Separated we survive
Janell Sorensen of Woodland, Wash., waves a U.S. flag as demonstrators gather at the Washington State Capitol in opposition to the state's stay-home order to slow the coronavirus outbreak April 19 in Olympia, Wash. AP

Separated we survive

A common definition of patriotism reads something like this: affection for one’s country, concern for the well-being of one’s country, willingness to sacrifice for one’s country. America’s unique brand of patriotism enfolds that and more – namely, affection for the ideas of America’s founding: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; the notion that all people are created equal; limits on the reach and role of government.  

Putting these definitions together helps us recognize the two kinds of patriots in an America transformed by COVID-19. Let’s call them “public-health patriots” and “individual-liberty patriots.” 

Individual-liberty patriots so deeply identify America with freedom – and being an American with freedom – that they bristle at limits on freedom. They hold that America’s well-being – indeed its essence – is a function of freedom. They believe it’s their civic duty to live free and take individual responsibility. They view COVID-19 as similar to past pandemics, recalling that America didn’t shut down back in 1957 or 1968, criticizing government responses in 2020 as drastic, and believing life must go on in order to preserve individual liberty.

Public-health patriots love their country and countrymen so much that they’re willing to limit freedom, sacrifice treasure and scale back the American way of life for the good of the whole. They believe it’s their civic duty to prevent spread of the virus and promote social responsibility. They view COVID-19 as more dangerous than past pandemics, applaud government responses as prudent, and believe life must change in order to preserve public health. 

Those who oppose the COVID-19 lockdowns do so in defense of freedom. That’s patriotic. Consider the times Americans have stood up to government to protect or expand our liberties: Jefferson’s insistence on a “bill of rights,” legal challenges to the New Deal’s overreach, Oliver Brown’s fight for his daughter’s education, Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for civil rights.  

Those who call for shared sacrifice to fight COVID-19 do so for the greater good. That, too, is patriotic. Consider the shared sacrifice Americans have made to fight our enemies: meatless Mondays, price controls, suspension of habeas corpus, the 25 American military cemeteries dotting the globe.

Divided This tension between pluribus and unum, “the general welfare” and “the pursuit of happiness,” public good and individual liberty, is not new. What’s new is that “separated we survive” seems to have supplanted “united we stand” as the motto of American patriotism.

Think about it: No matter how many times we hear the mantra of the COVID-19 age – “together apart” – the reality is that COVID-19 has physically and philosophically separated us. 

Patriotism is bound up with being connected, being together. But COVID-19’s lockdown and social-distancing messaging prevent – or at least curtail – that. We cannot participate in many of the rituals of American patriotism: the pregame national anthem, Memorial Day parades, Independence Day celebrations, campaign rallies. In-person voting has been severely limited in some states. For the first time in history, the U.S. House of Representatives conducted proxy voting. 

By contrast, in the darkest hours of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt reassured a throng of 150,000 that America could “face the arduous days that lie before us” because of “the warm courage of national unity.” 

Likewise, after 9/11, members of Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America.” President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle poignantly embraced following a joint session of Congress.  

Such expressions of unity have been absent in COVID-19’s wake. This is a function not only of our politics, which is fractured, but also our fear of this disease, which drives us away from one another – away from those places where we might bask in “the warm courage of national unity.” 

We need to find a way to forge a new spirit of unity and patriotism for this new era.

New coalitions One obvious area of common ground is where the COVID-19 crisis began: China. Throughout U.S. history, external threats have served as a powerful unifying force. The British army’s massacre of colonists in Boston and the British government’s “intolerable acts” united planters and merchants, farmers and urbanites, Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Imperial Germany’s “warfare against mankind” and diplomatic treachery spurred a pacifist America into the Great War. Japan’s “unprovoked and dastardly attack” transformed an isolationist America into a global military juggernaut. The communist bloc’s attempt to seize West Berlin and South Korea rallied Americans for the Cold War.

What happened in China in 2019-2020 may mark a similar turning point. 

Beijing intentionally or incompetently – it’s one or the other – allowed a local public-health problem to mushroom into a global pandemic. China then lied to the World Health Organization about COVID-19, ordered scientists not to share findings about COVID-19-genome sequencing and hoarded 2.5 billion pieces of personal protective equipment. And now Beijing is trying to parlay the resulting chaos into a geopolitical windfall. 

Though separated and divided in many ways, the American people agree that Beijing cannot be allowed to profit from a global catastrophe that was literally made in China: 73 percent of Americans blame Beijing for COVID-19 deaths; 66 percent say they hold a negative view of China; 71 percent distrust Chinese strongman Xi Jinping. In the wake of Beijing’s illegal island-building efforts, relentless cybersiege, military buildup and criminal mishandling of COVID-19, a new coalition of Americans is emerging for what increasingly looks like a new cold war. This coalition enfolds national-security hawks, human-rights activists, fair-traders, religious-freedom advocates, organized labor, public-health patriots, individual-liberty patriots and an army of jobless Americans, all enraged by what Beijing has wrought. 

Policymakers are beginning to harness that fury. Dozens of bills in Congress call for punitive action against Beijing. One seeks “reimbursement” from China for the COVID-19 catastrophe. Another envisions ways to “quantify the harm ... to the health and economic well-being of the people of the United States” and proposes “a mechanism for delivering compensation” from China “to all affected nations.” Others would develop avenues for seizing Chinese assets. Several deal with diversifying America’s supply chains away from China. There are plans to create a $25 billion “reshoring” fund to encourage U.S. firms to pull out of China.  

On the military side of the ledger, a House bill proposes $6 billion for an “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.” This is a necessary first step, but it’s just that. If America is indeed in the early phases of Cold War 2.0, Washington will need to return to Cold War-level defense spending. However, given America’s massive debt, shifting back to a Cold War footing won’t be easy. Today’s defense budget is 3.1 percent of GDP. The Cold War average was more than twice that (and that’s setting aside the supersized defense budgets during Korea). The 20th century taught us that military preparedness is the best way to prevent great-power conflict.

If unity at home is crucial in dealing with the Beijing behemoth, so is unity overseas. The preventable pandemic, oppression of Christians and Uighur Muslims, illegal islands, smothering of Hong Kong, intimidation of Taiwan, Himalayan border attack, hostile and sometimes racist “wolf-warrior diplomacy” – China’s own behavior has laid the groundwork for a counter-China coalition.  

Australia led the effort to launch international investigations into what Beijing did and didn’t do about COVID-19, and recently unveiled plans to increase defense spending by 40 percent in the next decade.

In March, Japan began offering subsidies for firms to relocate factories outside China; 87 Japanese companies have already begun moving. In July, Japan started converting a helicopter ship into a full-fledged aircraft carrier (for F-35Bs).

Summer 2020 saw Indian citizens and firms launch a “boycott China” movement, while the Indian government fast-tracked purchases of tanks and warplanes.

Britain is scrapping its 5G deal with a PRC-backed firm, offering 3 million Hongkongers a pathway to British citizenship and sending its new aircraft carrier to the Pacific for its maiden voyage.

France has outlined plans to strengthen military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. The Philippines reversed plans to terminate a military-training agreement with the United States. Vietnam is opening its ports to U.S. aircraft carriers. All 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members recently rebuked Beijing for lawlessness in the South China Sea. 

Deft diplomacy is needed to build this disparate group into a bulwark against China, for we know that allies will be key to waging Cold War 2.0, as they were during the long, twilight struggle with Moscow.

United Turning back stateside, hopefully Americans are united by more than what we oppose. Hopefully there are values that unite most of us and reflect a sense of patriotism.

Neighborliness is patriotic and something we can agree on, even in a time of philosophical division. More than 62 percent of Americans routinely help their neighbors. Public-health patriots and individual-liberty patriots alike have offered a helping hand during the COVID-19 crisis, reminding us that America remains a nation of individuals, houses of worship and charities that rise to the occasion. We will need to sustain our sense of neighborliness to navigate a world scarred by COVID-19.

Respect for religion is patriotic and something we can agree on, even in a time of philosophical division. Eighty-seven percent of Americans believe in God. That’s astonishing for a country as diverse as ours. Yet given the central role faith has played in America’s development, this shouldn’t be surprising. America is a country where presidents lead prayer breakfasts, legislative business opens with prayer, the chief magistrates begin hearings with the refrain “God save the United States and this honorable court.” 

Importantly, it is not a single faith that unites America, but rather respect for faith. This respect for faith – a humbling reminder that there’s something more powerful than the individual, the public or the government – helps support our political system. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways to recognize this truth. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion ... but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” 

A belief in American exceptionalism is patriotic and something we can agree on, even in a time of philosophical division. Eighty-five percent of Americans believe America “stands above all other countries” or is “one of the greatest countries,” according to Pew. Yet growing numbers of young Americans don’t grasp how unique America is, how much America has done for the world, how fortunate we are to live here. 

The stuff we take for granted – political freedom, economic opportunity, the rule of law, the right to peacefully assemble, freedom of movement and speech, the right to believe in any god or no god at all – is rare. Only 43 percent of countries are considered free; only 4 percent of humanity lives in America. 

Countless millions journey here from other lands to taste freedom – to be part of a nation where a refugee from Czechoslovakia could be entrusted to oversee foreign policy, a Taiwanese immigrant could serve in the president’s cabinet, a child born into Soviet scarcity could grow up to build a doorway to the Internet’s limitless possibilities (Google), the son of a Turkish diplomat (Coca-Cola) or a Syrian refugee (Apple) or a Cuban immigrant (Amazon) could lead or launch the world’s most ubiquitous companies, a child could escape the Nazis and the Red Army and grow to command the armed forces of his adopted home. Only in America. 

Of course, there’s another reason the United States is exceptional. Millions of Americans – of every race and ethnic background – journey to other lands to defend freedom. Americans saved Europe from itself in 1917, rescued the world from a dark age a generation later, rebuilt what Hitler and Tojo destroyed, defended the frontiers of freedom from Stalin and his heirs, and today serve as civilization’s first-responder and last line of defense. They are saving Somalis from famine, Yazidis from the Islamic State, Liberians from Ebola; liberating Afghans and Iraqis from terrorist tyrannies; and protecting Kuwaitis and Kurds, Kosovars and Koreans. It’s no wonder why the people of Hong Kong are waving U.S. flags and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as they rally against Beijing. 

American firms Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Inovio, and Pfizer are leading the race to produce a COVID-19 vaccine for the world. And America has poured more into global COVID-19 relief than any other country – 12 times more than China.  

All this reminds us why Jefferson saw America as “a barrier against ... barbarism,” why Lincoln described America as “the last best hope of earth,” why King believed God “called America to do a special job for mankind,” why Reagan viewed America as “a shining city upon a hill.” 

Too many Americans are unaware of America’s story. This is where American Legion posts, chambers of commerce, labor-union locals, public-health patriots and individual-liberty patriots can help. Partnering with educators, we can share America’s story, explain why we sometimes must sacrifice for the public good and sometimes must fight for individual liberty, and remind young Americans – and each other – that what unites us is bigger than what separates us.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.