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Patriotic Visionaries

It is time for Americans of good conscience, left or right, to hoist the flag higher.

(Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.)

The rival newspaper to the one where I learned my vocation always held aloft the motto of its famous former publisher: “Sustained outrage.”

This is a good deal better turn of phrase than “democracy dies in darkness” but gets at the same idea of journalism that confronts a corrupt world and fights the entrenched, powerful interests that profit from those troubles. 

On a great brass plaque in the newsroom of my paper, however, was stamped a quote from a poem by Lord Byron: “Without, or with, offence to friends or foes, I sketch your world exactly as it goes.” It was a more lyrical version of the slogan adopted by the New York Times in 1897 to affirm its stance of political independence and fairness compared to the enthusiastically biased Pulitzer and Hearst newspapers against which it was competing: “All the news that’s fit to print.” 

This is the opposite way of thinking about reporting and news from the outrage/darkness model: the dispassionate observer who is trying to tell the story fairly and mostly letting the audience make up its own mind. 

My Byronic alma mater and its crusading competitor are both now long gone, subsumed into the mire of diminished local journalism; both, in different ways, victims of the hubris of their owners. But the ideas endure, as they always have and will in the news business. 

They are the industry’s manifestation of the main competing views of life in the Western world. I see them through the lens of my vocation, but it is the same dichotomy that confronts every pastor, executive, police officer, teacher, judge, politician, baseball manager, parent, and gardener: to tend or to uproot, to maintain or to reinvent, to build or to put asunder.  

Both are flawed, but both are necessary. And as in most things in a free society, the tension between these good, incomplete ambitions is what can create the best outcomes. My boss at the American Enterprise Institute, Yuval Levin, sagely holds that the fundamental conservative emotion is one of gratitude, while the progressive worldview rests on righteous outrage. One says, “We can’t tolerate how bad things are,” the other says, “It could be so much worse.”

One is born of imagination and the hope of things to come, the other springs from an understanding of the fallen nature of humanity as observed through history and philosophy. One is likely to see devils everywhere and tear down the whole house to get at them, the other is insufficient when there are evils to confront. It falls to each of us to know our nature and in which camp we most naturally reside, but then to test ourselves to see when our natural ways of being are reckless or insufficient. Society needs both views in competition, and we need the same within ourselves.

This is why Americans venerate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln above all our other leaders. They were men native to that conservative way of looking at the world who became powerful agents of change. They were gardeners inclined to tending who, for that very reason, excelled at the work of uprooting.

As he signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson decreed, “Our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.” Justice, to Johnson and his generation of progressives, encompassed not just social matters but economic ones, too. As one of Johnson’s rivals on the left put it, quoting George Bernard Shaw: “Some people see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘why not?’”

They saw the new world emerging from the miasma of war and genocide as a chance to finally put right those flaws of human nature that had for 10 millenia afflicted the world. They would not rest, they said, until things were set right. Sustained outrage demands an unending search. 

Fifty-nine years later, many in the current generation are still searching, still outraged. But now, it is not just the men and women on the left, the traditional home of those feelings. Right-wing America is in no mood for tending and mending, either. 

MAGA represents the same kind of rebellion of the traditionalists that has come to America again and again, and like the Know Nothings in 1856 or the American Independent Party in 1968, it is suffused with outrage. The energy and anger in American politics belongs mostly to the right these days, in part a backlash against the rebirth of the same in a new generation of progressives in the previous decade.

America is just three years and a day from the 250th anniversary of our founding, and that conservative vision that hung on the wall of my old newsroom, the vision through which Washington and Lincoln tempered the furies of their own times, seems to be homeless. The modern equivalent of Calvin Coolidge, who rejected the Ku Klux Klan, or Ronald Reagan, who shunned the brothers of John Birch, does not seem apparent.

So it falls to the other side of the divide to compensate for the imbalance.

The American left responds to overt patriotism with the same kind of eye-rolling skepticism that I do when I see a drummer in a church. This, they think, will not end well. Trained their whole lives in the ways of outrage at injustice, Americans on the left cringe at the idea of unqualified celebration of their deeply flawed nation. How can they wave the flag, given the injustices perpetrated under its colors?

But that is the banner to which Americans of good conscience will have to rally. Our Declaration of self-evident truths is the only thing ever established with the capacity to accommodate both of those visions, to allow the freedom and flexibility to apply both the necessary gratitude for the gifts we have received and the righteous outrage at the injustices in our midst. It is imperfect, but is beautiful.

This year, and every year until we reach our quarter-millennial anniversary, may the people of good will of the left and right hoist the flag higher, declare more proudly their allegiance, and show their patriotism unselfconsciously. It is the antidote for a nation choked, as ours is, by outrage.   

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.