By today’s definition, I am a liberal, coastal elite (by education and profession, not income), which the far-right often equates as not part of “real America” and thus incompatible with patriotism. And for years, even as a C.I.A. officer and national security advisor at the White House, I believed them. I didn’t consider myself patriotic.
In the wake of a bitterly divisive election, however, I see a patriotic fervor awakening within communities who had long taken their American values for granted. And, surprisingly, I have discovered my own deep-felt love for the freedoms enshrined in our founding fathers’ writings. Now, as a private citizen on the outside of the halls of power, seeing what I believe are core elements of our Constitution under siege, I feel it is my patriotic duty to speak out and fight for our democracy.
Over the past year, I have had my moments of wanting to throw my hands up in defeat, to let go the idea of America, to distance myself from a country that I have defended but wrestle to love at times. But having spent so much time in other countries that aspire to have the same freedoms and equality that America promises, I know the country our forefathers envisioned is worth the struggle, and that makes me feel deeply patriotic now.
The word “patriotism” elicited an uncomfortable feeling through much of my younger life. I had always associated it with flag waving, pin wearing, parade going, and most often, with strong symbols of military might and bravado. The notion that others — be it Republicans, conservatives, or the “real” America — had ownership of the word had seeped so deeply into my psyche that I couldn’t apply the label to myself, even when directly serving to protect my country’s national security. When the definition of patriotism conflates nationalistic tendencies with love of country, I can understand why those who at their core are true patriots might not self-identify as such, as I myself did not.
“Does our love of country include love for all Americans, or only for certain Americans?”
When I started working at the C.I.A. in November 2000, I never associated the word “patriotism” with what I was doing, or as the underlying motivation for signing up. I took the oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and I certainly took pride in serving my country, in contributing to the highest levels of decision making, in representing the United States overseas. When serving in the White House as a national security advisor to Vice President Biden, I paused every day upon entering the gates to let the gravity of the office, and of my role in doing what I could to help defend this nation, sink in. I was extremely proud and humbled by the responsibility. But I never thought of myself as swelling with patriotic pride.
During my 13 years in government, I had taken for granted that our institutions were solid, that our nation’s democratic values and inherent goodness were a given, and I focused my time and energy on foreign policy and global security issues. I exported my American sense of social justice, democracy, inclusion and equality — even if not deliberately — to communities on the other side of the globe.
I fought through sleepless nights coordinating intelligence during the early days of the war in Afghanistan with my CIA team; I spent two years working hand-in-hand with our U.S. military teams in remote areas of East Africa; I worked side by side with my FBI colleagues to help ensure the rescue of an American hostage in Somalia in 2012. Through it all, I held strong to my liberal political and social beliefs, and I equally respected my more conservative colleagues. We certainly disagreed at times on social and political issues, we argued over process and ideas, we debated best approaches. But not once did any of these men and women question my dedication to my teams, to our mission, or to our country. And even today, when we are more polarized than ever, I imagine anyone I served with would still consider me a patriot, even if I never personally identified with the word.
But now, as I watch my country’s founding principles threatened, I know I have to use those same skills, and that passion, to help ensure that our core American values prevail here in the United States. As I grapple with re-casting my own relationship with patriotism in the wake of the 2016 elections, I ask myself: Is it a forward-looking concept or a nostalgia for an America of the past? Should we blindly follow our elected leaders, without questioning motives or actions, or is patriotism itself the act of demanding they respect the Constitution and holding them accountable? Does our love of country include love for all Americans, or only for certain Americans? Do we defend all elements of the constitution, or only the amendments that we care most about? Can we admit to the mistakes of our past in order to build a stronger future? Is the concept of “American exceptionalism” still relevant? And at what point will we have strayed too far from the founding principles of this country to continue to claim some sort of moral superiority?
“No political party or particular group of Americans own patriotism.”
We Americans demonstrate our devotion to our country through various ways, be it through military service, volunteering in our communities, defending free speech, voting, paying taxes, or marching in parades. And while we are bitterly divided on the best solutions to ensure a better future, we should not be divided on the love of our country. No political party or particular group of Americans own patriotism. They might interpret it differently, but the accusations that those who challenge their government are not patriotic, or as President Trump tweeted, “the enemy of the American people”, are detrimental to the very fabric of our society.
These accusations are not new. For example, there was no mistaking the intent behind naming the new law passed in the wake of September 11th the USA PATRIOT act (a jumbled use of words to create the acronym). Those who questioned the constitutionality or overreach of certain elements of the act were, by inference, questioning patriotism itself. In fact, in his December 2001 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Ashcroft directly made this accusation, saying “to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists.” There did not seem to be a middle ground, where a patriotic American can believe in the necessity of new legislation to enhance security tools while also ensuring we respect the Constitution. This zero-sum game of you are either with us or against us has polarized us beyond even Left vs. Right, Conservative vs. Liberal into the dangerous territory of true patriot vs. bad American, or in the most extreme, traitor.
As I dedicate myself now to speaking truth to power, to protecting our Constitution by protesting when I see it threatened, to displaying my patriotism through my efforts to hold my leaders accountable, I can only hope that those who disagree with me can recognize that at our very core, we all love our country and want to see it do better. And I hope that those who are fighting for their neighbors, their values, and their liberal democracy recognize and are proud of their own patriotic dedication.
Because, as our forefather Samuel Adams said, “If ever the time should come, when vain & aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”
Yaël Eisenstat (@YaelEisenstat), a geopolitical and global security consultant, was a C.I.A analyst, a special adviser on national security to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a senior intelligence officer at the National Counterterrorism Center and a U.S. diplomat.