Patriotism may be defined as a belief in the greatness, if not superiority, of one’s country relative to others. By this definition, between 85 to 90 percent of America’s poor are “patriotic.”
The corresponding figures for working-class, middle-class, and upper-class Americans are lower. And the worst-off in most other advanced nations are less patriotic — even in countries where people receive better social benefits, work fewer hours, and have better chances of upward mobility than their counterparts in the U.S.
Why are America’s poor so patriotic? We don’t know for sure. And we should, because so much depends on their patriotism. Their love of country contributes to social stability, informs and supports America’s understanding of itself as a special place, and is essential for military recruitment. It is also a force that can be tapped into by politicians eager to rally a large contingent of voters.
To understand this patriotism, I spent parts of 2015 and 2016 in Alabama and Montana — both hotbeds of patriotism among the poor. I hung out in laundromats, bus stations, shelters, libraries, senior citizen centers, used-clothing stores and run-down neighborhoods. I interviewed 63 poor Americans of different ages, genders, religions, political orientations, races and histories of military service.
I came away with three overarching insights. First, many view the U.S. as the “last hope” — for themselves and the world. The country offers poor people a sense of dignity, a closeness to God and answers to most of humanity’s problems.
“For me to give up hope on the country in which I live in is almost to give up hope for self,” a 46-year-old unemployed black women in Birmingham told me.
That comment connected to a second insight. America appeals to the poor because it is rich. The poor see it as a place where they have a chance to succeed. In my interviews, people separated the country’s possibilities from their own frustrations; many took full responsibility for their own troubles in life. And many saw this as an American virtue. Here, at least, your chances aren’t taken away by others.
“If you fail,” said a veteran now on food stamps, it’s because of “bad choices.”
For the same reason, many were confident that the future was about to bring them better things. Several felt that they had just turned a corner. And look at the rest of the world, people said: They keep trying to come to America; this must be the place to be.
That related to a third source of pride: America’s freedom. Many people spoke of feeling very free to come and go from different places and to think as they wish.
For some, this included the freedom to be homeless, if they choose. As one young, white, homeless man, told me in Billings, “Nobody bothers me for [living on the streets]. There are other places in the world where I’d be forced into some place to shelter up or, you know, herded off or … jailed.”
When conversations turned to freedom, guns were often mentioned. Guns give one security and make hunting possible — enabling one to feed one’s self and family. And America, thankfully, ensures gun ownership.
Taken together, the patriotism of the poor is rooted in a widespread belief that America belongs to its people. There is a bottom-up, instinctive, protective and intense identification with the country. This is a people’s country.
Of course, some of this patriotism is grounded in misconceptions about other countries. 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. Many also assumed that other countries are poorer than they really are. But these were almost tangential reflections; they seldom came up unless I specifically asked about the limitations of other countries.
Through the interviews with poor Americans, I realized that their beliefs about the country are not a puzzle to be solved. In America, there is no contradiction between one’s difficult life trajectories and one’s love of country. If anything, those in difficulty have more reasons than most of us to believe in the promise of America.
Francesco Duina is a professor of sociology at Bates College, as well as an honorary professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of “Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country,” published by Stanford University Press. This essay was made available through Zocalo Public Square.