Have the parties switched sides on patriotism?

Today, you might be more likely to hear "love it or leave it" from a liberal

A MAGA hat.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

In 1970, country music legend Ernest Tubbs scored a minor success with "It's America (Love It Or Leave It)." Like Merle Haggard's "The Fightin' Side of Me", released the same year, Tubbs pitted regular Americans against hippies, draft dodgers, and welfare cheats. "If things don't go their way, they could always move away," he sang. "That's what democracy means anyway."

In the midst of the Vietnam War, demands to love it or leave it were associated with the right. As recently as 2019, President Donald Trump deployed them against the so-called "squad" of Democratic congresswomen. For their part, liberals insisted "dissent is the highest form of patriotism." In different versions, that phrase (often falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson) became a staple of left-wing rhetoric.

Over the last few weeks, those associations have been reversed. Now it's conservatives wrapping themselves in the mantle of dissent, while progressives contend they should accept America as it is or pack their bags.

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Rather than Vietnam, the dispute now revolves around Hungary, previously best known for goulash but now a symbol of conservative resistance to globalized liberalism. Conservative admiration for Hungary has been mounting since 2015, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán resisted an EU program to resettle mostly Muslim asylum-seekers. It reached a new peak last week, when Fox News' Tucker Carlson broadcast a whole week of programs from Budapest.

Liberal journalist Matt Yglesias responded by wondering why conservatives don't move to Hungary if they like it so much? He went on to argue that by many measures the United States is a richer and more attractive society. It's not just about comparisons of GDP. According to Yglesias, our food is better, too. Breakfast tacos: love them or leave them!

Yglesias' encouragement for disgruntled conservatives to buy one-way tickets was partly an exercise in trolling. There's something ironic about otherwise flamboyant patriots like Carlson comparing their own country so unfavorably to another. Yet Yglesias isn't the first to suggest that some Americans might be happier elsewhere. Last summer, Rod Dreher reported that "I'm hearing that there are conservative Americans in the DC area who are talking about attempting to emigrate to one of the Visegrád countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland)."

Borrowing a term from George Orwell, writer Jeet Heer argued that conservatives' affinity for Central and Eastern Europe is a case of "transferred nationalism." In this phenomenon, an idealized version of another land replaces the all too familiar and unsatisfying reality of home. Affinity for a foreign paradise is by no means unique to the right. Progressives have their own history of transferring nationalism to the likes of Cuba, Venezuela, and of course the Soviet Union.

There's also a partisan dimension. Supporters of the party that occupies the White House tend to be more satisfied with the status quo than those on the outside. When Barack Obama was elected, Democrats stopped talking about moving to Canada and rediscovered confidence in American institutions that eluded them during the Bush years. Republicans, by contrast, began singing a new tune about the need to "take our country back."

But there's a deeper issue, too. Today's right is defined by alienation from the most influential non-political institutions. Republican politicians can and do win office. But the entertainment industry, academia, prestige media, and much of big business have become an interlocking oligarchy committed to an understanding of diversity and social justice that presents conservative views as not simply wrong but evil. The Vietnam War might have been winding down in 1970, but "The Fightin' Side of Me" was a number one single. More than three decades later, in 2002, Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" went platinum. That expression of conservative cultural strength seems unimaginable today.

As my colleague Damon Linker writes, this sense of exclusion is the real source of conservative admiration for Hungary. Nearly alone among world leaders, Orbán opposed liberal positions — and won. Even more than opposition to immigration or somewhat exaggerated support for natalist policies, conservatives admire his resistance to progressive attitudes on sex and gender.

There's an element of intentional provocation in Hungary chic, then. "You're truly hated by all the right people," Carlson apparently told Orbán. Even without much knowledge of the situation or any intention to move, praising Orbán is an easy way to challenge conventional wisdom.

More important than trolling, though, is the replacement of the intellectual right's stereotyped All-Americanism with a genuinely ambiguous patriotism. Conservatives don't hate America, as Vox's Zack Beauchamp recently claimed. But they do worry that things they love about it are threatened. Michael Brendan Dougherty argues in National Review that this mood defines nationalism more than any ideological agenda. To the anxious and irritated, patriotism can't mean simply endorsing the way things are. It requires active measures to defend what's being lost.

Ambiguous patriotism is not to be dismissed as backward-looking or obtuse, moreover. Progressives find encouragement in the possibility of a perfected future. Conservatives, almost by definition, seek inspiration from a heroic past. Since neither condition really exists, though, there's less difference between progressive optimism and conservative nostalgia than meets the eye. Both habits are a way of combining hope for change with the reality of continuity.

The same is true of comparisons to foreign countries. If the past and future elude us, other societies demonstrate the range of possibilities that are available in the present. It's true but also irrelevant that those possibilities can't be transferred directly from one location to another. Their existence proves another way is possible. And possibility is necessary to distinguish politics from the grim contemplation of accomplished facts.

Ambiguous patriotism carries risks, though. Without some anchor in the temporal and political present it tends to degenerate. One consequence is a sort of ideological self-hatred that judges existing institutions by an impossible moral standard rather than empirical comparison, whether historical or international. Another is romantic utopianism. That's what happened when antiwar activists convinced themselves that North Vietnam wasn't just a minor threat to American interests, but an admirable society in itself.

Hungary is far better than North Vietnam and other totalitarian hells. Conservatives should remember, though, that it's also radically different to America, not only in its politics but also in scale, history, and culture. One of the biggest differences is that while Hungary's recent past has been defined by mass emigration, almost no one leaves the United States — including vocal admirers of other countries. Despite the occasional ambiguity of our patriotism, there's something about this place that most of us love.

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