Patriotism: Why America’s Founding Is a Conservative Touchstone

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A devout and conservative Christian, James Manship often dresses as George Washington. Over the past 30 years, he has spoken as an interpreter of George Washington to thousands of students and repeatedly addressed the Virginia General Assembly.

Despite the different strains of the American right and the many symbols around which they might rally, there is something specific about the foundation that resonates. In part, it’s a natural fit with conservative thinking. If you want the country to stay true to how it started, then you’re more likely to celebrate those who started it.

Why we wrote this

American conservatives differ widely, but many find nation-building central to their vision for their country and themselves. Could understanding this perspective open lines of communication between right and left?

“Understanding the country as something based on a creed of rational principles has always opposed a view that said, no, it’s not based on what these guys wrote. It’s based on who they were. says Lawrence Rosenthal, president of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

People on the left, he says, are much more likely to value the principles of America’s founding documents — things like individual rights, democracy and equality. Right-wingers also appreciate these documents but tend to emphasize the identity of the founders who wrote them, especially their race or religion.

In Mr. Manship’s experience, when General Washington shows up, the Conservatives want to listen.

James Manship, a conservative activist who regularly attends right-wing marches and rallies, carries his politics.

From bottom to top, he dons colonial riding boots, stockings, breeches, a white dress shirt, waistcoat, overcoat, white wig, and a tricorn hat. It can be an uncomfortable outfit. But if George Washington could wear it in battle, this interpreter of George Washington can wear it in his battle for American values.

“I didn’t have a doctorate. or a JD, so no one was going to listen to me about my understanding of the Constitution,” says Mr. Manship, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. “But they would listen to the President of the Constitutional Convention.”

Why we wrote this

American conservatives differ widely, but many find nation-building central to their vision for their country and themselves. Could understanding this perspective open lines of communication between right and left?

Mr. Manship loves his story and he dresses as George Washington, partly out of self-interest. It is also strategic. Mr. Manship is a devout Christian and conservative, active in state politics. In his 30 years of performing, he has spoken to thousands of students and repeatedly addressed the Virginia General Assembly. When General Washington shows up, he says, other conservatives want to listen.

Most people are more subtle in their dress, but right-wing Americans across the country often appeal to the nation’s foundation. The struggle against big government is that of “patriots” against “tyranny.” In heavily Republican areas, Gadsden’s historic flag – featuring a coiled rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me” – has migrated from flagpoles to license plate frames. In response to Project 1619, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic collection on slavery, there is now a Project 1776.

This iconography has long been a hallmark of the American right, but it is becoming increasingly important. The outcry over race-related teaching in schools, in particular, often stems from conservative criticism of the country’s founding, says Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University. For many, this story is not a relic. It is a fundamental element of conservative identity today. Figuring out how to make issues like race less controversial requires understanding why the foundation — and the founders themselves — mean so much to so many people right at the center.

Many conservatives “want so badly to believe that we are a good nation,” says Dr. Cooter. Questioning the foundation “threatens from…who they think they are as people, who they think they are as Americans.”

Founders or founding principles?

How people feel about themselves as Americans often depends on how they view America. On this subject, the left and the right have very different points of view.

In one YouGov/Economist survey Last December, those who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 were far more pessimistic about America’s relative standing on issues like income inequality and minority rights than those who voted for Donald Trump. A report from the Pew Research Center, published a month before, had similar results. People who identified most to the right were much more likely to agree that ‘the United States is above all other countries in the world’ than those most to the left – 69% against 1%.

For some of those conservatives who believe in American exceptionalism, displaying symbols of America’s founding is a way of showing national pride. But it’s not the only way, and conservatives aren’t the only patriotic Americans. In the YouGov survey, independents responded more like Republicans than Democrats.

“Conservatives or conservative activists might display these symbols the most, but I think the vast majority of Americans remain patriotic,” says Donald Critchlow, a history professor at Arizona State University and author of “Revolutionary Monsters: Five Men Who Turned Liberation into Tyranny”. .”

In his view, symbols have more to do with political organization than patriotism. Movements need a common language and iconography, and curators have long used that of the founders. When Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, he says, protesters arrived in Washington dressed as Minutemen.

Yet despite the various strains of the American right and the many symbols around which they might rally, there is something specific about the foundation that resonates. In part, it’s a natural fit with conservative thinking. If you want the country to stay true to how it started, then you’re more likely to celebrate those who started it. It also reflects a particular view of the founding of the popular country among the right.

“Understanding the country as something based on a creed of rational principles has always opposed a view that said, no, it’s not based on what these guys wrote. It’s based on who they were. says Lawrence Rosenthal, president and principal investigator of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

People on the left, he says, are much more likely to value the principles of America’s founding documents — things like individual rights, democracy and equality. Right-wingers also appreciate these documents but tend to emphasize the identity of the founders who wrote them, particularly their race or religion. The latter view, Dr. Rosenthal says, has become more popular than ever since Mr. Trump’s presidency.

“They really see themselves as acting in the lineage, especially of the founding fathers,” says Dr. Cooter.

James Manship, dressed as President George Washington, holds a paperback copy of the Constitution while attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2018.

Consult the Constitution

Mr. Manship thinks that way.

His reverence for the Constitution began at age 10, when a former Atlanta Constitution editor told him to treasure the nation’s founding documents. He later pledged to “defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic” while serving in the Navy. Protecting the Constitution is largely how he sees politics today. Like many conservatives, he thinks he is under threat.

In one November 2021 survey According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to agree that “today, America is in danger of losing its culture and identity.” A most recent poll shows that Republicans generally feel more pessimistic about the direction of the country.

Appeals to the foundation can be powerful forms of comfort for conservatives who feel threatened — especially as accounts of American history become more inclusive and often more critical. During last year’s school board races, some contestants opposed to race-related instruction signaled their positions by signing an online statement. 1776 Commitment.

The foundation is “more appealing to conservatives because we have this vision of limited government,” says John Eidsmoe, a former Alabama Supreme Court attorney and an outspoken conservative. “We fear that the government will become too powerful, take too much of our tax money, use it for purposes that we think are immoral.”

But the foundation does not address everyone in the same way.

Brett Ames frequently consults the Constitution when thinking about today’s political issues and proudly traces his American ancestry to Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1632. He is conservative and adheres to the principles of America’s founding, but he do not regard them all as sacred. The founders were only men, he says.

“I don’t think personally, if they saw how revered they were until now, they would be comfortable with it,” Mr Ames says.

Yet Mr. Ames, a former IT employee, flies two flags from his porch in Buckhall, Va.: the Marine Corps flag and the Gadsden flag. The first is for his son, who serves in the military. The second is in honor of Revolutionary War naval commander John Paul Jones, who is said to have flown it from his ship. These two reflect his love of country, but he says they are more about his own values.

In his own way, Mr. Manship would agree. Dressing like George Washington can be a signal to other conservatives, but not just conservatives. He wants people to know how much he cares about the Constitution. What better way to show it, he says.

“They see the image of a George Washington. … They see and feel the passion,” says Manship. “It’s going to communicate a love for this Constitution better than if I showed up in front of them with a coat and tie or a T-shirt.”

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