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NCDD Special Feature:? Commentary by Richard C. Harwood

The highly-respected Harwood Institute for Public Innovation has sent us a special commentary in time for Independence Day, entitled "Just How Patriotic Are We?"? For more information about the Harwood Institute and Rich Harwood, go to


by Richard C. Harwood

As America looks forward to a long weekend celebrating its birthday, our thoughts naturally turn to patriotism. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, and as the first presidential campaign after 9/11 heats up, the subject takes on a new importance.

The word patriotism means devotion to one?’s country ?– love of country. It means that we hold such pride in our communities, and in this nation, that we are willing to stick with them even when we no longer like what they have become, or the direction in which they seem to be going. This story of improvement, of struggle, is central to the American experience. Repeatedly, patriots have stepped forward to say, ?“I am not going to turn away from my country, but rather I am going to turn my attention to improving this great land.?” We have seen a long line of patriots in this tradition ?– from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Susan B. Anthony to Frederick Douglass, to those who seek to improve their communities each and everyday.

Now, the challenge before us is to exercise a new devotion to public life and politics. It is especially at times like these, when politics and public life may not be to our liking, when it most requires improvement, that our devotion is tested ?– and most needed.

How are we meeting that test? How devoted to country is America on its birthday?

At The Harwood Institute we have traveled the country talking with ordinary Americans about this question. The answer is this: We are far from where we want to be.

From Dallas to San Francisco, from Baltimore to Denver, in the last few weeks we have engaged more Americans in our ongoing conversation about patriotism and the state of the union. Americans have retreated from public life. They are hunkered down. They see entering the public square only reluctantly, and with suspicion. They express a narrow notion of what it means to be a ?“citizen?”; many say it goes no further than having an obligation to obey the law and pay taxes. Most think more highly and speak with more animation about being a ?“consumer.?”

People say that since 9/11 the condition of the nation got better for a few months, and then reverted to the way things were before, or have gotten even worse. Many believe that the pronouncements that politics would improve, news media coverage would become more serious, and citizens would become more involved have proven false, or were simply disingenuous.

When asked which national political leaders they trust to tell them about important issues, these groups of Americans do not name more than two or three ?– if they name any. When asked what they would say to political leaders if they were in the room with them, they shrug. ?“I have nothing to say to those people,?” said one San Francisco man.

But, there are some glimmers of hope. Not all Americans see patriotism in this light. One woman said that ?“a customer is a taker, a citizen is a giver.?” People also say it is possible for citizens to make a difference, and they hold out hope for a better kind of conduct, from political leaders, from the news media, from themselves.

As the national campaigns heat up, and as we reflect on our nation?’s birthday, we face fundamental questions. Who will emerge to seek the privilege of leading the nation? How will citizens respond? Who among us, as citizens, will step forward ?– out from our private lives and into public life, to show our patriotism and devotion to country?

What do you think?

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Last Updated:? July 3, 2003.