We're the sons of immigrants and we love this country. We wrote The True Patriot because we believe that over recent decades, the idea of patriotism has been hijacked by the right and abandoned by the left.
At first, the response to our book seemed only to confirm this belief. We heard from indignant conservatives who couldn't admit that America has ever been wrong and from tongue-tied liberals who couldn't say why America is great.
But then a funny thing happened: people started to think about it, and then talk to each other. In recent months, circles of conversation have been forming around the country: in precincts of power, yes salons with members of Congress, presidential campaign strategy sessions but also among citizens who simply do the everyday work of being citizens, in libraries and churches, at gatherings of teachers, at the dinner and breakfast table.
We've heard from thousands of Americans now who have wrestled with the meaning of patriotism and come to a clearer sense of purpose about what kind of America they want their children to inherit. We've launched a national high school essay contest about true patriotism and have been astounded by the range and depth of the responses (you can learn more at www.truepat.org). The larger this conversation gets, the less partisan it becomes.
The argument of our short book a pamphlet, really, in the style of Thomas Paine is that truly loving this country means more than just professing love or expressing pride. It means showing your love through deeds and earning your pride by leaving the country healthier than you found it whether at the scale of public policy or in the smallest moments of being a neighbor or a parent.
True patriotism, in our view, means "country before self." And unpacking "country before self" yields a set of moral principles like stewardship, mutual obligation, shared sacrifice, service to others, and contribution before consumption. These principles are inherently progressive not in the euphemistic sense of being left-wing but in the literal sense of expressing what it takes to make progress toward fulfilling America's stated ideals.
These principles belong to no party. But it's been a long time since leaders from any party have challenged us to be moral in these ways. It's been far too long since we've been asked to "ask not."
What's promising about this election is that we have two presidential candidates whose biographies are parables of patriotism and who will be debating differing ideas of patriotism. But in the end, that is not enough. What's necessary, this season and well beyond, is for all of us to have these debates and for each of us to figure out for ourselves what choices large and small, today and tomorrow we can make to earn the title "true patriot."
Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer are authors of The True Patriot. www.truepat.org