April 14

By Miriam Gonzalez Durantez

Some countries are self-confident, and some are not. Mine, for example — Spain — is not a confident country: listen to any conversation between Spaniards and, despite their natural pride, they will quickly say with a tone of despair: “What a country!” (qué pais!). Spanish patriotism is growing (partly in response to Catalonian separatists and partly because of the rise of the extreme Right), but Spain is so sceptical of patriotic displays that it has no lyrics in its national anthem: at international sports events, Spanish people do not sing rousing, self-congratulatory words, but instead they just mumble “chunta-chunta” along to the music. It is healthy for a population not to take itself too seriously, but it is also a sign that it lacks self-confidence.

The United Kingdom, on the contrary, has traditionally been a self-confident country, proud of itself and not afraid to show it. It isn’t just the frequent displays of pomp and ceremony. It is also the attitude it has towards others. Many British politicians and officials, for example, often seem to think of themselves as being slightly superior to their European counterparts, and regularly consider anybody who does not speak perfect English to be less clever than they are. And some still absurdly feel that the British Empire of yesterday justifies British superiority today.

But beyond those tiny pockets of self-important attitudes, the UK has many qualities that rightly justify its self-confidence: its intellectual prowess, the strict accountability of its political system, the high standards of propriety in politics and business, the absolute commitment to the rule of law, the desire to assume international leadership, and its tolerance. In fact, it is precisely because British self-confidence is based on tangible achievements, that it is so heart-breaking to see them gradually disappearing as its political class chips away at them: the creeping nepotism and cronyism in the political system, the drop in propriety standards in and around the government, the diminishing clout on the world stage to lead on global issues, the open disregard for the international rule of law. The UK is a country where the population still has so much to be proud of, but where the political system is becoming more and more like that of Southern European countries.

Compare that to the United States, a country that always exudes self-confidence. Powerful, strong, loud. Americans are not afraid to blow their own trumpet as a country. They listen to their anthem with a devotion that others reserve for religion. And their flag is literally everywhere.

People in the US have, of course, endless reasons to feel enormously proud of themselves. America has been at the helm of a period of human history, which has been the freest, most democratic, most prosperous, most peaceful and most respectful of human rights. However, unlike the UK, US self-confidence transcends its achievements because it is anchored in an aspiration: the pursuit of the American dream. Americans do not just think they are better — they firmly believe that their ambition is better. That’s what allows American politicians to preach about democracy to others, despite continuous accusations of electoral fraud on both sides of the political spectrum and the assault on the Capitol; to look down at other countries as racist, while dozens of black Americans die year after year at the hands of the police, of all people; and to exhort the virtues of meritocracy to others, even after the shameful US college admissions scandal.

Self-confidence determines how countries feel about patriotism, which still plays a huge role in politics nowadays. Patriotism is seen as a political asset, as it drives votes. But progressive parties often struggle to reclaim patriotism from the other side of the political spectrum.

Patriotism in places like Spain and the UK, where there is little self-confidence or where self-confidence is in retreat, requires an exaltation of the country’s past or its present — a defence of the country’s superiority on the basis of what they are or have been. This clashes with the natural reformist instincts of progressive parties on the Left or the centre. Progressive parties try to counter patriotic emotions with rational ideas and forward-looking policies. As such, they often let Right-wing, nationalist parties (the Tories in the UK or Vox in Spain), who are more comfortable with taking pride in their country’s past, to own patriotism.

The Left in the US doesn’t have that problem. As US self-confidence is based on an ideal that can only be realised in the future, the Democrats can claim patriotism without betraying their own progressive principles. In his first three months in office, President Joe Biden has proclaimed his patriotic love for his country as often and with as much authenticity, if not more, than President Trump did, while being explicit about the need to change it. Though the political circumstances in each country differ, Biden’s approach might be an interesting one for progressive patriots elsewhere: loving your country does not mean taking it back to a glorious romantic past or letting it be stuck in a deficient present. It can instead be about pursuing a path that leads you closer and closer to your country’s ideal.