The last time such sentiments were so prominent in our public life was the era of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. Whereas the left practiced an aspirational form of patriotism (that sometimes lapsed into outright anti-Americanism), others responded defensively by saying, in effect, “this country is our home, and it’s good just the way it is.” In its nastiest form, it could flirt with and even embrace an ethic of expulsion, banishment, and exile for those who persisted in their criticisms of the country. “America, love it or leave it!”: the phrase echoed through George Wallace’s remarkably potent third-party campaign for president in 1968, and in somewhat subtler form in Richard Nixon’s subsequent efforts to absorb the Wallace voters into the Republican Party while moderating and sublimating their anger and resentment.
By the time of Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency, the process of co-optation and sublimation was complete. Democrats are instinctive idealists, because members of the party’s electoral coalition (blacks and other ethnic minorities, liberal women, more recently gays and lesbians) can’t help but look toward the future, to a time when the country’s highest ideals will be more fully realized and past injustices slowly and painstakingly overcome. But the Republican Party under Reagan affirmed its own version of patriotic idealism. Rather than telling the left to get out of the country if they didn’t love it as it is, Reagan described an America perpetually shining as a light of liberty in the world, opening a space for individuals, families, and businesses to thrive at home while also serving as a beacon for hope to oppressed people everywhere.