Why do those who have the least in our country seem to be more patriotic than those with the most? That was a question Bates College sociology professor Francesco Duina asked and then set out to find the answer to by interviewing more than 60 individuals in two states, Alabama and Montana.
Duina spoke with people of all ages and backgrounds who had one thing in common: they were poor. Duina’s findings, which he shared with Maine Calling’s Jennifer Rooks, are the subject of his new book “Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country.”
Duina: I found three basic answers. The first was that they perceive of the United States as still the land of milk and honey, a very-very rich place, a very generous place in the world where everyone wants to still come, and also a place where you can always make it. And in this regard they took responsibility themselves for their failures. The second finding was they associated America with freedom, both mental and physical freedom. Thinking what you want to think, believing what you want to believe. Being homeless if one chooses to — I heard that a lot — and not being pushed in certain directions. And the third was a sort of transcendental belief that America is the last hope for humankind. And also tied with that, amazingly, and I didn’t expect this, a sense that America and God are intertwined, and that God loves America only so far and only for as long as America loves God back. Some people felt we don’t do such a good job. But a sense that America is God’s chosen nation and therefore why wouldn’t you want to live here if this is God’s country.
Rooks: We’ve all seen the data that show that the United States really has lower social mobility than other developed countries. The reality is, at least if you look at the statistics, you have less of a chance of rising from poverty into the middle class in our country than in especially Western Europe. Do the people you interviewed not feel this?
They didn’t. They had a tendency to disassociate personal trajectories from the love of country. They also had a tendency to split the nation from the government, or from the state, as you were saying, sociology. So you know they had many things critical to say about the government and the state but they were very, very protective of the nation, of the social contract.
Was there a hopefulness that things will improve in this country?
Hopefulness that their own fortunes actually would improve. Many of them would tell me, ‘You know, I have a job lined up and things are going to turn around,’ or, ‘On Thursday I found God and so I’m on a different path,’ or, ‘I found God three years ago, I’m still struggling, but I’m about to set myself right.’ And so there was absolutely a high level of optimism.
You interviewed such a variety of people. You interviewed people of different racial backgrounds, some had served in the military, some had not, but also people who are liberal and conservative. Someone may, not having read your book or not having read some of the articles you’ve written Francesco, believe that the poor Americans who are patriotic are the Trump voters, but you found it’s much larger than that, right?
Absolutely. If you have 90 percent of a particular segment of the population saying that they’re very patriotic is going to cover just about everybody, no matter how you cut it. By gender, by religion, by whatever political inclinations. I purposely selected a variety of respondents. The narrative varies a little bit across the segments. I expected that, particularly between African-Americans in the South and maybe white Americans in Montana, but by and large very liberal. And liberal Americans are very patriotic. In fact, some statistics suggest that they are more patriotic than conservative Americans. Many of them, in the most emotional moments, would say to me, ‘If you take my love of country away from me, my country away from me, I would have nothing left.’ This gives us a thread of dignity — being American gives us a thread of dignity — because I would have a question for them often. ‘Let me take your citizenship away from you, I’ll give you Mexican citizenship. How would you feel about that?’ They became very, very upset very quickly, and I would say, ‘Why do you care?’ They say, ‘This is the thing that I can still hang onto while everything else has gone bad for me. This is the one thing that gives me hope. If you take it away from me, I have nothing left.’
This interview has been edited for clarity. Click here to hear the complete interview.
This story was originally published Dec. 11, 2017 at 5:09 p.m. ET.