Real vs unreal Americans

By Bernd Debusmann
October 29, 2008

– 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.


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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

I believe the whole notion of “competition” is flawed and inefficient. why should there be a “loser” and a “winner” for eveything? Can’t we improve upon that? Constantly toiling away in relative isolation and being prorietary seems incerdibly wasteful and selfish – why not SHARE? if anyone loses, in a sense we all lose. shouldn’t we realize now that we’re all in this together and start working WITh one another and helping each other and cooperating? it’s so sad that we insist on being selfish and combative. our resources are dwindling, while poulation grows. Me only have ONE finite planet. it’s inevitable that we’ll be forced to cooperate or we won’t survive, so it seems to me you can get over your GREED and colossal sense of entitlement, and the quicker the better. Americans are unquestionably the most spoiled, narcissistic people on the face of the planet.. we consume most of the worlds goods and resources, including most of the oil, and are wasteful and arrogant in the extreme). We have a HUGE number of people in prisons, and the middle calss has been vainshing as the ranks of the poor and the rich grow. NOT a pretty picture.

Posted by Hans | Report as abusive

I noted one previous commentator stated that: “Ag reform is a quite common policy of socialist governments and I challenge you to give me an example of when and where it has worked.”
To quote a bit of Japanese history, one of the major social reforms conducted by the US during its post WWII occupation of Japan was a massive redistribution of private wealth, through aggricultural reform and the break-up of industrial conglomerates. In fact, roughly 70% of the country’s agricultural land was confiscated and redistributed to peasants. According to historians, the US occupation forces thought that the best way to establish foundations for a democratic nation was to alleviate the economic inequalities which existed in Japan at that time. Well anyways, I just thought it was worth mentioning the irony that if you spoke with an elderly Japanese farmer, he would probably equate “American Values” more in line with wealth re-distribution and social engineering.

Posted by T from Tokyo | Report as abusive

It is amazing to see the true values of the Republicans in this country. They have become mean, vicious and petty when they don’t get their way and have chased away any and all moderates, be they Democrat, Republican or independent. The party has been distilled to a loathsome and vile political entity. It will take years, if ever to rebuild it and it may even fracture and cease to exist.

Posted by David Dee | Report as abusive

Eric said: “With the election of Obama I simply cannot consider myself a citizen of this country any longer”.

Well, Eric then its time for you to find another country, say Russia or Venezuela.

Posted by David Dee | Report as abusive

The MOST patriotic thing we can do as Americans is to question our government, question our leaders, stand up for what we believe in, and voice our differing opinions. These are the very things we fought a revolutionary war over. They are at the very core of what it means to be an American. Yet the people who do this are the very people that the rest are calling Un-American or Anti-American.

That is what is most sad about this election and this article.

Posted by Kristy | Report as abusive

To Jack Serkoff: I’m in favor of allowing all aliens to come to the United States, except those from
Bizarro World (Superboy #68 (Oct. 1958))

Posted by David Dee | Report as abusive

tdog, don’t dare call anyone here an “unreal” American, expecially those who, unbeknownst to you, are retired USAF captains. Your parastic attitude typical of those who are greedy and have a complete lack of empathy or duty. Unlike you, I believe in giving back to my countrymen, and I believe that our choice of government – while imperfect – is worth supporting. Clearly you think helping anyone else falls on the shoulders only of private institutions. I believe that everyone in the boat should take a turn rowing.

If you think I don’t know the difference between a “socialist” country and “free” America, you have the wrong person. I love the USA. What have you done for the USA besides pursue your personal success?

You exemplify the closed-minded attitude that was just voted out of the White House. When someone proposes other ideas with which you don’t agree, you propose that they emigrate.

No one disagrees with working hard to achieve success and happiness. However, I guarantee that no business of yours or mine could succeed without government involvement, whether it be police law enforcement reducing crime or the postal service delivering your mail, or the public library providing educational resources and entertrainment, or the soldiers that protect the nation at home and abroad. But by all means, if you want to do everything yourself, then please choose not to use any of these public services.

Posted by Jean | Report as abusive

Well, I suggest that five generations of immigrant descendent should go to their original homes, and THEN we will realize who were here first. I don’t see why the Mayflower immigrant are less immigrant than the others, even the ones who cross the borders last night. Immigrant are that, no matter if you are a fifth or sixth generation of them. The new world, America, is full of us since Cristopher Columbus hint Europe about this land,; yes, about 200 years before the Mayflower appear on scene.

Posted by Marilyn | Report as abusive

This Debusmann guy is obviously not an American guy. He appears to be one of those socialist liberal commies.

Posted by emelemel | Report as abusive