There may be nothing more American than the pride of being American. Patriotic people who love their motherland—or adopted land—are everywhere in the world, but there is arguably no one as enthusiastically keen to demonstrate it as Americans.
More than the citizens of any other nations, Americans believe theirs is the “best country in the world,” and show their pride with an abundance befitting the land of plenty: American flags are ubiquitous—not just in flag form, but in the shape of any novelty item one could imagine.
This display of allegiance is so intertwined with consumerism, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to think of one without the other. American pride typically means standing for its way of life—and its way of life is capitalism.
And if capitalism is American, what can be more un-American than socialism? Politicians still use the specter of socialism to push back against reforms like universal health coverage or affordable housing. And even as prominent political figures like senator Bernie Sanders and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declare themselves socialist, the belief that socialism is fundamentally incompatible with the US is still widespread.
It is so by design, Bertell Ollman, professor of political theory at New York University, told Quartz. It was the result of a deliberate promotion of patriotism alongside an aggressive rejection of socialism at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.
“Americans are more patriotic than people anywhere else in the world,” Ollman said, “but that didn’t happen by chance, that was something that was consciously created.”
During the last two decades of the 19th century, Ollman says, there were a growing number of groups in the US demanding more from their government, calling for better treatment and fairer conditions across society, raising the eyebrows of the US government and the country’s prominent capitalists.
“The southerners didn’t like America, because they had lost the civil war,” Ollman said. “They were really hostile to the American government.” Native Americans, too, had suffered enormous loss and harbored strong resentment. Women seeking equal rights gave rise to the women’s suffrage movement. And then there were the workers, frustrated by a lack of protection.
Farmers revolted against banks and big corporations, particularly the railroads. Factory workers began to form unions, calling for better compensation and working conditions.
Both farmers and factory workers found strong representation in two political parties at the turn of the century—the Populist Party and the Socialist Party, both of which posed a real threat to capitalist forces. Leftists managed to get major shares of the votes in midwestern states like Oklahoma, Nevada, Colorado, and North Dakota (where eventually, in the late 1910s, leftists formed a government that created a state bank to provide low-interest rate loans to farmers).
New immigrants who had come in pursuit of a better life, too, often found themselves exploited by the titans of industry with little help or intervention from the government. Many of them had been exposed to Marxist and anarchist political theories in their home countries, and began to begrudge the American system. They were more likely to join alternative political parties, Ollman says, including the Communist Party, which had 20 different factions in the US because its members spoke so many different languages.
By the turn of the century, socialist ideas were reaching the mainstream. In 1900, Frank Baum, the editor of a populist magazine in Kansas, wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book destined to become a cornerstone of American culture. It was essentially an allegory of the political climate of the time: The Tin Man represented factory workers, the Scarecrow farmers, Dorothy the good people of the Midwest. The Wicked Witch of the West was a metaphor for capitalists.
Socialism was becoming a powerful force. But the country’s largest corporations, and the political establishment they supported, had devised an antidote: A relentless campaign to define socialism as anti-American, and to purge mainstream debate of any reference to the unfairness of capitalism.
As president Grover Cleveland said during his second inauguration speech, “while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people.”
American is capitalism
The strategies to mold the American population into a loyal mass who supported capitalism, opposed socialism, and celebrated the country as the world’s best, ranged from the cultural to the violent.
Perhaps none was more successful than interventions in public education. Organizations such as the Patriotic League, which aimed to turn school children into eager nationalists, entrenched themselves in public schools. As part of a 1898 state law that mandated the display of American flags in school and the participation of students in patriotic exercises, New York funded the production of the Manual of Patriotism. A secular catechism of sorts, it aimed to inspire “a sentiment of loyalty and devotion.” All New York City schools adopted it.
In another patriotic text, Columbian Selections, the author Henry Carrington—a prominent lawyer at the time and former Union officer—explicitly argued that because of the influx of immigrants and the danger of the political ideologies they brought with them, there needed to be greater focus on American patriotism in schools. “At no previous time in American history has there been a more pressing demand for the inculcation of patriotic sentiment through the schools than during these closing years of the nineteenth century,” he wrote.
Many of America’s patriotic songs, including America the Beautiful, and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever and Washington Post March were composed in the 1880s and 1890s and coopted by supporters of a capitalist vision for the country. In 1892 the magazine Youth’s Companion commissioned and published the Pledge of Allegiance as part of a public relations campaign to get public schools to buy and display the American flag. In 1886, the government dedicated the Statue of Liberty—a monument to the end of slavery before it was whitewashed to celebrate American freedom more nebulously.
Much darker actions took place at the same time, too. The government imposed patriotic training on the children of Native Americans, who were abducted from their families and taken to boarding schools across the country so they wouldn’t be exposed to the resentment harbored by their communities.
In industry towns, with the full support of the federal government, rich capitalists used violence to counter protests, often using their own privately-funded militias. That was the case during the Ludlow massacre, where John Rockefeller Jr., with the help of the Colorado National Guard and his company’s private army, attacked hundreds of striking miners and their families, killing 20 people, most of them children.
The US government and the country’s corporations also seized on World War I as a means to promote their pro-capitalist agenda. Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, told Quartz the government at the time deemed unpatriotic all pacifists, socialists, populists, unionizers, farm cooperatives, and anyone else who opposed military intervention or campaigned for capitalist restraint.
By the time World War I was over, and the Soviet revolution was underway, socialism had become the ultimate political sin—the word itself synonymous with anti-Americanism. The administration of president Woodrow Wilson began a deliberate purge of leftist politicians, activists, and intellectuals. Italian and Eastern Europeans were especially targeted in the so-called Palmer raids in 1919 and 1920.
The identification of patriotism, Americanism, and democracy with capitalism—and of socialism as un-American—was complete. In the decades that followed, anyone who challenged the status quo was labeled a socialist—from Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to federal office, who voted against America’s involvement in both world wars, to Dr. Martin Luther King.
This flag is your flag
Dreier said that since the 1960s, the left has essentially ceded to conservatives the ownership of patriotic American symbols. In anti-war marches, for instance, left-leaning activists would burn flags.
“It was a mistake on the part of the left,” Dreier said. He notes some leftist intellectuals saw the danger of rejecting American symbolism as it was happening. Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party in America from the 1920s through the 1960s, said at an anti-war rally that a more powerful gesture than burning the flag would be to wash it, symbolically freeing it of the “imperialistic” values associated with it.
Being able to use the flag as the embodiment of a specific set of values means imposing a specific vision of what is patriotic. “The power to define what’s American is…the ultimate kind of political power,” Dreier said.
“If you see a house with an American flag on it, you assume that people [living there] must be conservative and Republican,” he added. “People think if you fly the flag you must be in favor of militarism, imperialism, you must be a racist—and that’s not true.”
Conservatives, on the other hand, have embraced American symbolism, adopting it as their own. Speaking ahead of this year’s Daytona 500—the so-called Great American Race—US president Donald Trump said, “I look at this as almost a patriotism kind of thing.” Conservative commentators agreed, noting the “American muscle” on display, and arguing that it was something that liberals wouldn’t stand.
Similarly, Trump’s accusations that those protesting police brutality by not standing for the national anthem is anti-American supports the idea that patriotism means supporting the country, right or wrong, versus making the most of what King described as America’s greatest greatness: the right to dissent.
Conservatives have been winning the fight over American symbols for a long time. The songs and texts that now define the country’s identity are actually imbued with socialist values. It’s not a coincidence: The authors packed them with the ideals they believed in, which were often socialist. Unbeknownst to conservatives, the anthems and poems they claim ownership of actually glorify democracy with a downright socialist vibe.
Take the Pledge of Allegiance. Francis Bellamy, its author, was a minister who had been kicked out of the Boston congregation for depicting Jesus as socialist. He wrote the pledge to push back against the growing individualism and materialism of his country. As Dreier notes, “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all” really was a socialist call for a more egalitarian country. The text, Dreier notes, didn’t mention god in the original version.
Emma Lazarus, too, didn’t mention the poor, huddle masses by accident in her Statue of Liberty poem. She was a supporter of socialist politics—and wrote an anthem for an egalitarian country. Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote America, the Beautiful, was gay and a socialist, and an active member of Mark Twain’s anti-imperialist league. She wrote the song not just as an anthem to the US’s breathtaking landscape, but to the potential for justice in the country.
The battle continues
Now, a century later, socialism appears to be reentering the mainstream.
Politicians who openly embrace a social democratic agenda, and refer to themselves as socialist, have grown huge bases of support. Sanders is now the frontrunner in a crowded and hard-fought presidential campaign. Another candidate, senator Elizabeth Warren, promotes social reforms aimed at curbing inequality and is polling second nationally.
Socialism’s resurgence in the US is perhaps unsurprising. Americans are still emerging from the darkness of the 2008 financial crisis. And in this new light they are understandably more distrustful of financial institutions and the other capitalist forces that led to it. Wealth and income disparities are also higher than they’ve been in American since anyone started paying attention. And Americans are even losing faith in the once celebrated tech industry, with giant conglomerates like Google, Apple and Amazon wielding huge amounts of influence on every aspect of life.
And while the establishment continues to brandish the label of socialism as antithetical to American democracy, the strategy’s effectiveness is dwindling. More than 40% of Americans now say they’d be fine with a socialist form of government, and almost 60% of Democrats say they would prefer a socialist system to the current one.
“This is a battle that is going on since the 1770s, even before 1776, and continues still,” Dreier said.
Correction: It was the Pledge of Allegiance, not America the Beautiful, that didn’t mention god in the original version.