07/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Patriotism Uncool?

On this July 4th, it's worth spending a few moments figuring out how patriotism came to follow the contours of class conflict in the U.S.

Patriotism used to be a given among all classes of Americans. This ended during the war in Vietnam. As the New Deal Coalition waned and the reform coalition took over the Democratic Party, patriotism went out of fashion among the upper-middle class. For good reasons: it was used by Nixon and others as part of a campaign claiming that anyone who disagreed with unwise and ill-thought-out adventures overseas was unpatriotic. Unfortunately, the response of the college kids who led the anti-war movement was to decide that patriotism was the province of fools. Today we are all ashamed of incidents where anti-war protesters spat on returning Vietnam vets, but few of us think very hard about why patriotism remains uncool among the reform-minded elite.

As usual Obama is dodging this bullet, spending a lot of time this week reassuring ordinary Joe and Jane that he shares their values. Is this selling out? I don't think so. As for patriotism, we can continue to reject the view that the ultimate expression of patriotism is a series of privatized wars for the personal enrichment of a small elite of super-rich oil men and defense contractors -- without rejected patriotism itself. That's important, because rejecting patriotism has long been a source of class conflict within the Democratic Party. According to scholar Michelle Lamont, working class Americans tend to be patriotic for a straightforward reason: "Being an American is one of the high-status signals that workers have access to...For this reason, workers might be particularly proud of their manly protective mission and their national status." Lamont links workers' patriotism with their sense of moral mission: "workers are busy keeping moral order not only in their home and neighborhood but also in the world at large."

But patriotism and the military have lost prestige among large segments of the upper middle class. Meanwhile, the volunteer army offers many working and middle class kids their only chance at a college education or technical training, in an economy where people without college or technical training face a bleak future. The military not only serves as a crucial class escalator for working class kids; it also offers a way hard living youth can put wild oats or aimlessness behind them, and get their lives together to access to settled life. For ordinary Americans, the military is the only government institution that offers many of the benefits Europe offers to all citizens: health insurance, a college education, and low-cost high-quality child care. A military career makes sense in working class lives in ways it doesn't in the upper middle class.

The reform-minded elite does not need the military either to pay for college or to provide a career path. Instead, derision of the military is an accepted cultural mode. An early example was the Vietnam era ad, "Join the Army, go new places, meet new people, and kill them." Contemporary opposition to the military typically takes the form of a critique of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Whatever the context, upper middle class hostility to the military, and the widespread derision of patriotism, trace the contours of yet another class rift.

The reform-minded elite has learned not to deride returning veterans, and Obama also has learned to throw on a flag pin occasionally. But the larger issue, if we want to end the class rifts between the reform-minded elite and the white working class, is that we need to change our attitudes towards patriotism and the military.

How? Just as we need to reclaim family values, we need also to reclaim patriotism. We are willing to work so hard for political victory because this country holds a precious promise: of civil liberties, of economic opportunity for all, of free speech, of a repugnance against torture and other forms of cruel and unusual punishment. This is what our country has long stood for, and I willing to work hard to keep it that way. On this 4th of July, I am ready, willing, and able to be patriotic.

(References: Lamont, 2000, p. 35; Buddin, 2005; Fricker & Fair, 2003