Real vs unreal Americans
— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – What is a real American? As opposed to an unreal American, a fake American, an un-American American or an anti-American American.
The answer is in the eye of the beholder and his or her political orientation. The question, and variations of it, has been asked in several periods of U.S. history and has bubbled up again, one of a number of odd sideshows, in the closing stages of the campaign for the presidential election on Nov. 4.
Are real Americans a minority in this richly diverse country of 300 million? You might well come to that conclusion if you believe the definitions publicly provided by several Republicans, including Sarah Palin, the vice presidential candidate, and conservative radio and TV talk show hosts.
“We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit and these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation,” Palin told a campaign rally in North Carolina in mid-October.
John McCain, the Republican candidate, has also sung the praise of small town (real) America. “Western Pennsylvania … is the most patriotic, most God-loving part of America,” he said at a rally there.
A belief in God, judging from speeches by both McCain and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, is an essential part of American-ness.
Robin Hayes, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, provided details on Americans who do not qualify as real. “Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God.” Both Palin and Hayes later “clarified” their remarks to say they had not actually meant to suggest the existence of pro- and anti-American parts of the country. Nevertheless, their words prompted a vivid debate in cyberspace and on talk radio.
REAL AMERICANS AND EUROPE
It quickly went beyond geography and into political beliefs. “Is it possible to be a real American and to be a socialist?” radio talk show host Chris Plante asked his listeners in the Washington area. “Can you still be a real American if you believe that the regimes that govern in Western Europe are a better way forward than the system that we have here?” Callers reassured him that no, that was not possible.
How much influence conservative talk radio has will be apparent on election day. The Rush Limbaugh Show alone claims 12 million daily listeners and other conservative talking heads, such as Sean Hannity, also pull in huge audiences. But listening to them, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that they are preaching to the converted and their shows function as big echo chambers.
As the real vs unreal Americans debate unfolded over a few days – teacup storms have been relatively short in this election — another Republican member of Congress, Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, poured fuel on the argument. She suggested in a television interview that the U.S. media should “take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.”
That conjured up the ghost of Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was helped in his hunt for hidden communists in the 1950s by a congressional investigative body called the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Sorting the populace into good people and not-so-good (or downright bad and dangerous) people is nothing new in an election campaign – the not-so-good people are always those of the other party. Seen in historical context, today’s good vs bad rankings are tame, as are negative advertisements.
When John Quincy Adams ran for re-election in 1828, for example, he called his opponent Andrew Jackson a cannibal and a murderer and he had unkind words for Jackson’s followers. The charge didn’t help. Adams lost.
In the 2008 campaign, attempts to portray one set of Americans (those living in rural areas and small towns) as more American than their big-city compatriots run counter to demographics. Nostalgia for a country that no longer exists?
According to the 2000 census – the counts are taken every 10 years – America’s big cities and their suburbs are home to 192 million people. That compares with just under 60 million in rural areas overall and 30 million in towns of fewer than 50,000 people.
A community of 50,000 people is large in comparison with Wasilla, the Alaskan town that had 5,000 people when Sarah Palin became its mayor in 1996. It has since grown to close to 10,000 – still small enough to fit the latest definition of real America.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)