Recently I publicly debated someone who said Arizona and every other state should use whatever means necessary to keep out illegal immigrants. He wants English to be spoken in every classroom in the nation, and the Pledge of Allegiance recited every morning. And he wants to restore every dollar of the $500 billion in defense cuts scheduled to start in January. "We have to preserve and protect America," he said. "That's the meaning of patriotism."
For my debating partner, patriotism is about securing the nation from outsiders eager to overrun us -- whether they're immigrants coming here illegally or foreign powers threatening us with aggression.
But there's another meaning to patriotism that may be more important. It's joining together for the common good -- contributing to a bake sale to raise money for a local school, volunteering in a homeless shelter, paying our fair share of taxes so our community or nation has enough resources to meet all our needs, preserving and protecting our system of government.
This second meaning of patriotism recognizes our responsibilities to one another as citizens of a society. It requires collaboration, teamwork, tolerance and selflessness.
But too often these days we're not practicing this second form of patriotism. We're shouting at each other rather than coming together -- conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican, native-born versus foreign-born, non-unionized versus unionized, religious versus secular.
Our politics has grown nastier and meaner. Negative advertising is filling the airwaves this election year. We're learning more about why we shouldn't vote for someone than why we should.
Some elected officials have substituted partisanship for patriotism, placing party loyalty above loyalty to America. Just after the 2010 election, the Senate minority leader was asked about his party's highest priority for the next two years. You might have expected him to say it was to get the economy going and reduce unemployment, or control the budget deficit, or achieve peace and stability in the Middle East. But he said the highest priority would be to make sure the president did not get a second term of office.
Our system of government is America's most precious and fragile possession, the means we have of joining together as a nation for the common good. It requires not only our loyalty but ongoing vigilance to keep it working well. Yet some of our elected representatives act as if they don't care what happens to it as long as they achieve their partisan aims.
The filibuster used to be rarely used. But over the last decade, the threat of a filibuster has become standard operating procedure, virtually shutting down the Senate for periods of time.
Meanwhile, some members of the House of Representatives have been willing to shut down the entire government in order to get their way. Last summer they were even willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States in order to achieve their goals.
The Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to unlimited money from billionaires and corporations overwhelming our democracy, on the bizarre theory that corporations are people under the First Amendment. Congress won't even pass legislation requiring their names be disclosed.
Some members of Congress have even signed a pledge -- not of allegiance to the United States, but of allegiance to a man named Grover Norquist who has never been elected by anyone. Norquist's "no-tax" pledge is interpreted only by Norquist, who says closing a tax loophole is tantamount to raising taxes and therefore violates the pledge.
True patriots don't hate the government of the United States. They're proud of it. Generations of Americans have risked their lives to preserve it. They may not like everything it does, and they justifiably worry when special interests gain too much power over it. But true patriots work to improve the U.S. government, not destroy it.
But these days, some Americans loathe the government -- and are doing everything they can to paralyze it, starve it, and make the public so cynical about it that it's no longer capable of doing much of anything. Tea Partiers are out to gut it entirely. Norquist says he wants to shrink it down to a size where it can be "drowned in a bathtub."
When arguing against paying their fair share of taxes, some wealthy Americans claim "it's my money." They forget it's their nation, too. And unless they pay their fair share of taxes, America can't meet the basic needs of our people. True patriotism means paying for America.
So when you hear people talk about "preserving and protecting" the nation, be warned. They may mean securing our nation's borders, not securing our society. Within those borders, each of us is on our own. These people don't want a government that actively works for all our citizens.
Yet true patriotism isn't mainly about excluding outsiders seen as our common adversaries. It's about coming together for our common good.
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the author of the newly released "Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it," a Knopf e-book original.