In the immediate months and years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, surveys revealed a surge in patriotism among Americans of all stripes. But that trend has steadily decreased in the 20 years since, and a clear partisan gap has emerged, with far fewer Democrats and independents identifying themselves as proudly patriotic than Republicans.
As patriotism and wrapping oneself in the American flag has come to be more identified with being a right-leaning conservative or Republican, media coverage of “patriotism” has taken a negative turn as well.
“We’ve seen on multiple occasions major news outlets share their feelings and opinions in making patriotic symbols and demonstrations a divisive political issue,” Fox News contributor Joe Concha said. “The New York Times just this summer had a writer named Mara Gay who declared that she found it ‘disturbing’ there were so many flags she had to witness on lawns and trucks. Disturbing.”
“The same New York Times that not too long ago asked if the Star Spangled Banner and National Anthem were racist. The same New York Times that is defending Olympian Gwen Berry – who turned away from the National Anthem in calling the playing of it a ‘set up.’ This is not the paper of record. It’s an extension of the DNC,'” he added, likening the paper to the party that tends to trend lower in American pride than its Republican counterparts.
Last year, a record low of 63 percent of Americans reported being “extremely” or “very proud” to be Americans. There was a slight uptick to 69 percent when asked the question by Gallup this year, but still far from the 92 percent who reported that answer in 2002.
For Democrats, the answer’s often been tied to who is president. Trends showed less pride in being Americans while George W. Bush and Donald Trump were president, and more pride when Barack Obama and Joe Biden were in office. Republican patriotism has stayed relatively high over the past 20 years.
“One year after the Sept. 11 attacks, 93 percent of Democrats and 99 percent of Republicans said they were either “extremely” or “very” proud to be Americans,” data site FiveThirtyEight reported in July 2018. “The GOP number stayed comfortably in the 90s for the duration of George W. Bush’s presidency, but by January 2007, amid an unpopular war in Iraq that sparked no small amount of liberal dissent, the share of Democrats who were ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ proud to be Americans had shrunk to 74 percent.”
Political commentator Drew Holden said that U.S. involvement in the Middle East and differences over the controversial Patriot Act, which provided the U.S. government with sweeping anti-terrorism surveillance powers after 9/11, contributed to the polarization over patriotism and national pride.
“I think that definitely played into this polarization. Post 9/11, patriotism became associated, by the media and both parties, with support for foreign wars in Afghanistan and eventually and to a lesser degree Iraq,” he said. “I think that poisoned the well in a lot of ways. As soon as you’ve gotten a political cause tied to patriotism in the public square, it cheapens the term, and allows people to play fast and loose with the definition.”
“Patriotism is the latest victim of America’s politicization and polarization crisis. But should it surprise us that patriotism wanes when outlets like CNN associate the word with January 6th rioters and white supremacists?” Holden added. “By normalizing these outlandish perspectives, the media has helped create a narrative that uncontroversial views and displays of patriotism are adjacent to something evil, which is going to have a downstream impact on American culture more broadly.”
From the George W. Bush administration that marked the 2000s to the Tea Party movement in 2010 to Trump’s nationalistic politics taking control of the GOP since 2015, patriotism has been increasingly viewed as more of a conservative attribute than a nonpartisan one. And liberal media coverage has at times reflected that tension.
CNN’s John Avlon asked in a 2013 opinion piece how the word “patriot” had become a dirty word. He ultimately placed blame on conservative activist groups, such as those associated with the Tea Party movement, referring to themselves as “the ‘real’ patriots,” who, he said, were seeking to defend a traditional way of life from liberals, Democrats, other demographics and then-President Barack Obama.
A 2020 piece by Slate Magazine called for liberalism to be made “great again” by liberals around the world taking back patriotism from “right-wing authoritarians,” who it argued had claimed it as their own.
The trend of discomfort with American flags and signs of patriotism continued in 2021 at major outlets. Sports writer William Rhoden said on “CBS This Morning” last month that he had enjoyed covering the Olympics during his long career but felt differently now, pointing to how many “American flags” he saw at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“I love the opening ceremonies, march of countries. Then I realized, you know, man, particularly after these last four years, I had it wrong. Nationalism is not good. We’ve seen the rise of White nationalism. Nationalism is not good,” he said. “And also, this whole idea — I keep thinking back on the Capitol riots, and I saw a lot of, you know, U.S. flags.”
“So now when I see the flag and the flag raised, what — what America am I living in? You know, are the ones that don’t think, you know, we should be here?” he went on, referring to him and other African Americans.
For liberal outlets like the New York Times, the American flag can be perceived as a hijacked symbol of problematic nationalism or avid Trump support.
In a piece published in July, author Sarah Maslin Nir quoted individuals who found the flag has become so politicized that they now think twice about flying it outside their homes or businesses. Some people, for instance, have been hiding their patriotic pride in Old Glory after Trump’s supporters, and conservatives in general, “have embraced the flag so fervently.”
“What was once a unifying symbol – there is a star on it for each state, after all – is now alienating to some, its stripes now fault lines between people who kneel while ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ plays and those for whom not pledging allegiance is an affront,” Nir wrote.
Left-wing editorial board member Mara Gay went viral a month before that when she told MSNBC she was “disturbed” by the sight of “dozens of American flags” during a trip to Long Island, New York.
“I was on Long Island this weekend visiting a really dear friend, and I was really disturbed. I saw, you know, dozens and dozens of pickup trucks with explicatives [sic] against Joe Biden on the back of them, Trump flags, and in some cases just dozens of American flags, which is also just disturbing … Essentially the message was clear. This is my country. This is not your country. I own this,” Gay said.
In 2016, amid the run up to Trump’s successful bid for the presidency, resistance to patriotism extended beyond media and into the world of sports as NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem prior to some pre-season games.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said following one of the games. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Some members of the media got behind Kaepernick throughout the controversy that spanned multiple years and began to justify his narrative behind not standing in honor of the National Anthem.
ESPN’s The Undefeated quickly jumped to support Kaepernick, claiming his protest was just as American as the flag, and that he, like all Black people, had “a right and responsibility” to fight against his history of oppression.
ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Jemele Hill, a staunch defender of Kaepernick, was suspended the year following the start of his protests for violating the network’s social media policy when she responded on Twitter to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who said that players who disrespected the flag wouldn’t play for his team. In her tweet, she called on fans who disagreed with Jones to boycott the team’s advertisers.
The Guardian published an opinion piece two years following the start of Kaepernick’s protest, after the controversial player was no longer on an NFL team, with writer Mychal Denzel Smith claiming that although the protest might be “unpatriotic,” it was “just fine.”
“His protest does not need to be recast as patriotic, as patriotism is not a higher virtue than justice,” Smith wrote.
Some argue the seemingly growing divide over patriotism primarily aligns with the political divide between Republicans and Democrats, and the latter moving further away from the outward display of pride in being American.
“The Democrats are embarrassed by the United States. Their coastal elitism can’t bear the thought of American exceptionalism. I never thought I would see loving your country as such a controversial idea,” Fox News contributor and former Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz said.
“As the Democrats run away from the American Flag and a patriotic belief in our country, they do so as the minority. It’s as if they are campaigning for the Republicans. I’ve never seen wrapping yourself in the red, white, and blue as bad politics, but I think it shows how radical the Democrats have become recently,” he added.
Former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who is no stranger to the media’s negative approach to patriotism and flaming of partisan politics, saw patriotism and patriotic symbols as things that actually unite Americans and predicted that attempts to divide on the issue wouldn’t ultimately succeed.
“The radical left has taken symbols of national unity and turned them into divisive flash points,” she said. “The left continues to attack the very symbols that unite us as a country. The good news, however, is that the American people are much wiser than the small number of far-leftists that seek to divide us.”