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Two Americas: Liberals and Conservatives See Patriotism Very Differently

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

If you have ever suspected that conservatives and liberals live in two different worlds, a new poll confirms your suspicions. It is no surprise that right and left differ on policy issues such as gun control or border security, but the poll released Friday by the Ear to the Ground Listening Project shows that we cannot even agree on the meaning of basic terms such as “patriotism.”  


Two surveys conducted by the American Culture and Faith Institute in October and November of 2017 probed the attitudes of 1,000 adults on patriotism and related issues. The findings reveal a deep fissure between the political left and right in how each defines patriotism. Those findings indicate that America’s political struggles are actually reflections of a struggle between two very different underlying worldviews.

Note the differences in response to ideas and institutions historically associated with patriotism:

  • Conservatives were far more likely than liberals to define themselves as “extremely” or “very” patriotic (78 percent to 51 percent).
  • Conservatives were more likely than liberals to see feeling “proud to be an American” as an accurate description of patriotism (65 percent to 37 percent).
  • Conservatives were also more likely than liberals to endorse belief in the Constitution (95 percent to 82 percent) and living by the rules of the Constitution whether you agree with them or not (88 percent to 62 percent) as accurate descriptors of patriotism.  

That pattern of differences continued across 14 of the 15 possible aspects of patriotism in the survey. Conservatives were 32 points higher than liberals on seeing refusal to tolerate abuse of our flag and 24 points higher on willingness to serve in the military as accurate descriptions of patriotic beliefs and actions. Conservatives were also 35 points higher on putting America first and 25 points higher on seeing America’s enemies as their enemies.


In fact, the only descriptor of patriotism endorsed more by liberals than conservatives was the “use of non-violent civil disobedience to overcome social injustice.”

The polarization in views of patriotism extended into assessments of the patriotism of various organizations, with conservatives more likely than liberals to see the National Rifle Association (57 percent to 24 percent), the Republican Party (42 percent to 28 percent), and Fox News (39 percent to 19 percent) as patriotic organizations. Liberals were more likely than conservatives to see the Democratic Party (39 percent to 15 percent), CNN (27 percent to 12 percent), the New York Times (30 percent to 9 percent), and Planned Parenthood (34 percent to 9 percent) as patriotic organizations.  

Americans once could shop in a store, watch a ball game, or have a cup of coffee without making a political statement. In these highly polarized times, however, even seemingly non-political organizations have been drawn into the conflict, with conservatives more likely than liberals to see Hobby Lobby (36 percent to 19 percent) and Chick-Fil-A (43 percent to 18 percent) as patriotic organizations and liberals more likely than conservatives to see Starbucks (22 percent to 7 percent) and the National Football League (30 percent to 10 percent) as patriotic organizations.

Those findings are a concern for any hope of unity, but they fit what we see on a daily basis in our polarized political climate.  One finding, however, seemed to contradict what we see in actual behavior. Liberals were more likely than conservatives (36 percent to 16 percent) to describe themselves as “tolerant of different social/political views.” Yet it is conservative speakers who are harassed, threatened, and even denied speaking opportunities at liberal colleges.  And in the poll, only 22 percent of respondents strongly agreed that they would “feel safe wearing a Make America Great Again hat anywhere in the U.S.”


If liberals are truly more tolerant than conservatives, how do we explain the common suppression of conservative views at liberal colleges and the widespread fear of even wearing a hat that might trigger anger in liberals?

The answer is that liberals have a very different understanding of “tolerance” than conservatives because liberals are working from a radically different worldview.  Understanding the difference in worldviews helps not only in making sense of the liberal claim to greater tolerance but also in understanding other findings in the poll.

Conservatism is grounded in a Judeo-Christian view of human nature as fallible, as prone to abuse power and violate the God-given rights of innocent people.  For conservatives, human technology may have progressed over time, but human nature has not. Corrupt politicians in the past burned incriminating papers. Corrupt politicians of today delete incriminating emails, destroy hard drives, and smash cell phones. Conservative support for limited and separated powers of government rests now, as it did at America’s founding, on a deep moral desire to protect citizens from the corruption and abuse that comes with unchecked power in the hands of fallible human beings.

Leftists, however, see humanity itself as progressing, as evolving toward a utopian future in which differences among demographic groups will be eliminated by means of governmental power, and their unique understanding of tolerance derives from that view. Herbert Marcuse, a prominent Cultural Marxist, challenged the left in 1965 to redefine tolerance in terms of liberation. To Marcuse, it was actually intolerant to tolerate expression of views that worked against the left’s long march to this utopian future.  It is this worldview that gives license to today’s leftists to intimidate and silence anyone who disagrees with their agenda, all supposedly in the name of tolerance.


The difference in worldviews helps to make sense of other findings in the poll as well.  Remember, liberals saw civil disobedience to combat “social injustice” as more accurate in defining patriotism than protecting the American flag, belief that America should come first, willingness to serve in the military, or defending the Constitution.  And liberals were more likely than conservatives to see themselves as “culture warriors” (22 percent to 10 percent). For the left, America is and has been a deeply flawed country that can only be fixed under their utopian agenda. For the left, patriotism is more about belief in what America might become, not what America is or has been.

For conservatives, no country is perfect, but America is unique in having been founded and structured based on a profound understanding of the tendency of power to corrupt. The conservative understanding of patriotism includes deep respect for the institutions that have recognized and protected the God-given rights of individuals to be free from excessive meddling by those in power. 

The poll also reflected the success of the left’s strategy of dominating our cultural institutions. Young respondents were less likely than other age groups to be proud of being American, more likely than others to prefer living in another country, and more likely to see themselves as culture warriors.

Conservatives should take heed. Winning elections is not enough. The future belongs to those who shape the culture that shapes our politics, and the left currently understands that better than we do.


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