Is Military Service Patriotic? America Stands Divided

Why you should care

Because we’re even struggling to define what it means to be proud Americans.

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Americans pausing today to watch the sky light up in patriotic displays are divided on whether and how to express love of country, a schism that bleeds into its basic symbols and strongest institutions. Only 61 percent of the country considers serving in the military to be patriotic.

That’s the most striking number OZY and SurveyMonkey found in measuring how Americans feel about their country in an exclusive nationwide poll. We conducted the research to mark our arrival in the United States on our journey Around the World. The unease across our nation is far broader and deeper than attitudes toward President Trump. The troops, the flag, the anthem — the very nature of being American — are all under question in this uncertain era.

“I would have thought the average person on the street, with a 95 percent likelihood, would have said, ‘Heck, yeah, veterans are patriotic; military service is patriotic,’” says Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University historian, Vietnam veteran and prominent critic of the military. Reflecting further on “the Trump moment,” Bacevich adds that some could see “patriotism as somehow suggestive of crazy right-wingers.” But Americans aren’t rejecting patriotism altogether. When given a wide range of options — including everything from paying taxes to owning a gun — only 3 percent said “none of the above” would be patriotic.

Asked to give one word to describe America, the most popular response was “divided.”

SurveyMonkey/OZY online poll

The big winner? Voting, which 77 percent of respondents agreed was a patriotic act. (If only all of them were patriots; only 56 percent of eligible voters turned out in 2016, ranking the U.S. near the bottom of the developed world.)

Most of the responses showed wide partisan gulfs on the nature of American patriotism. On the military question, 76 percent of Republicans said military service was patriotic, compared to 52 percent of Democrats. Republicans also were more likely to add the mantle of patriotism to displaying the American flag (78 percent to 42 percent), singing the national anthem (76 to 42) and saying the Pledge of Allegiance (78 to 39).

Reluctance to be hit in the pocketbook, though, is bipartisan: Supporters of both parties were almost evenly split on whether paying taxes is patriotic. Democrats, meanwhile, were more likely to say protesting or participating in a rally is patriotic (43 percent to 16 percent).

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that when asked to give one word to describe America, the most popular response was “divided.”

The divisions aren’t just partisan; they’re racial and generational. Fully 35 percent of Black respondents and 33 percent of Hispanics said strong patriotic feelings do more to divide Americans, compared to just 22 percent of whites.

People 65 and older seem to have a rosier view of the U.S. Nearly 4 in 10 say they’re prouder now about being American than they were five years ago, says Erin Pinkus, research scientist at SurveyMonkey, who helped conduct the poll. “Only one-quarter of millennials feel the same way,” she adds. “Older adults are also less likely to agree with negative stereotypes about Americans than younger generations.”

This SurveyMonkey/OZY online poll was conducted May 16-20, 2018, sampling 4,731 adults, including 942 millennials (18‐ to 34-year-olds). Respondents for these surveys were selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points. Data has been weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using census data to reflect the demographic composition of the United States ages 18 and over. The full results can be found here, and a breakdown by demographics is located here.

But is this era of American history uniquely divided? We did, after all, have a civil war. More recently the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the Iraq War prompted mass demonstrations and even violence.

“We’ve always fought over what patriotism actually means,” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “Even though we think of it as something that’s obvious and self-evident, it’s not. In the civil rights era, a lot of civil rights activists made the claim that to be patriotic was to fight for the civil rights of African-Americans here in the country and not simply fight abroad.”

The symbols, too, have long come under scrutiny. The constitutionality of American flag burning was an issue in the 1988 presidential race, and the question of whether schoolchildren should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance — “under God” and all — has long been contentious.

But the current divisions come amid an erosion of faith in institutions across the board — from the church to the media. And while the military is still highly trusted, we’re increasingly disconnected from it in the post-draft era. In 2016, 7 percent of U.S. adults were veterans, compared to 18 percent in 1980.

For the divides of the past, Zelizer points out there was at least a common media forum and culture in which to have these debates. Now many Americans are stuck in self-reinforcing and radicalizing bubbles. While these are long-term trends, Donald Trump does share in the blame — insofar as many Americans find him so odious that they don’t want to associate themselves with symbols related to him. And that could mean the flag.

Controversy is good business for Valley Forge Flag, even if the divisions pain vice president of sales Reggie VandenBosch. His Pennsylvania-based firm is one of only a couple of national U.S. flag manufacturers, and he serves on the board of the Flag Manufacturers Association of America. Across the $300 million industry, VandenBosch says sales were up 6 percent year-on-year in both 2016 and 2017, but have been flat this year. He credits — or blames — politics.

Trump’s rise in 2016, and the controversy around NFL players kneeling during the national anthem last year, sent people to the flag store to show their support. Even as those events likely drained overall support for the flag as a patriotic symbol, they juiced intensity. While toxic politics are hardly in decline this year, he says, the improved economy has people more at ease, and there’s been no major galvanizing event like the NFL.

VandenBosch chuckles ruefully when I tell him 78 percent of Republicans say displaying the American flag is patriotic, compared to just 42 percent of Democrats. The flag “stands for the base principles that we’re all supposed to have and live by, not just one party or the other,” he says. “That’s unfortunate that there is a divide like that. So if you know how to fix that, let’s all get together.”

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