Do Republicans own the American flag? NO.
Nationalism has – in this country and others – been used, at times, to cover all manner of sins, and to usher in objectionable policy. There’s a reason, after all, that the quote, variously attributed to Sinclair Lewis and Huey Long, “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag,” lingers in our public consciousness, despite its uncertain origins.
The idea that the Republican Party has a monopoly on flag-waving, and the associated symbols and language of American patriotism, is inextricably tied to these concerns. Often, GOP flag-waving and affirmations of American exceptionalism have been less about deserved national pride than they have been about defining themselves as “real” Americans in contradistinction to their own countrypersons who do not share their ideology or dominant racial and religious identities.
Which is why some on the left have a reflexive concern about flag-waving and chants of “USA! USA!” at the Democratic convention. We are, however, in the middle of an election that is fundamentally about whether the very nature of our country is going to change. As many others have already observed, this isn’t so much an election between Democrats and Republicans as it is an election between small-d democrats and authoritarians.
I have spent the last two weeks deeply immersed in first the Republican convention and then the Democratic convention, and I have come away of the firm (and unexpected) opinion that I want Democrats waving the U.S. flag right now and saying: “We’re America – not those white nationalist authoritarian creeps.”
I want to see the U.S. flag, because of its powerful symbolism, in the hands of the people at the Democratic convention whose American Dream is about a future in which everyone has an equal opportunity to define and realize their own American Dream.
I am keenly aware that there are people who will read this and feel obliged to caution me that it’s a slippery slope. I know. I’m not indifferent to the fact that the Democratic Party cannot and should not claim the mantle of the flag as their own, as the Republican Party has tried to do.
I care quite a bit that the Democrats not simply become the far side of a swinging pendulum of misguided and distorted symbolism, signalling something darker than love of country.
It’s eminently possible, I am certain, that we can find a balance. That we can exist in a space in which we are not mimicking the mistakes of our opponents; that we do not slide down a slippery slope; but instead wave the flag on behalf of the country we want to be – and are – in this precarious moment.
The flag belongs to us all. It is a symbol of our unity and of our collective aspirations for liberty and justice. And it is the symbol of an America that belongs to every one of us, not to one man who cares astonishingly little for it, given his campaign to be its leader.
[Peter Daou contributed to this article.]