Francesco Duina


On his book Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country

Cover Interview of March 25, 2018

In a nutshell

America’s poorest citizens are among its most patriotic. Their love of country—and indeed, their sense that the United States is superior to other countries in the world—is according to most measures unmatched by wealthier Americans. It also exceeds the patriotism of poor citizens in most other advanced nations in the world. At the same time, America’ s least well-off have access to fewer benefits, work longer hours, face more inequality, and their chances of upward mobility are worse than is the case for poor citizens in other advanced countries. Why, then, are they so patriotic? If anything, one might expect poor Americans to feel a sense of dissatisfaction, if not outrage, towards their country. Why do they think so highly of their country?

The answer matters a lot. So much depends on their patriotism: social cohesion, military recruitment, voting behavior, political parties’ platforms (just consider, for a moment, the success of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again!’), the nation’s sense of self and place in the world, and more.

This book offers insights into this puzzle. During 2015 and 2016, I spent time in laundromats, bus stations, homeless shelters, used clothing stores, streets, and other venues in Alabama and Montana and conducted 60 in-depth interviews with poor and patriotic Americans; I also spoke with 3 poor but unpatriotic individuals. I was eager to hear their answers, give them a voice, and learn from their perspectives. I spoke to people in rural and urban settings, and of various races, genders, political orientations, religious beliefs, histories of military service, and ages.

Broke and Patriotic reports on the findings. Three primary narratives emerged. First, many of the people I met spoke of America as being the last hope for themselves and, more fundamentally, humanity. The United States represents deliverance from many of the ills that have plagued humanity from time immemorial. It celebrates the worth of each person (“Here, I am as worthy a human being as the President of the United States!”, I was told by more than one person). As such, America gives everyone a sense of dignity. For many of the people I met, this promise holds extraordinary value. Second, America is the “land of milk and honey”. Everyone wants to come here, the “roads are paved in gold”, and anyone can make it. Failure, I was reminded, is one’s own responsibility. Third, America is the land of freedom—both physical and mental. Where else, one person in Montana asked me, can one choose to be homeless? While other countries repress their people and punish them with undo process, Americans are allowed to come and go wherever they wish, and to think whatever they wish. This includes freedom of religion—a major reason why America, several people reasoned, holds a special place in God’s heart. And if the government is increasingly intrusive, this is because it has simply strayed away from the social contract. In this context, freedom means also owning guns, which is not only a means of self-defense but a necessity for hunting and therefore feeding one’s family.

While in many cases misconceptions of other countries abounded (“Only Israel and the United States”, I was told for instance, “are democracies in the world”), it became very clear to me that most of the people I met felt a genuine and reasonable sense of ownership toward their country. Americans do not belong to the country; it is the country that belongs to them. This is a bottom-up sort of patriotism. And for those who otherwise struggle so much in their daily lives such an attachment offers them a very precious psychological lifeline.