The Politics of Patriotism

The Politics of Patriotism

Patriotism, in conservative periods like our own, is a tool used by the right to bludgeon labor and the left. In the 1980s, corporations are said to represent the essence of American civilization—unions its denial. Such ideological attacks on the labor movement and its social-welfare programs have contributed to a steep decline of labor’s power and influence.

There are no simple answers to labor’s dilemma, but history does suggest a model for recovery. The 1980s are similar in many respects to the 1920s, when a conservative Americanization campaign, designed to weed out cultural dissenters and political radicals from American life, decisively weakened the power of labor and the left. Yet the very success of this Americanization campaign produced unanticipated consequences. The unitary political culture fostered by the Americanizers brought the heterogeneous groups in the American working class together; and the triumph of a conservative Americanism induced many radicals and labor organizers to redefine their politics in ways that fit American political discourse. These two historical processes—the spread of a single, political culture and the efforts of labor and the left to appropriate American values and symbols for their own cause—would contribute significantly to the massive working-class insurgency that was embodied in the rise of the CIO.

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