Last week, the US celebrated its 246th birthday amid the usual flag-waving enthusiasm. But dire national divisions and the unambiguous threat to democracy posed by an increasingly extremist Republican right, and to liberty posed by an equally zealous Supreme Court, raise difficult and urgent questions. Yet these national conundrums should provide a golden opportunity for the Democrats, if they answer them properly.
What do "freedom” and "liberty” really mean? And why have mainstream Democrats, including the administration of President Joe Biden, not fought harder over these crucial national tropes and symbols that are often absurdly monopolised by right-wing extremists, who are often the antithesis of patriotism?
The anti-Constitution and anti-democracy mob that attacked Congress on January 6, brutally assaulting police with flagpoles still bearing the US and pro-law enforcement banners, is the ultimate example of this dissonance. Right-wingers who joined, supported, or tolerated the insurrection invariably call themselves "patriots", even as they violently attack the country's foundational system.
Their leader, former president Donald Trump, is a master of insincere nationalistic virtue signalling. At a right-wing convention, he famously hugged and kissed the US flag, grabbing it as if it belonged to him.
Yet he habitually sided with US adversaries, noting that "our country does plenty of killing also", and routinely savaged core US institutions such as the military, FBI and intelligence services.
Nonetheless he succeeded in establishing himself as a “nationalist” with his "America First" slogan (which has a long and sordid pro-fascist history). Similarly, the most oppressive and exploitative right-wing extremists in Congress unite in a "Freedom Caucus”.
Democrats rarely play this patriotism-signalling game, but that is a big mistake. Their extreme left wing is, at best, uncomfortable with patriotic sentiments and symbols due to their often-reasonable critique of US racial history and realities, but also their utterly deranged slogans like "defund the police". Republicans have used them to paint Democrats as anti-American nuts.
Yet the mainstream Democratic Party, led by Mr Biden, remains centrist and patriotic. Although they have been far more supportive than Republicans of not just the Constitution but also the FBI, CIA, veterans and often the military itself in recent years, Democrats have allowed themselves to be perceived as insufficiently patriotic.
This nationalistic virtue-signalling deficit is largely their own fault. Although the Trump-inflected Republican Party generally speaks exclusively to and for non-urban, white and Christian Americans, and pushes an exceptionally divisive agenda, they nonetheless speak to Americans as a national identity group. Democrats often sound like they are going down a rhetorical checklist of key constituencies instead of promoting a broadly unifying national narrative.
The January 6 hearings are an ideal starting point for Democrats to contrast their own support for democracy versus the attack on constitutional order, and therefore the country, orchestrated by Mr Trump, who remains an unrivalled Republican leader. Even if he is fading, most of his potential successors are striving to echo and emulate him, while his patriotic Republican opponents like Representative Liz Cheney are being purged.
Despite significant reservations about some provisions, most Democrats uphold the Constitution that US officials vow "to support and defend", while all but a handful of Republicans are hostile or, at best, indifferent. Democrats must stress that the Constitution is the republic and the nation.
Between Mr Trump's failed coup and near-universal Republican support or acquiescence for his “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, and recent highly unpopular, unrepresentative Supreme Court decisions, Democrats have a golden opportunity to refashion themselves as the party of freedom and genuine patriotism.
They must force the questions of what freedom and liberty mean in the contemporary United States.
Democrats have traditionally supported regulation, especially regarding commercial activities or land-use, that sometimes goes too far, becomes absurd or is used to advantage certain interests. But now, they should launch their own campaign against administrative overreach, especially since Republicans, especially in Florida, are now using regulatory authority to punish corporations who don’t co-operate.
When the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional protection of reproductive choice, even in situations where pregnancy is the result of a crime, it sentenced women in many states to forced pregnancy and delivery. The same far-right Court majority insists Americans have an inviolable right to wield military weapons in most public spaces.
But the achievement of such cherished goals ought to destroy the right’s ability to pretend to champion freedom as most Americans define it.
Where is the real liberty balance between a supposed right to brandish guns in public versus the peaceful, normal, majority’s right not to be menaced, as they go about their daily business with their families, by random strangers flaunting machines designed exclusively to kill people?
Democrats shouldn't be reduced to hugging flags. But they must prioritise insisting they are the true patriots, supportive of core national institutions and the constitutional and democratic system and, therefore, far more reliable guardians of real liberty and actual freedom.
These include the freedom not to be forced to live in a society characterised by daily mass shootings and the unrestricted public flaunting of its apparatuses, or to be ruled by dogma.
Recognising few limits, the religiously inflected right wing may next target contraception access and much more. Democrats must remind Americans that the US system of government exists to protect them from, not force them to obey, doctrines they don't share.
The right can drone on about taxation and overregulation. But it has completely lost its credibility on America’s idea of fundamental freedom. And the extremist, increasingly dominant wing of the Republican Party isn’t just unpatriotic – it's downright anti-American.
Democrats can redefine themselves as the party of patriotism, liberty and the right of Americans to live their lives as they see fit. But they must start speaking to Americans as a unified nation with a shared identity and interests that, unfortunately, Democrats now alone defend.