Interview with Francesco Duina
Interview with Francesco Duina
By Jeremy Cohen
Francesco Duina is professor of sociology at Bates College. He also holds and honorary professorship at the University of British Columbia and is a visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School. His recent book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country (Stanford, 2018) was the winner of an Independent Publisher Book Award.
Jeremy Cohen: Let’s start with the genesis of the project that became 'Broke and Patriotic.' What motivated you to study patriotism among the poor in the U.S.?
Francesco Duina: The genesis of the book was a simple realization. If one travels across the
United States or goes to public events like sports events you see a lot of displays of national
sentiment: playing the national anthem before sports events, the pledge of allegiance in schools,
public displays of flags everywhere, including on people’s homes. So that was one thing that caught my eye a long time ago. A second thing is that there is rising inequality in the United States, as we all know, and there is what I perceived to be a contradiction, if you will, or a puzzle between this growing class of poor Americans and this overt expression of patriotism. In many ways, especially among the poorest, one would think that maybe they should be asking questions or questioning the social contract. And so, this apparent contradiction or puzzle was in my mind. And I wanted to understand these displays of national sentiment in the Weberian sense. I had the instinct many times to pull over outside a house flying the American flag, knock on the door and say, “What does the flag mean to you? What does it represent to you? Why bother having a pole with a flag on your house?” So that’s kind of the genesis. Then of course, I studied national identities and nation-states in the age of globalization. So there’s a different question about the continued significance of national identity in a globalized world.
JC: One of the central theoretical and practical motivations for the study, you argue, is that we might be concerned about the social control implications of patriotism among the poor: why don’t the poor rise up or demand more social benefits? The people who you talk to seem to be fairly content with their lot in life. They see their government as generous and the future as hopeful. I wonder if you encountered any dissenting views or if even among the most patriotic subjects there were consistent sources of discontent that they expressed even while espousing their love of the United States.
FD: I spoke to sixty-three people in depth in both Montana and Alabama, in both rural and urban
areas of each state. Of these sixty-three, sixty were purposely selected because they were highly
patriotic. I wanted to delve into the mindset of the highly patriotic. But I did speak to three who
weren’t patriotic on purpose. And even among the ones who were patriotic, of course there were
dissenting moments. While it is true that many of them expressed appreciation for the government, not all did. Especially in Montana, libertarian rhetoric was very prevalent. After I wrote the book and presented it at various venues, something occurred to me that I wish had occurred to me before: their love for the United States is more about the nation and less about the state. The discontent that you would hear was about the state: government policies had gone astray, we did not have the right sort of welfare policies, we might not be behaving properly in the world. But as a state, not as a nation. There was discontent around that. There was, as you noted, contentment and optimism, in general, about their lives. They could be discontented or upset about themselves and their situation, but they took ownership of their situation, so they don’t project that onto the country, they don’t blame that country for it. We know that’s true of Americans in general. So, the discontent, if it was there, was generally about the government, the state part and not the nation. As for those who were not patriotic that I spoke to, well that’s a whole different discussion, that’s a whole different book. Because they were really disillusioned and didn’t believe in this. They were really, really not happy with the country. They were disillusioned with the narrative [of the country].
The same narrative that the others believe in, they just don’t believe it. “It’s a fantasy. It’s a delusion. It’s intended to keep the others happy and quiet.” There was a lot of cynicism about the flag, about the pledge of allegiance, about who was in control, about racism, about all sorts of things. So, there was plenty of disillusionment if you look for it. But, one should note, if you do some cross-tabulations, which had not been done before, the patriotism of the poor is very high—90 to 100 percent of the poor in the United States. It’s very high in the United States in general but especially among them. So, the discontent is actually a very small narrative compared to the patriotic narrative.
JC: This analytic separation between the nation and that state is very interesting and a great way of capturing what you write about. You have many subjects, maybe more in Alabama than in Montana, who talk about the generosity of government programs. You have one man who’s talking about other countries and says, “I don’t know if they’re on Social Security.” You also talk to people who don’t want more but who also seem to question whether other people who are getting these benefits are deserving of them. I’m wondering if the separation between nation and state is the way that they reconcile this or if there are other sorts of narratives or heuristics they use.
FD: That’s a classic behavioral pattern, which is to say, “I don’t want others to get the benefits but
it’s okay if I get the benefits.” You’re correct, in Montana this resentment was there more. In
Alabama, there was more gratitude. But among the whites in Alabama, there was questioning of
those benefits for others. They’re not happy about that but they still love the country. That goes
back to the discussion of the nation and the state. The same observation applies to what I heard in Montana a lot and in Alabama a little: “The government is spying on us all the time. We can’t even have conversations.” One guy said, “Look at the police cars. They don’t even say ‘to serve and protect’ anymore. You don’t even know your policeman anymore. They’re all over the place. It’s a surveillance state.” I was talking to an Iraq vet. We were talking about the military not necessarily behaving in the best way sometimes. He said, “When I served in the military, I didn’t pledge allegiance to the president, I pledged allegiance to the constitution. So, if the president or the government should go the wrong way, the military is not designed to go the wrong way. We can always claim it back.” I.e. the nation can claim it back to have it live up to its promise. That was in answer to a question I asked him, he said: “There’ll be a rebellion one day amongst people like me.” I said, “What kind of rebellion can you possibly have? The United States government has an extremely powerful military. What are you going to do, attack the military with guns?” And he said, “No, because the military is ours.” The military is of the nation, not the state. Of course, they
wouldn’t put it in terms of the nation versus the state but that’s what they’re after. There is a clear care for the social contract and a sharp awareness of it. And then, of course, there are disappointments with the welfare state, the police, the government, that manifested themselves.
JC: One of the other themes that runs throughout the book and that’s often labelled a hallmark of the American spirit is this notion of the individual and in Montana, even, the radical individual. You have people who are choosing to be homeless—
FD: On sabbatical
JC: Right, on sabbatical! If we imagine that there is some sort of potential out there for more rights or greater equality, then this sits uneasily with the emphasis on individualism. Despite this, did you get a sense that they are involved with the political scene and their communities, or are they disillusioned with the state so much that they’ve retreated from it? Are they content enough? I think your narrative seems to suggest that there’s not necessarily a reason to expect that there would be any movement for greater equality. But were things to change, as you hint in the conclusion, would it be through the armed rebellion that this gentleman in Montana imagines, or would it be at the ballot box?
FD: Unfortunately, and here I’m expressing my own views, I didn’t get much of sense at all
of desire to really undo a whole lot in terms of engagement. For one thing, we’re talking about very poor Americans here. Many of them, when I asked in the screening process which way do you vote—Democrat, Republican, independent—they didn’t know the answer to the question. They didn’t know what I was asking in some cases. Or they had voted once when they were eighteen. They were not politically active in that way. And many of them went in and out of being homeless and sleeping on the streets, living in cars, or living in very simple arrangements. So, I did not get the sense that they were civically engaged. I got the sense that they were trying to make ends meet. But I did get a sense—this is what was amazing—of their sharp awareness of the history and the specifics of the American social contract and they really believe it. They believe in the individualism part. And they take ownership of it. It gives them an enormous amount of dignity, this sense that they’re as worthy as the president of the United States. That’s what I heard repeatedly. In other words, my puzzle was not their puzzle. I was talking inequality of money, but in terms of individual worth, the country recognizes your worth as a human being. “In the United States it’s written in our founding documents. What country can say that?” they would say. Who can blame them?
JC: Where did their views of other countries come from? You do a great job of showing how certain institutions like schools, family, and the military perpetuate these patriotic narratives. You have people who talk about how it’s their duty to teach their children to love the United States. But you also capture people’s perceptions of other countries because this is a comparative endeavor. I’m wondering if you got a sense for where these perceptions of other countries came from.
FD: The details in their perceptions of other countries were often wrong. I heard things like: “There are only two democracies in the world, Israel and the United States, and everybody else is either socialist or a dictatorship.” Or, “I have to be here because if I commit a crime, I’m in jail for three months, then I’m out. Whereas, in Germany, they cut your tongue off;” “In Saudi Arabia they chop your head off if you say something wrong.” And so, you know, the specifics were often off,
although their understanding of the partial exceptionality of American history was accurate in many ways. So, where did they get their ideas from? Well, I would push them on that toward the end of the discussion that we would have. I would say to them, “What about other countries?” I should say to begin with that other countries did not really figure in their narratives very much. It was always self-referential, “America is great!” And I would ask, “Well great relevant to what? What do you know about other countries?” And that’s when the other stuff would come up. Lack of knowledge of other countries was not a central element in their narrative. But that said, some of them had served in the military, so they had been abroad. Some of them had gone to Canada or maybe Mexico for a day or two or three. A couple of people had gone on religious trips when they were younger with their families. You know, they saved all their lives to go to Israel and see the Holy Land. Or simply watching TV. There were plenty of people who said, “Look, we are the greatest nation on Earth.” This one guy said, “I don’t see on TV, the Chinese helping Ethiopians. I see Americans. Where are the Chinese? They’re not helping anybody!” Of course, this person doesn’t know all the changes, whether it’s helping or not, but the Chinese are investing a lot of money. There’s a lot that they could know more of. But it didn’t really matter to them. They would say “Well, I went abroad once, and I was so glad to return to the United States.”
JC: It seemed almost derivative of the need to justify the exceptionality of the United States.
FD: Yeah, it was a secondary thing.
JC: Correct me if I’m wrong but most of the interviews were conducted in the late Obama
presidency and then as the 2016 election was getting underway.
JC: One of the hot-button issues during this period, and which continues to be a hot-button issue, is immigration. Immigration comes up in your book to the extent that people tend to use it as proof of the fact that America is great because so many people want to come here. On the other hand, there are theories of status threat that suggest that when new groups are gaining in numbers, people reach for the most privileged identities they can claim, suggesting that identity processes may be affected by immigration itself. I was wondering if the salience of immigration in this period of time contributed to overall identification with and affirmations of love of the country, or if you think that that’s just generally a constant; high levels of patriotism among the poor are invariant to changing demographics.
FD: I don’t have a direct answer to that. It would probably vary by the kinds of people I spoke with. I don’t think that among African Americans in Alabama that was necessarily a big issue. I do think that it was probably more of an issue with whites in Alabama and in Montana. But immigration, you know, you’re right, this was clearly when Trump was in the primaries and doing very well or was close to winning the primaries, but it didn’t come up a whole lot. Of course, the Trump thing, there’s a lot to be said about that. You know, “Make America Great Again.” Relatedly, there is another interpretation of the patriotism among the working class and the poor. It’s not mine, but I’d like to mention it. Liah Greenfeld, at Boston University, has given a few interviews about this and she said, “The surge in patriotism among working class whites, in particular, can be understood in terms of the rejection of a government defense of and continued catering to the demand by minorities for unconditional equality.” That’s a mouthful but it’s worth thinking about. And that is particularly important to the discussion of individualism. Among Trump voters, there is a sense of wanting to go back to the original American contract where you’re basically on your own. And many of them see minorities, whether it is African Americans, gays and lesbians, or women, making demands of the government, of society, based not on—this is their mentality—merit, but based just on who they happen to be or because of a particular feature. For them, this is very un-American and must be resisted, especially if it ends up translating into benefits and rights that they receive because of these general categorizations. I sensed a bit of that amongst the whites that I interviewed.
JC: You have written a book titled Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, and we have been told that we will be winning a lot more. I was wondering if there are lessons from that work for our understandings of patriotism among the American poor.
FD: Trump combined precisely this American obsession with winning with patriotism. He wanted
to be first. Although, Obama himself, would use that language a lot. He used to say, we need to be number one again, we’re not number one, we’re sliding down the rankings in all sorts of things.
America needs to be number one. He was already saying that, and every American president has
pretty much said that. But surely Trump combined the two: the patriotism and we’re no longer
number one. It was perfect. And that has translated into “You, voter, are not number one
anymore.” Especially since we’ve turned away from the American spirit, the American concept, the true America. We need to make America America again. He could have just said that, “Make
America America again.” “Make America Great Again” is the same thing as “Make America America again.”
JC: It would be a realigning of the state with the principles of the nation.
FD: Precisely. And so what Trump did was effectively promise a realignment of the state with the
promise of the nation. What promise is that? Well it’s a promise of the nation that is based on
individual civic nationalism. And that’s one of the things that gives dignity to people. This notion of “I’m American and that gives me a sense of purpose, a sense of meaningfulness.” I was very
surprised to hear it. That when everything else has gone wrong, at least let me hold onto this. And I don’t think in other countries that would be the thing that people would hold onto. If you’re in Portugal, I don’t think they would say, “I’m poor, I’m broke, but at least let me feel like I’m
Portuguese; let me have my Portuguese identity. That’s something that gives me a lot of dignity.”
They wouldn’t say that. That’s not what would give them hope. But in America it is. It is because of the cultural milieu of America. National identity is a very prevalent thing because it’s such a young culture. It’s not a very thick culture. So there has to be a narrative that binds us together. That is the narrative. It’s not what you eat for dinner, it’s not what you do on a Sunday morning, it’s not how you dress. It’s none of that stuff. It’s not the music you listen to. It’s the nation. It’s the civic history.
JC: You mentioned the “true America” and that use of the “true” or “real” America comes out a lot in political discourse. Did any of your subjects, in talking about what America is, talk about seeing themselves differently than other Americans? Did they feel they had some greater claim to
Americanness than other people in the country?
FD: Yes. I would say in relation sometimes to Obama and the government, but not when it came to just fellow Americans. But, of course, I spoke to Latino immigrants and Native Americans and their understanding is different. They wouldn’t necessarily say, “Well, mine is different.” But when you hear their stories they would say things like “Well here I am able to say what I want to say and not have Castro’s spies coming to my house.” Things of that nature. I think that particular positions would translate to a specific articulation of what the general concept of American fairness or safety looks like to them. African Americans were the most convinced, by the way, in the American Dream. Especially in the South, the older African Americans that I spoke with were the most patriotic. And I would push them. I would say, “We’re in Birmingham, we’re in the library, you know twenty or thirty years ago…” And they themselves offered plenty of stories from three days, not thirty years, ago of things that happened to them when they went into restaurants or tried to buy a car. But it made them even more convinced in the promise of the American Dream. And that made me realize that the whole Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King never took issue with the nation. Martin Luther King never took issue with the social contract. He took issue with the fact that we haven’t lived up to it.
JC: It certainly relates to this notion that you can use the founding documents—which run
throughout the book—as a way to claim the progress of the American experiment, making the
country better. You don’t have to be cynical about the ideas because you can use them to create the America that you want.
FD: Correct. And as they would say, “We’re not perfect, we’ve made many mistakes, but we’ve
made progress. Tell me a country with a story like that.” And I would say, “Well, you know the
French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution.” And they would say “But we were the ones to write it
down; to start that.” Of course, it’s also intertwined with God. God was very present and very
prevalent in all of this. “It’s God’s country, and it’s special”; “We’re all equal before God.
Everybody’s equal. Every country is equal. But America is special”; “God has a special soft spot for us.” Why the soft spot? They would say, “Well, we were founded on the principle of religious
freedom, so of course He likes us more. Secondly, because we pay more attention to God than other countries.” Of course, they would say, “Sometimes we fall astray, and we don’t live up to what we should be doing with God. And God can be very mad with us at times. And so, we need to do better to fall back into his grace again. But certainly, God likes us a lot.”
JC: Were there are any other regional differences that we haven’t touched on? Or any ethnoracial
differences that you noted in talking to your respondents?
FD: The one thing in the book that was mentioned a little bit was the Confederate flag. When I
would hear from these Southerners about their love of country, I would then ask about the
Confederate flag and ask them how that fit in, as another puzzle that I had in my mind. My in-laws
all come from Arkansas and I have been there many times, so I’m familiar with the prevalence of the Confederacy and the Civil War story. What I learned is that there is no tension between the two flags because the Confederate flag represents America as it should be; the real values of America. They’re the holders of America. They’re the true Americans. It’s the North that went the wrong way. The North invaded the South, they’re the ones that started it, or at least, that’s what they’d tell me. And there was a respondent who had a t-shirt that had both the Confederate flag and the American flag. And he said, “I wear it around and nobody gives me trouble for it. I even know African Americans who have a t-shirt with the Confederate flag. There’s no problem with that because we are closer to the American spirit.” And of course, I challenged that. There was one person who was from Alabama but was on his way to Colorado because that’s where he lived now. I met him in the bus station. African American kids in Colorado told him that if he ever got caught wearing that t-shirt he’d be in trouble. He was very confused by that. So that was very prevalent in the South, particularly among whites. Of course, the libertarian thing was very prevalent in Montana.
JC: So, this is an interview for the economic sociology section website and I’m wondering what
lessons you think there might be for economic sociology from this study.
FD: Well, it is a book about inequality, how inequality continues, and what variables perpetuate
inequality. Even though I don’t put much of my own voice in the book, towards the end, I ask, “Is
this the way in which inequality gets reproduced? Is this a complete mirage? Are they deluded?”
There is that side of the story. Is this a way in which these people will stay forever poor because they are so optimistic? Many of them will say, “I’ve got a job tomorrow;” “I got hired yesterday;” “I’m starting Monday;” “I’ve just turned the corner;” “I’m no longer drunk;” “I made peace with God;” “I’m talking to you and I’ve now learned you’re gonna give me $30 for the interview. You see my future is already turning around.” But of course, it’s impossible they all have a job lined up on Monday. They were going to be in the same place next week as they were last week. So, I think
there’s a good part of the question about the cultural dimensions of a national narrative that
perpetuates and legitimizes, in their own eyes, where they’re at. They took ownership of their own
economic situation. Literally all of them. Even when I would present them with their life story back to them. “But you just told me that you were beaten by your father until you left home. All these terrible things happened to you. Why is it your fault?” They would respond, “It doesn’t matter. It’s my fault. I’m responsible. The next step is my own step. I’m not going to rely on anybody else. I can either do it or not do it.” So as long as that happened, and as long as there aren’t the institutional support structures to enable them to really improve their situation, and as long as they believe that this is okay, then inequality will be perpetuated. In a way, this optimism and this sense of responsibility, though misguided, could be seen as a powerful motivator. It’s better than if they give up completely. And so, I was a little bit torn about that. On the one hand, I felt terrible for them and I thought they were completely deluded. On the other hand, I thought, considering everything that’s going on in this country, hats off to them that they have this attitude. And maybe one out of a hundred will come out of it.
Then of course there is also a question about the state. How much is the state involved in the
welfare provision of these people? Many of them seem very happy. You know, “I get my glasses for 5 cents. I’m not gonna go hungry tonight.” But there, too, they were very uninformed about what every other OECD country does for the poor, for the marginalized, for the homeless. It cuts in that direction as well, in terms of kinds of capitalisms that we have. In fact, because they are homeless, because they are okay with what they get, and because they make very few demands on the state, they can be ignored. That’s another troubling consequence I thought about. From an economic perspective if thirty or forty million of the poorest Americans disappeared, the economy wouldn’t notice it. And that’s an extreme form of marginalization. They don’t count at all. I was really stunned. I’ve been in every state of the union. Spent time over the years in all of them. But I never really encountered what I encountered in Birmingham. I arrived there at night on a weekend. And Birmingham at night is completely empty except for the poor running around from place to place. And then, the following Monday morning, the city just turned itself around. All the shops were open, the white upper middle class came in to work, and it was like a completely different city. Then at five o’clock they all left—and boom—it went back to the other thing. Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop. And if you stay through the course of the day, you see these different realities. Absolutely different realities.
JC: Given the reliance on a lot of means-tested programs in the United States, if you went to lower middle-class or working-class people who are just outside of the coverage of these programs, do you think that they might have a different patriotic attitude? We know from the data that they have somewhat less patriotism, though it’s still high. Or do you think that they might still engage in some of the same separation of nation and state?
FD: The rates of patriotism among middle class, working class, upper middle class, and rich
Americans are all very high. They’re all in the 80-, 90-percent range, depending on how you frame
the question. In most of the statistics that I saw, patriotism among the poor is even higher. It’s the
highest. I think that while the numbers may be similar, the content of the narrative will be different. For example, there is a chart in the book where I measure patriotism over time across classes. And among the working class and middle class, it dipped during the financial crisis of ’07 and ’08 and then went back up again. It didn’t dip among the poorest. And that’s because they didn’t feel it. What crisis is there for them to feel because they are so destitute? But aside from the small differences, I do think that the content of the narrative would vary. A rich American flying an American flag on their Hamptons mansion will tell you a different reason for why they’re flying an American flag. I don’t think it would be completely different. I think they will say the same words: freedom, personal responsibility, greatness. But then, when you open up those words, I don’t think they will tell you, “Well, because I am as worthy a human being as the president of the United States.” That’s not what they are going to tell you. That’s what the poor people will tell you. I don’t know the answer is to this. It would be great to do as a subsequent project.
JC: Is there anything else that you want to add about the book?
FD: Well, it’s a shortcoming of the book, if you will. In the end, because of the nature of the
exercise and the time that it took to spend time in these locations and find people and talk to them, I didn’t go to California, I didn’t go to Texas. I didn’t go to all sort of places. I think it would be interesting to think about those regional variations as well, because if you think about California versus Mississippi, Florida versus New Jersey, Maine versus Vermont, I think that regional variation is something to think about. Always controlling for class. But even if you control for class, being poor in California or poor in Oregon is different than being poor in Texas. But the data suggest that they will all be very patriotic. So then, how does the narrative work?
JC: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
FD: Right now, I’m working on an edited volume that will come out next year that considers the
work of John Hall at McGill University. I have pulled together an impressive array of contributors
such as Michael Mann from UCLA, John Campbell from Dartmouth, and others thinking about the
Hallsian paradigm, especially as it concerns power and civility in nation-states. I’m also working on European Union trade policy with North America, primarily; the trade agreements that they are trying to iron out—or not anymore. I’m working particularly on the EU side, how the EU views its trade negotiations and what values it tries to assert in those trade agreements. Despite the technical nature of those trade deals, it comes down to culture and values. It’s a project on the intersection between culture and international trade.
JC: Thank you. It was great talking to you.