McCain Institute; Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


American Patriotism Must Come from Beyond Our Borders

As Mark Zuckerberg’s latest social media platform Threads gains popularity, Elon Musk launches his X rebrand of Twitter, and the two moguls threaten to duke it out in Rome, it’s clear that the battle for control of the cultural narrative rages, and teens are the target audience. Half of Gen-Z get their news from social media, but the same percentage of those lack confidence in the accuracy of that information.

It has never been more difficult for young people to develop clear ideas about our nation and their place in it. Unless we stop pushing polarizing narratives on young voters, it won’t get any easier. With our own borders gridlocked by extreme views on either side, young people need to hear testimonies from sources outside the United States.

Sources like North Korean dissident Seohyun Lee, who shared her experience fleeing authoritarianism in a TEDx talk last year. Her story has surprising correlations to the position most Americans are in today. A child of a high government official, Seohyun lived in comfort and unquestioning faith in the government. Completely unaware of her indoctrination, she had never doubted that North Korea was the best country in the world, and indeed the envy of all other countries. Like the average American led blindly by the opinion of the loudest voice on the news, Seohyun accepted state propaganda wholesale.

In an interview with The Dissident Project this summer, she said, “The indoctrination was constant. I was like a fish who doesn’t know it’s breathing water.” Unlike most Americans, however, she had very few opportunities to access the world beyond her borders and form her own opinions.

It was only while studying abroad in China that her beliefs were challenged. A Chinese taxi driver once asked her why, if North Korea was so great, the government was not opening the borders to help their suffering citizens. “This planted a seed of doubt in my head that I couldn’t shake,” she said. Shortly afterward, she witnessed the unjust arrest of her close friend at the hands of the North Korean government.

This experience revealed to her that the safety she had in North Korea was all a facade contingent on her compliance with the regime. Unwilling to comply, she defected from her homeland and fled to America, a country that has been known from its founding for its value of individual liberty and freedom. For Seohyun, America represented the hope of a life lived free from the crushing weight of the Kim Dynasty’s terrifying dictatorship.

Seohyun’s story provides a timely perspective for young Americans living in a polarized country. American exceptionalism, a concept once widely accepted by both sides of the aisle, now ranks amongst the most divisive debates raging between left and right. Polling from May shows that only 39 percent of Democrats agree that America is exceptional compared to 69 percent of Republicans. This is a shocking change from only ten years ago when 70 percent of all Americans accepted this as fact.

Whatever the cause of this shift, it’s proven that narratives from each side continue to trend toward opposite extremes. No longer does the debate concern how America stacks up against neighboring nations — rather both parties have weaponized the media to attack each other’s vision for the nation.

What should concern Americans most is how these narratives will influence the younger generation. We are seeing a significant upturn in youth participation in politics within the last decade, with reports of a record-high participation in the 2020 election with voters aged 18-29.

This should be a net positive. However, between increasingly extreme camps such as the belligerent Trumpers who tout nationalist ideology with religious fanaticism and the guilt-bullying critical race theorists who intend to shame all patriotism, apathy is no longer an option. The success of trending influencers like Andrew Tate and Dylan Mulvaney are evidence enough of the command these narratives have over the younger generation.

No country is perfect, but Seohyun’s flight to the United States proved that our country has retained essential values of liberty that are recognized and valued by many outside our borders. Today, Seohyun lives in New York City, attends school, and speaks out freely about her experience within the regime. She came seeking freedom from tyranny, and she found it within our borders.

The fact that she chose this nation above all others to find her new home eclipses our political division and proves the existence of an exceptional America. Like her, many Americans need to wake up. Regardless of the myriad of problems we must attend to within our borders, there is no denying that we are all lucky to live in a nation that is still recognized as a sanctuary from tyranny instead of a source of it.

In our pursuit of progress, we must avoid both propaganda and smear campaigns which cause the next generation to lose sight of our country’s essential principles of liberty. It is these that form the foundation of this country and beckon voices like Seohyun’s to its shores.