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.

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Either this is just the typical anti-urban, anti-change tirades of a few of the rural populace feeling left out of the perceived prosperity of the cities that one often exists in many other countries or it is the sinister embryonic beginnings of something akin to Kristalnacht in 1938 Germany.
Lets assume and hope it is simply the former.

Posted by JF Chalmers | Report as abusive

Sarah Palin is real, well, at least the $150,000 wardrobe she sports is.

Sarah Palin is also the real QUEEN of PORK in Alaskan politics:

–to the tune of hundreds of millions of real dollars as Alaskan Gov., which included pocketing the many real $ millions earmarked for the Bridge to Nowhere,

–and even real $ millions in US taxpayers’ money harvested in Washington by hiring a D.C. lobbying firm while the small-town mayor of Wasilla (population 7,000).

While mayor of Wasilla, she also became really “famous” for manipulating the city budget to force real female r@pe-victims to pay, either with their own insurance, or out of their own pocket, for the forensic-kit and exam needed in the r@pe work-up (see NYT 9/26/08).

That ties in with her publicly stated belief that even women who become pregnant as a result of r@pe should be required to carry that real pregnancy to full term and birth.

Her use of r@cism against Obama at her rallies in recent weeks, eliciting real screams like: “t-rrorist”, “b-mb him”, “off with his head”, and “k-ll him!” by the frenzied crowds, is really off the charts!

A few news cycles ago, Ashley Todd, the white woman McCain-campaign operative, was caught really playing with fire by making up her story of being mugged and brutalized by a black Obama supporter.(Exposed by smart Pittsburgh police detectives, she confessed, and was charged with filing a false police report).

The two recently apprehended real skinheads, with swastikas tattooed on their shoulders and chests, and real automatic rifles in their arms, planned to take the hatred and vindictiveness of the McCain/Palin campaign to its final, logical step.

Rogue actors, sure! But they have been shown the way, and incited to their actions, by the real rhetoric of Sarah Palin and John McCain, – who’s gutter campaign tactics have been bringing just this element to the surface at their rallies these past weeks.

However, the problem with Palin is not just that she is really ignorant, incompetent, and utterly unqualified for national office, but rather,

1.) that she has real high odds of taking over as President in the next four years, and

2.) what appointing her to be second-in-command shows us about the really poor judgement of John McCain when making important decisions.

How ironic that with his campaign really unwinding, McCain is now confronted with a Palin going “rogue”, biting, so to speak, the hand that had been feeding her. Real honor among thieves? Never was, never will be.

Posted by fbla1805 | Report as abusive

Progressives vote aspirationally, for the people they look up to and wish they were more like. Conservatives vote via identity politics, for people they believe are most like themselves. Both claim their candidate would be better at running the country. The problem is, for conservatives, this means that they’re arguing — and voting — for an ordinary person, when it takes a truly extraordinary person to run the country. Superior-minded conservatives like George Will or William F. Buckley could never get the Republican nomination, because they’re not “ordinary” enough.

We elected an “ordinary person” in the shape of George W. Bush, and look where it got us. It’s time to give the presidency to an extraordinary person: Barack Obama.

Conservatives often attack progressives as unpatriotic. But it’s a poor sort of patriot who doesn’t want someone smarter and more capable than himself in the White House.

Posted by Ernest Adams | Report as abusive

It is disappointing, to say the least, that this column does not address the issue of aliens. Regrettably, the two presidential candidates have also failed to speak to this extremely important subject.

What needs to be asked are these questions:

1) Can an alien ever become a real American?

2) What is being done to make sure that aliens who apply for citizenship have the potential of becoming real Americans.

Now, on question 1), it is clear that some aliens do qualify. Would anyone question that Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former alien born in Austria , is a 100% real American? He even drives a Hummer!

But the process of making aliens Americans is in dire need of revision. As it is, all these aliens have to know is American history, what’s in the constitution, how many stars there are in the flag, how many people in congress etc. etc.

Is this really enough?? What if they know all the answers but sympathize with European socialism? Like wanting health care for everybody, public transport to all sorts of places, free or almost-free education? Should such a person be given an American passport?

Is the knowledge-based test adequate? What about values? If these aliens support abortion, for example, or progressive taxation, or limits to CEO bonuses (no more than $300 million, for example),they clearly are NOT real Americans. Should they even have the right to live in the U.S.? Not even to talk about getting a U.S. passport.

The answer seems obvious to me. No, no, and no.

Posted by Jack Serkoff | Report as abusive

The sad part is not how inappropriate Palin is for office but how gullible the American population is. How can we be convinced to think in terms of “real” Americans ? That is so unAmerican. This is the stuff that Rwandans massacred each other about, Timorese displaced half their population for, Sudanese suffer in camps in Darfur and Zimbabweans are being kicked out of their country after being there for several generations. Palin tactics are plain hate-mongering. These are destructive and divisive Hitleresque strategies. Let’s not buy into any of this lowbrow, ignorant rhetoric that is not befitting of our great nation.

Posted by ProudAmerican | Report as abusive

I think the most important question is this: can you be a “real American” if you are married to a person (the “First Dude”) who believes that Alaska should secede from the union? That’s about as un-American as it gets.

Posted by Catherine Kirsch | Report as abusive

Thanks for doing the math. We so often forget to do it.

Posted by Claudia Dunitz | Report as abusive

We are all REAL Americans.

It is unAmerican to question someone’s patriotism just because they disagree with you.

McCain, Palin, Samuel the self promoting fake plumber, should all be ashamed of their smear tactics. It must be the death throes of the far right base of the Republican party.

Can Perrot and Ventura take up the banner of the loyal opposition with the Reform Party? If Palin leads the Republicans in 2012, it is the end of the Republicans as we know them. Lincoln,Teddy and Goldwater are spinning in their graves.

Posted by Lee in Minneapolis | Report as abusive

“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?”

To the best of my knowledge there are no “socialist” governments in Western Europe. This is a frustrating, limiting, uniquely American philosophy.

To my mind, no other western democracy amalgamates God in to political philosophies more than America. This extremely diverse, cosmopolitan country, the self proclaimed leader of the free world seems to be the least secular of the advanced western democracies-An interesting similarity to draw between America and the Middle East.

It would never be tolerated in Europe if presidential or prime ministerial candidates so often referenced God as a fundamental characteristic of being patriotic or authentic, even though there are far fewer prevalent religions in Europe.

Would the other readers agree that one of the benefits of intelligence and education is the ability to question the structures around us? And implying that there is only one correct method or system, or in this case insinuating that to be a real American, you have to be a God loving, God fearing American is a regressive approach?

My biggest criticism of this country has long been the unwillingness to question or admit wrong doing, a trait I have always associated with ignorance. This is well illustrated by people’s polarised view on the 2 political candidates. Many people are stubbornly unwilling to credit their opposition candidate with any progressive or intelligent ideas, instead implying they are ignorant, short sighted or idiotic to a disproportionate degree. Surely if this was the case it would be the greatest indictment of America; that potentially an ignorant short-sighted idiot could be in contention for the most prestigious office in the land.

My bottom line is that all four candidates are intelligent capable people, with flaws and talents, that all have the countries best interest at heart. Your vote should be cast not for the person with the best ideas, the most experience (being experienced doesn’t infer you are best equipped to utilise it), the most charismatic (they’re have been many poor charismatic leaders) or indeed the most God fearing but rather to the candidate you believe can best utilise all of the resources at their disposal. This may necessitate questioning if Americans are actually the best at everything in the world, and if not who is, and can we implement their systems and processes, so enabling us evolve and prevent stagnation.

I’d love to hear feedback,for or against, anything I’ve wrote.

Posted by John Egan | Report as abusive

“Is this really enough?? What if they know all the answers but sympathize with European socialism? Like wanting health care for everybody, public transport to all sorts of places, free or almost-free education? Should such a person be given an American passport??”… asked Mr Serkoff.
I think i rather see 50 mill people uninsured in the country and the huge crowds of homelesses i saw in cities like NYC!. Your loathed France has one of the best Medicare sistems in the world… but anyway, keep being so “American”, i am sure your average JOE will definitely like it.

Posted by Fausto | Report as abusive

To claim to be the whole when you are a piece of the whole is the pattern with this rhetoric. It was first used, without challenge, by bible thumpers twenty years ago or more when they defined themselves as “Christian” and thus excluded more traditional denominations which do not practice adult baptism from using the word. In the vocabularly they defined one could not be a liberal, or a socialist, or a lover of neighbors of the same sex, and be a christian. Now essentially the same subset of the population wants to take over the use of the word “American.” What next, the take over the word “person” or “human?” It is, in essence, the ultimate expression of selfishness, and would appear to be a group form of narcissism at its worst- self important and delusional.

Posted by Bradford C. Riendeau | Report as abusive

I was going to write a lengthy exposition on this as from a European perspective, but John Egan beat me to it on almost every point and made them far more articulately than I ever would. Very well-written, sir.

One paradox about the right in the USA that never ceases to amaze me is that the very people who repudiate Darwinism in evolutionary terms are those who espouse economic Darwinism as an article of faith and an act of patriotism in the most overtly ‘Christian’ nation on earth. The dictum seems to be ‘if you’re poor and you get sick, you’re gonna die and that’s good because it makes America stronger’. How is that a ‘Christian’ attitude? I defy anyone out there to find me a passage in the Bible that supports it.

Jefferson wrote the constitution on the basis of freedom of religion, that also includes the right not to believe if you so choose. This is another fundamental liberty of which the USA appears to have lost sight over the last few decades.

The USA really needs to lose the ‘with us or against us’ credo. A lot of people in Europe grew up admiring and looking up to America and we’d like to be able to again, but in a spirit of adult debate. We may not agree with you on everything, but that doesn’t make us all terrorists, Muslims or ‘socialists’, much less communists (and there is a BIG difference between the two). It is (still)the only nation that can lead the world and believe me many of us in Europe would like you to again – as partners and friends.

Just look back 40 years – this was the nation that put men on the moon. 60 years ago, you saved the world from fascism. I grew up watching in amazement a country that had the energy and imagination achieve such a thing.

The USA should be something for the rest of the world to aspire to. You have an opportunity to begin the process of restoring that next Tuesday.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

If these aliens support abortion, for example, or progressive taxation, or limits to CEO bonuses (no more than $300 million, for example),they clearly are NOT real Americans. Should they even have the right to live in the U.S.? Not even to talk about getting a U.S. passport.

The answer seems obvious to me. No, no, and no.
- Posted by Jack Serkoff

So, Jack.. since I am an American, born here, and hold some of the views you object to, do I have to then renounce my citizenship? Do only those that accept your definition of a ‘real American’ have the right to vote, and participate as a citizen of this country? Frankly, I find your position arrogant, and yes, unamerican!

Posted by Lou Crisp | Report as abusive

Re the post from Jack Serkoff. I note that he has no problem with Arnold Schwarzenegger being regarded as a true American although it is not clear if this is because he drives a Hummer or because he is a white aryan. Presumably Schwarzeneggers countrymen (ie Adolf Hitler, Jorg Haider and Joseph Fritzl) would also be acceptable if they drove the right car and agreed with Mr Serkoff in every respect.

Posted by John Duncan | Report as abusive

Standing on the outside it is hard not to get the impression that the Republican (neo-con/evangelical) vision of the American dream and American values are largely based on greed and avarice, and an attitude of ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’.

It’s seems to me that anyone should have enough compassion, love and respect for their fellow man to want to build an inclusive society. One that takes care of the poor and the sick – even while working to stimulate the industry needed to pay for that. Yet in America – an overtly and in your face Christian country – that’s a compassion that for many seems sadly lacking. It’s a lack of charity that is shocking.

As for un-American? America is a land built on immigration; people arriving to seek their fortune, people fleeing persecution, and people arriving in slavery. (True native Americans are in something of a minority). Diversity has always been a part of America. To try to redefine ‘American’ around a narrow white small town rural image is frankly to not understand the country you live in. It is an unnecessarily narrow and narrow minded view.

And that other question.. Can you be American and be socialist? Now let me see… Isn’t that government by the people for the people? ;-)

Posted by Paul C | Report as abusive

I love the touting of the european system with all it’s free this and free that, of course one never mentions how much taxes are paid for these “free” things. Also people neglect to mention it’s easy to provide social services when your national defense is being subsidized by the US. I don’t know what America some of these people grew up in, but I grew up in one where people strove to be self sufficient and make something of themselves rather than one where the government is there to provide everything and redistribute the hard work of people to those who choose not to.

Posted by Frank Castle | Report as abusive

how disappointing that intellectual elitism and progressive humanism have so deeply gouged the roots of “real” America – hard work, fierce individualism, and a revolutionary spirit that resists the encroachment of federal interference in all aspects of life. These ideals should transcend geography, race, class, and religion – that they no longer do is a sign of the waning spirit that was once America.

Posted by da6d | Report as abusive

any politican using the word ” hate ” is UNREAL

Posted by oberst | Report as abusive

No offense, but I don’t think that Americans are required to consider the European perspective in this election year or any other. I understand that our choices affect the rest of the world, and we can be mindful of that, but in the end we have to do what is best for us. So, though I would like to see us move toward a more secular public speaking style, the occasional reference to God just doesn’t get my hackles up as much as my European friends. Maybe that’s what it means to be a “real American”: the ability to tolerate and even welcome those with whom you disagree in an attempt to build something better for yourself and your family. In the end I think that dream ends up benefiting the whole world.

Posted by Jen C | Report as abusive

What about Canadians? They live in North America too.

I’m shocked that label-pasting has become the modern proxy for rational thought and intelligent, repsectful debate. Today’s issues have more shades of grey can be counted, yet loud-mouthed extremists have convinced a large minority of voters that it’s all black and while; “real” and “unpatriotic”, liberal and conservative. It’s disgustingly simplistic and, worse, totally misleading.

Above, Mr. Jack Serkoff states that some aliens, like CA Governor Schwarzenegger, are more “real” because of his choice of vehicle. Serkoff claims that an American can’t sympathize with European government regimes (“socialism”, as he calls it, obviously not understanding the many parliamentary systems in place overseas). The US government, it may be news to him, has always played an active role in the economic affairs of US enterprise, sponsored programs for the benefit of citizens. In the current “conservative” administration, the greatest government expansion in the history of the county occurred, with token tax cuts for popularity’s sake, dramatic increases in unchecked government spending, and shocking government bailouts of enterprises that overextended themselves in times of lax regulation. This is more “American” than true fiscal responsibility where the government only plays essential roles that private enterprise cannot, and spends only what tax proceeds will allow?

Issues of affordable health care, public transport, and affordable education are indeed critical issues that Americans must improve, since they lag far behind other industrialized in most objective measures of these issues. Serkoff apparently advises that “real” Americans should stick their heads in the sand.

Serkoff further questions “values” of these supposed unreal Americans. He seems to have forgotten the Constitutionally guaranteed right that Americans enjoy – freedom of religion. The separation of church and state allow people of different value systems the right to live and voice their opinions. It should be well remembered that the first European immigrants to America were religious refugees whose beliefs were not mainstream in their native lands.

“Real” social conservative Americans always push their Judeo-Christian beliefs system into matters of the state. Serkoff provides an example. Abortion, in his opinion, must be regulated according to his narrow views, and all other viewholders should be deported. While 99% of the American population agrees that abortion should be avoided in all possible cases, it would be an extremist view that would propose deportation of all women who demand the right to protect their health in the instance of rape, incest, or life-threatening pregnancy complication. Perhaps this issue might best be addressed by a constitutional amendment banning all taking of human life, including the death penalty and offensive war except in cases of self-defense. If you are a “conservative” and/or Christian who believes that it is acceptable to kill an adult but not a child, then your review of the Bible is necessary.

Serkoff goes further to propose that progressive taxation is anti-American. Apparently he doesn’t realize that there are so many progressive and many regressive taxes, they vary dramatically from state to state. Moreover, the loopholes that are best exploited by the financial elite who have teams of professional planners and attorneys managing their offshore estates, effectively burden the middle class much more today than in recent history. Do “real” Americans want to see their society strongly stratified like the European societies that US Founding Fathers specifically went to great lengths to prevent from occurring in the new American society? It will happen when power – the fiscal power – is increasingly held in the hands of the few.

Limits to CEO bonuses wouldn’t be un-American, but they would be fiscally wise for investors. There should be, I hope, a large percentage of Americans who are intolerant of corporate corruption. As it is in the USA, there is inadequate visibility of the riches that corporate officers pocket. There is no incentive for corporate boards not to enrich their friends at the expense of all others, and that is the very definition of modern corruption.

Serkoff, I’m glad to be able to disagree with you on all your points. Because I’m a Canadian-American, and I know my rights, my freedom to publicly disagree with your closed-minded views. The country you describe, with its closed religious-based dogma and doctrines, with restriction of all dissent, more closely resembles Iran than it does the USA … except, of course, that most Iranians were born to a different faith than you were.

Posted by Jean | Report as abusive