is that dissent, while necessary, is insufficient. The right have gravitated to a notion of patriotism that is of unquestioning loyalty and that any dissent is unpatriotic. In our view that is at least as if not more dangerous. To paraphrase Senator Carl Shurz from a hundred years ago: True patriotism is not arguing my country right or wrong. True patriotism is saying my country, when right to be kept right, when wrong to be set right. That is the perfect explanation of our argument. I love my country no matter what and when there is cause to be celebrating and chanting U-S-A it is not just the chest-bumping and the jingoism; it’s the question: what am I going to do to pass this on and sustain this?