by Francesco Duina
America’s poor have plenty of reasons not to love their country.
By most measures, they face bleak prospects and their government offers them the least support of any other advanced country on earth. Their chances of upward mobility are slim, the gap between their earnings and those of richer Americans continues to grow, and they work exceedingly long hours for very little. They have access to very limited social services and support.
It would be very reasonable for Americans to not love their country – to be resentful, rise up, and demand changes to the social contract of the country.
Instead, America’s poor embrace and idealize their country.
Their patriotism runs deep and exceeds in many cases that of the poor in other advanced countries and that of richer Americans. It not only entails a love of country but a belief in its superiority and greatness. America, they feel, is a better nation than most.
This is a deeply felt and resilient sort of appreciation: while the patriotism of many richer Americans has waned since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, for instance, that of poorer Americans has remained steady and, by some measures, even increased.
We should take the patriotism of America’s least well-off very seriously. The country’s social cohesion, standing in the world, and understanding of itself depend on it. As we learned during the 2016 Presidential elections, it can also be leveraged strategically by politicians and other public officials, with great consequences for who gets elected to the highest echelons of power.
Needless to say, Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again!” tapped directly into such passion for the country, as did, in perhaps subtler ways, Sanders’ own populist messages.
In my new book, I have sought to answer a seemingly simple but very pressing question: why do America’s worst-off citizens believe in the greatness, even superiority, of the United States?
With little data available on the matter, I set out to speak to impoverished Americans. I spent time in bus stations, laundromats, senior citizen centers, homeless shelters, public libraries, fast food restaurants, and other places in Montana and Alabama in 2015 and 2016 and conducted in-depth interviews with impoverished Americans from all walks of life. What I found was both immensely revealing and moving. Three narratives stood out.
First, many view the United States as the ‘last hope’ for themselves and the world: the country offers its people a sense of dignity, a closeness to God, and answers to most of humanity’s problems. Deprive them of their country, they told me, and you deprive them of the only thing that is left for them to hang on to.
Where else will a homeless person tell you, with full conviction, that he is worth as much as the President of the country? And then there is the fact that America is the country on earth to stand for optimism, the rights of each individual, and a better future for itself and mankind in general.
Second, America is still the ‘land of milk and honey’: a very rich country where those who work hard can succeed, and a country that generously gives to peoples in need across the world. It is still possible to succeed in this society.
Importantly, the people I spoke with took in most cases full responsibility for their troubles in life. They were confident that the future will bring them better things. Many felt that they had just turned a corner – perhaps with God on their side. Rich Americans, they told me, deserve what they have. Besides, they reasoned, look at the rest of the world: they keep trying to come to America. This must be the place to be.
Third, America is the freest country on earth – and self-determination is what every human being craves above all. Many of the people I met spoke of feeling very free to come and go, think as they wish, and even be homeless. America allows people to be as they want to, with little preconceived notions about what the good life should look like. One’s destiny is in one’s hands.
Here guns often can play a big role, both for personal and historical reasons. Guns give one security and make hunting, and therefore feeding one’s self and family, possible. It is important as well to always remember that Americans rebelled against the English by making guns. Guns equal freedom, and America ensures gun ownership.
Taken together, these answers made clear to me that while people belong to America, America belongs to the people. There is a bottom-up, instinctive, protective, and intense identification with the country. This is a people’s country.
Of course, misconceptions about other countries abounded. One person told me that there are only two democracies in the world: Israel and the United States. Another told me that Japan is a communist country. Yet another that in Germany one’s tongue can get cut off for a minor crime. And almost everyone else outside of America is poor. Yet, these, and many other ideas, were almost afterthoughts – mental detours perhaps articulated to justify already heartfelt feelings and commitments.
At the end, therefore, I realized that there is no puzzle to be solved. There is no contradiction between one’s difficult life trajectories in America and one’s love of country. If anything, those in difficulty have all the more reasons to believe in the promise of America. The people I met were indeed extraordinary patriots.
Francesco Duina is Professor of Sociology at Bates College (USA) and Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia (Canada). His new book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country (Stanford), is out now.