By Tom Krattenmaker
“And a sequin-bedecked pop star will show them the way.”
Not exactly holy writ. Yet in addition to a wildly entertaining performance at the Super Bowl, Lady Gaga has handed progressives the unifying principle they’ve struggled to identify and articulate. As Gaga demonstrated in her uniquely fabulous way, it’s time for progressives to reclaim patriotism.
Speculation was rampant that Gaga might use her halftime spotlight to make a pointed political statement à la Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes. What a surprise — and head-scratcher, initially — to find her starting the show with God Bless America.
Liberals would have rolled their eyes out of their sockets had it been a country star singing it. But Gaga being Gaga, they probably trusted she was up to something. When she segued into This Land is Your Land and then her catchy hits, including the anthem of acceptance Born This Way, it was obvious what she was doing: connecting progressives’ zeal for inclusion to the nation’s founding ideals.
It’s a line that has been begging to be drawn for some time now, and an appeal to patriotism that has also been there for the taking. If accepted, Gaga’s gift can solidify resistance to the Trump administration and help shape a positive progressive identity for the long term ahead.
For me, the need for a progressive rallying cry and unifying message was never more apparent than during a recent edition of MSNBC’s Hardball. Host Chris Matthews was interviewing a woman who helped organize the massive women’s march that took place the day after the inauguration. Matthews ticked off some of the marchers’ issues — reproductive rights, black lives, opposition to military aggression — and asked Janaye Ingram what unites them and the people behind them.
“You saw people of all different stripes, 5 million people globally, who came together on January 21st, marching for a variety of issues,” Ingram responded. “And yes, they’re interconnected. Why? Because we as women, we are inherently intersectional. We are born intersectional. We’re not single-issue people.”
Important concepts. And more can be said. Like:
We are united by our caring for the dignity and fair treatment of people regardless of their sex, origins, or whatever else might mark them as “different.” And, we are united by our belief in the American ideal, by the story of a nation founded on the noble principle that all people are created equal and deserving of equal respect.
It’s my observation that progressives have ceded patriotism to conservatives, much like the word “moral,” because conservative use and misuse of these concepts have made them radioactive to progressive sensibilities. That’s a shame, and a lost opportunity to win over wider swaths of the public. Although the “m-word” is seldom uttered, progressive values are shot through with moral commitments. And they are deeply resonant with important aspects of what it means to be an American.
Take gay rights. Progressives rally to this cause not because of a lack of morals, but because of the deep moral conviction that it’s wrong to mistreat people on the basis of sexual orientation. Analogous moral commitments undergird support for the rights of women, racial minorities and followers of non-majority religions.
At the several rallies I’ve attended recently, I’ve been struck by the number of non-Latino and non-Muslim people standing with those most directly under the gun of the new administration. I’ve been impressed, too, by the explicit appeals to what our country is about — to patriotism — captured by the frequent assertion that the dark vision of Trump and adviser Steven Bannon “is not the America I know.”
The America we know and the American values we advance are the invisible glue that bind the disparate parts of the progressive movement. This is the progressive patriotism waiting for us to name, and claim.
As is the case with any movement, the progressive cause needs to be known for more than what it’s against. Resisting Trump is plenty for now, but the post-Trump day will come — soon, we hope — when the movement will need to articulate a positive vision and identity. What, in the long run, will progressives be known for, and what will attract more people to the cause?
Shutting down campus talks by people such as Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos? Better to let him speak and disgrace himself, I say. Violence in the streets and punches in the face for hateful provocateurs such as Richard Spencer? Better to go high road, which means fierce commitment but peaceful tactics and a benevolent spirit. This is not only right but also tactically smart. Nothing would delight the president more than a pretext for a clampdown on dissent, with a level of violence infinitely more potent than anything that black bloc protesters can muster.
Progressives, it’s OK to wave the flag. It belongs to us as much as the conservatives who have made it their brand. We’ll know it means something quite different, and more valid, at a pro-immigrants march than it means as a stage prop behind Trump’s podium.
A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His new book is titled Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.