They’re everywhere! That’s how my son put it, when counting American flags, after we moved back to the United States last summer after living for several years in Germany. Driving down Virginia’s shopping-plaza-strewn Route 7, my kids pointed out a gargantuan flag whipping over a car dealership. That led to a competition of who could spot the most flags, and they had trouble keeping count.
It wasn’t just that we’d been out of the country that made seeing American flags a novelty. It was the flags themselves.
We’d come from a country that rarely displayed its national colors. On a trip to downtown Berlin, we’d see a German flag on the Bundestag and one or two on other official government sites, but you’d almost never see a business with a German flag displayed on a pole just as a part of its decorations and landscape.
There’s an obvious reason for this: Germans are acutely aware of (and ashamed by) their country’s history of rabid nationalism, which was intertwined with atrocities, and so consciously avoid anything that smacks of zealous patriotism. The only exception I saw to this unwritten rule in Germany was during the World Cup soccer matches, when people everywhere decorated their cars; painted their faces with yellow, red and black stripes; and hung German flags in store windows. The hoopla surrounding the country’s soccer team—and pride in its tremendous achievements on the field—seemed to be a safe expression of national pride, which would otherwise be considered out of bounds.
Coming home to the abundance of American flags flying on people’s porches, on school grounds, and in front of so many businesses, was a welcome reminder of the exceptionalism of our country. America is undoubtedly an imperfect place with a complicated history, but the meaning of our flag goes beyond mere national or ethnic identity. It is, rather, the symbol of an idea: A government of free people dedicated to protecting individual rights and liberty. This greater meaning continues to endure and to inspire.
That’s why I’m saddened by stories like this one about a newscaster implying there’s something inherently political, even inappropriate, about the unfurling of a flag before a baseball game. Or even this one, which made headlines on the Drudge Report, about the student government at the University of California, Davis deciding that flying the flag at their their meetings is no longer a requirement. Of course, the actual events sound mundane. Reportedly, for example, the UCSD student government hadn’t been displaying a flag anyway, so the decision to change the rule was more a nod to reality than an objection to the flag itself. Yet it fed an unfortunate and growing sense that the American flag is becoming a partisan symbol, rather than a unifying one.
That’s bad news for everyone. Pew Research studied how widespread flag displays are in America. And while they found some groups were more flag-waving than others, it wasn’t always in ways you’d expect:
Older Americans – especially those ages 65 and older – are far more likely to say they display the flag than are those under age 30. Racial and political differences in flag flying also are substantial: Fully 67% of whites say they display the flag, compared with just 41% of African Americans. In addition, 73% of Republicans say they display the flag at home, work, or on their car; this compares with 63% of independents and 55% of Democrats.
Notably, significantly more Northeasterners and Midwesterners fly the flag than do residents of the South or the West. Roughly seven-in-ten residents of the Northeast (69%) say they fly the flag, compared with 67% in the Midwest, 58% in the South, and 57% in the West.
That research was done in 2007. I wonder how different the findings would be today. Since then, we’ve seen studies indicating that just seeing an American flag makes voters more likely to vote Republican, and we’ve had some bitter elections leaving many people feeling alienated from their fellow citizens.
As a conservative, there may be benefits for the team for which I tend to root having the flag associated with its brand. But as an American, the downsides to the flag becoming just a political symbol are huge. The flag should represent our shared history, dedication to founding principles, respect for American institutions, and aspirations for our country’s future. Parties may have different visions of what that future looks like and how to get there, but we should still all feel comfortable honoring what the stars and stripes means. Giving up that shared symbol, allowing it to morph into representing one party’s vision, can only fracture us further.
I hope the political left in particular will take this to heart. It’s more important for the flag to fly at liberal institutions like the University of California campuses or Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, than anywhere else. The flag needs to remain a fixture of apolitical civil institutions like public schools, baseball fields, and libraries. Yes, you can support the right of people to burn the flag without punishment, too. But outside of protesting, fly it in honor of the first amendment rights it represents. Americans of all political leanings shouldn’t forget the values we all share. Let’s work to ensure our flag continues to represent those core American ideals.