And if so, what cn be done about it?
A study referenced in Discover has the provocative conclusion that seeing a small American flag while completing a political questionnaire can induce the respondents into being more Republican, even up to 8 months later. Is our society doomed by our optic nerves to surrender to the rabid right?
First off, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. If the description given is accurate, this study doesn’t meet the bar. The sample size is smallish (worse for the followup) and the controls seem ill-defined. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, of course. There is also a danger in defining some policies as solely Republican, or pretending that the conservative position is monolithic. Serious replication efforts are called for.
But for the moment assume the causitive effect is real. Why would seeing a flag make one more identify more with Republican views? I would argue it’s because, since the 1960s, the Republicans have highjacked the symbols and language of patriotism. They have been aided in this by the tacit complicity of the media (which like simplistic us-v-them soundbites), the Democratic Party (which has been timid in defense of its country and of itself), and the American people (who have lazily accepted the sports-team approach to politics pioneered by Fox News and embraced by the rabid right).
What path of action is there for progressives and liberals, who perhaps might be driven to despair over the apparent psychobiological advantage this gives the Republicans? The same one as always: Fight back by reclaiming those symbols. The advantage comes from two crossed circuits in people’s brains: “flags = patriotism = good” and “flags = Republican”. This leads them to erroneously conclude “Republican = good”. Progressives must break the chain at the second link. If we concede ownership of the trappings of patriotism to the rabid right, we will lose the public.
Granted, this will be a challenge. Firstly, a lot of time has been wasted and a lot of ground lost. People would have to unlearn their unexamined habits of thought, and no one welcomes that. More importantly, patriotism is more complex for progressives. The message of the rabid right is starkly simplistic: My country, wrong or right. America – love it or leave it. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. The progressive position is more abstract, more nuanced: I love my country, but I don’t always love what it does. I recognize its greatness but I also recognize the uncomfortable ugly truths that are part of its history. America is not the pinnacle of history; it is a path to a better tomorrow. That’s harder to sell. It’s harder to enforce message discipline. It’s harder to tweet.
But it is no less a stirring vision of America. Indeed, I believe it is more so. I think that the American people are sleeping, and in their slumber, the rabid right have been whispering illusions of a center-right nation. But at root, despite it all, the American people are a smart and a good people who will not dream forever. They believe not in an America that never was but in an America that should be. That is a message that finds far more resonance in the progressive ethos.
Do people associate the flag with Republicanism? Has the rabid right seized the symbols of patriotism? Maybe. But that’s not reason to surrender them. It’s a call to take them back.