One of the most striking images from the demonstrations in Israel has been the sea of blue-and-white flags. Leaders of the massive protest movement, challenging Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the judiciary, have made the Israeli flag a symbol of their cause. The message is powerful: the people in the streets are the true patriots, fighting to restore the best vision of what their flag represents, Israel’s democratic roots and its historic commitment to judicial independence, diversity, and free expression. It’s time for liberal activists in this country to adopt the same approach and to reclaim the American flag as a symbol of their activism.
The flag is an important symbol of patriotism, a visual expression of pride in the ideals of what one’s country should represent. On the left, those feelings are in short supply in the United States, especially among younger liberals. A Gallup poll last month found that only 39% of Americans are “extremely proud” to be American. Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats to be “extremely proud” (60% versus 29%). Only 12% of Democrats between the ages 18- 34 say they are extremely proud to be associated with the United States.
Their negative feelings are undoubtedly fueled, at least in part, by the deep polarization and rancor that infects our national politics. This polarization has been exacerbated greatly by former President Trump who has gone out of his way to wrap himself in the flag, sometimes quite literally. He has linked the flag to his brand of false patriotism, America First rhetoric, xenophobia, racially incendiary innuendo, and divisive nationalism. Because liberal activists have not actively embraced the flag as a symbol of their campaigns, they have ceded its emotional power. This has allowed Trump and those around him to distort the flag’s most aspirational meaning. These activists also are missing an opportunity to connect on a visceral level with millions of centrist and conservative Americans who feel a strong sense of patriotism, and who are wary of those they feel do not share their own pride in this country and what it represents.
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Embracing the flag does not mean papering over stains in our history or actions by our government today with which we strenuously disagree. Quite the contrary. As the more liberal, secular critics of the Israeli government are doing today, rallying around the flag is smart advocacy aimed at capturing the high ground and reframing the terms of politically contentious issues.
At its best, the American flag embodies our national identity which, over 240 years, has been shaped by our Constitution and the constitutional culture we have built around it. From the outset, the Constitution established the healthy separation of powers in our government. In an early decision, Marbury v Madison (1803), the US Supreme Court asserted its authority to exercise judicial review of decisions by the legislative and executive branches. At the root of the constitutional culture is the Bill of Rights, which guarantees free speech, due process of law, personal privacy and liberty. The Framers of that Constitution bequeathed to us not a static set of rules but a perpetual duty to keep struggling to build, in their words, “a more perfect union.” The American flag embodies that aspiration, and our duty as citizens to continue to fight to make our society more just, free and inclusive. Our Constitution, the first in the world, gives us a firm foundation on which to pursue these principled commitments.
Michael Posner is the Jerome Kohlberg professor of ethics and finance at NYU Stern School of Business and director of the Center for Business and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter @mikehposner.
Reprinted with permission from Forbes.