Can Democrats Be Patriots?

If you listen to conservative politicians, you might think that voting for Democrats is an unpatriotic act. Mainstream Republican politicians say that liberals are ruining the country and hint that they don’t really have the best interests of our country at heart.

Further out at the right fringes, there is less restraint: liberals are actually socialists trying to destroy America. President Obama is the lightning rod for these accusations of treachery – he is really an African-born Muslim doing his incompetent best to destroy capitalism and deliver us to his terrorist friends.

Nothing new there. Richard Nixon got into the Senate in 1950 by painting his liberal Democratic opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, as a traitor, “pink right down to her underwear”, whose real allegiance was to the Soviet Union.

It’s nonsense, and here are two examples to prove it – my father and my father-in-law, both lifelong liberal Democrats, both patriots.

My father, Ernst Hochstadt, came to this country when he was 18, narrowly escaping the Nazis in his native Vienna. He lost his accent, learned to love baseball, and became an American. Everyone called him Ernie, unthinkable in formal European society.

He also became a Democrat. From him and my mother I learned to support the struggle of African Americans for equal rights, symbolized for us by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ star Jackie Robinson. I learned from them that women were as good as men, that labor unions protected the rights and livelihoods of workers, that government should help those in need.

These lessons didn’t come in political lectures. My father was quiet about his beliefs, like he was quiet about having volunteered for the US Army so he could go back to Europe as an officer to fight the Nazis.

My father’s allegiance to his adopted homeland and the freedom it offers was based on his own experiences of tyranny and persecution.

Unlike my immigrant father, my father-in-law, Roger Tobin, personifies the red-blooded American. A lifelong athlete, he delighted in beating all comers at tennis, badminton, basketball, and any other sporting endeavor. His infectious good humor made him a great salesman, who rose through the ranks of his company to become President at the end of his career. He snuck into the Marine Corps at 17 after Pearl Harbor and ended up in Japan.

Roger was a proud Democrat, who wore his liberalism on both sleeves. His financial success put him into the company of lots of rich Republicans, with whom he loved to argue. He never let his friends forget Richard Nixon’s disgrace.

Roger came from a Democratic family. His mother became a social worker during the Depression to help make ends meet and to help those who were even needier. His liberalism came out of the experience of seeing how government could make people’s lives better in hard times.

For Roger and Ernie, liberalism and patriotism were the same thing. They loved the US because the liberal ideals of equality and fairness are at the heart of the American story. They voted for Democrats as an expression of patriotism.

John F. Kennedy expressed their kind of liberal love of country during his campaign for President in 1960, describing his own view of a liberal, when his Nixon tried to tarnish him with that label: “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a Liberal, then I’m proud to say I’m a Liberal.”

Although they disagreed with Republicans, I can’t remember ever hearing Roger or Ernie imply that their fellow citizens with more conservative beliefs were unpatriotic. To them, that would have been un-American.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Country 

Published by the LA Progressive on June 11, 2012
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."