Obama, Patriotism, and Cosmopolitanism

Speaking in Independence, Missouri, on June 30, Sen. Barack Obama gave what may be called his “I am a patriot” speech. He said that “the question of who is — or is not — a patriot all too often poisons our political debate.” He then displayed his own patriotic credentials by declaring, “Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given.” To be patriotic, he said, was “how I was raised. It was what propelled me into public service. It is why I am running for president.” 

I am willing to stipulate that Obama is a sincere patriot. Even though I’m not a great fan of his, I have no doubt that if he’s elected president he will do the best he can to protect and advance what, to his lights, are the best interests of the United States.

At the same time, I think there is some merit in the suspicion that some people have, namely that there is a not-quite-patriotic aroma about his candidacy. It is not Obama personally whose patriotism is “soft”; the softness is found in the patriotism of many of his supporters, his contributors. I refer to the “Move-on-dot-org” wing of the national Democratic Party.

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These people, in addition to being hardcore supporters of abortion and same-sex marriage as well as semi-pacifist when it comes to use of American military power, are cosmopolitans. The English word comes from two Greek words, “cosmos” (world) and “polis” (city). Thus these Obama cosmopolitans are “citizens of the world,” and their world-citizenship, a universal thing, takes precedence in their minds over their American citizenship, which is a somewhat parochial thing.

Of course, the fact that you’re a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan, doesn’t mean that you cannot at the same time be a loyal and patriotic American, just as being a patriotic American doesn’t prevent you from being a loyal citizen of, say, New Jersey. In fact, being a loyal American may help you to be a better citizen of New Jersey than you would be otherwise; for you can improve your smaller community (New Jersey) by bringing to it the higher values you have acquired by being a citizen of the larger community (the United States). By the same token, won’t you be a better citizen of the United States by bringing to it the higher values you have acquired by being a citizen of the largest community of all: the cosmopolis, the world-city, the universal community of mankind?

The trouble with this argument is that there is no such thing as a community of mankind; except as a metaphor, there is no world-city, no universal community. Perhaps someday there will be. Someday maybe there will be a single organized community that will embrace the entire human race — a society that will have a world government, a world capital city, a universal language, a universal legal system, a universal police force, a universal school system, a single currency and banking system, etc. And maybe we’ll be better off when that happens. Or then again, maybe we won’t. Who knows?



But at the moment there is no such community, and it won’t be until some distant future date, if ever, that such a cosmopolis comes into being. We easily fool ourselves on this because nowadays we tend to use the word “community” in a loose and careless way. Often one hears the word used to refer to some quite unorganized or barely organized category of people (e.g., the “community of motorcycle riders” or the “heterosexual community”). But there is all the difference in the world between an unorganized “community” and a genuinely organized community. 

In the realm of religion, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest community, and it is a community in the literal sense, i.e., it is organized. It has a president (the pope), it has a capital (Rome), it has a structure of government, it has laws, it has common beliefs, it has common values and morals, it has regular meetings that all members are expected to attend (weekend Masses), etc. When somebody says, “I am a Catholic,” he is asserting something positive, namely that he holds membership in a very definite organization. By contrast, when somebody says, “I am a cosmopolitan,” he is not saying something positive; he is not asserting membership in any organized community. Just the opposite: He is saying something negative; he is saying, “I have risen above patriotism, above narrow loyalty to a nation-state. I am at best a ‘soft’ patriot.”

In the realm of secular affairs, the nation-state is the highest organized community. It is probable that the age of the nation-state — an age that began roughly at the time of the American and French Revolutions — is coming to a gradual end. In Europe two horrible world wars plus the rise of the European Union have made it increasingly difficult for people to have feelings of strong national attachment. Fewer and fewer Europeans are any longer able to view their particular nations as communities having absolute value, communities it would be worth dying for. But the EU, despite the omnipresence of its flag in many parts of Europe, is not an adequate emotional substitute for the fading nation-state; the EU does not attract the loyalty and love of individuals that nations once did. Not many Frenchmen are still willing to die for France, but there is no Frenchman willing to die for the EU.

In the United States, patriotism of the highly nationalistic kind still thrives — at least among a very sizeable portion of the population. Very many Americans still have a strong and rather old-fashioned belief in our particular nation-state. Flag-waving patriotism, though it seems rather a narrow-minded thing when looked at from a cosmopolitan point of view, is still a powerful emotion in the United States.

But it is not an emotion that is universally shared. There is an important section of our population — well-educated, fairly affluent, not very religious — that has adopted the cosmopolitan point of view. They don’t precisely sneer at old-fashioned American patriotism. But they smile at it. They regard it as a characteristic weakness of their socially and intellectually inferior fellow Americans.

For the most part, these cosmopolitans are Obama supporters, and “hard” patriots have an intuitive sense of this fact. That’s why many of them wonder about Obama’s patriotism.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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