Who Is a “Real” American?
It's the question behind every other question in American politics, and everyone has a different answer.
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Just beneath the surface of American culture, politics, and social tensions simmers a concept as old as the country itself: the true or real American. It’s the notion that certain parts of America are bona fide authentic Americana. Anyone else is, in some sense, less than — an other, a foreigner, an imposter, a parasite, a corrupter, a counterfeit. It’s an age-old tactic of populists, the hard right, and extremists to divide a nation against itself, to point the finger at certain groups as scapegoats, and to proclaim one’s own camp to be the only true embodiment of the country’s essence. The United States, however, is a nation of immigrants, among the most diverse multiethnic, pluralistic societies in human history. There is no widely agreed upon answer to “Who is a ‘real’ American?” Everyone, even those who chidingly profess to find the question itself offensive, has their own answer to it.
Even so, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that this question is most salient among the right half of society, who associate true Americanness with Christianity, living in the countryside, folksiness, working one’s hands, and political conservatism.1 On the one hand, it’s hardly surprising that Republicans cast their own voters as being better in some way than Democrats, which is what this can be seen as a proxy for. On the other, much of this “real America” talk also functions as a massive coping mechanism for segments of society that are not thriving, and who have been steadily left behind by modernity.
Living in the middle of nowhere, lacking wealth and education, overlooked and unthought of by the power centers the moment election season is over, rural America conjures its own status hierarchy, with themselves naturally at the top. They may be intractably mired in rotten conditions, but at least they’re real Americans. Not like those college-boy city folks. Put aside the fact that the United States of America was founded in the city of Philadelphia, not a countryside barn in Peckerwood, Arkansas. It ain’t about facts. Feelings don’t care about your facts. Behind the layers of xenophobia, nativism, anti-intellectualism, and groundless pride is a wellspring of wounded, pathetic spite. The opioid epidemic is but an offshoot of the copium epidemic.
The Founding Fathers are another commonly used yardstick. Or rather, a fictionalized version of them doctored to more closely resemble the bumpkins who fancy themselves the peers of their great-great-great-great-great-great grandfathers’ landlords. The same people who decry “coastal liberal elites” also idolize and believe themselves to be akin to men who were overwhelmingly educated, secular, deistic, anti-populist, intellectual, rich, city-dwelling elites. The image of Joe the Plumber bonding with Alexander Hamilton or James Madison over a brewski beggars the imagination. In the folk mythology that has grown up around the Founding Fathers, they’ve been laundered into salt of the earth frontiersmen crossed with Christ’s disciples. In reality, they were far closer to Niles Crane than Davy Crockett.
Others believe that a true American must be someone who contributes to society; someone who gives back, pays in, and works hard — not a “taker.” In this framing, public service is highly valued. Military service is a shoo-in, as long as you’re not a whistleblower. Law enforcement, firefighting, and first responders mostly qualify too. Political office or government jobs? Not so much. Then there are the coveted “job creators”, an honor which bizarrely applies to small business owners who employ a handful of people, but not to big shot CEO’s who employ thousands. Being an “elite”, according to the calculus of red state America’s intersectionality, is disqualifying. Along those same lines, philanthropists, far from getting props as contributors, are often cast as villains whose charity is a transparent PR ploy to distract from their evil schemes. One might just as well flip this logic around, as venture capitalist Bruce Cannon Gibney does: “It’s time to get away from saccharine notions about the ‘Heartland’... This is a capitalist republic, and that means the Heartland is where the money and people are: New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, etc.”
For their part, the political left purports to eschew such uncouth questions as who is a “real” American. They don’t seem overly fond of America in the first place. But get a few drinks in most folks left-of-center, and they’ll express a preference for, if not who the “real” Americans are, who the people that really matter in society are, and wouldn’t you know, it’s people just like them, with some oppressed minorities mixed in for garnish. Some will offer what they imagine to be the clever answer that Native Americans are the only true Americans, and that the rest of us are just invaders or appropriators. Of course, they don’t actually believe that. They’ll happily recite all the land acknowledgements in the world, but they’re not going to give their properties away. These are the same people who tweet about how horrible homelessness is, and then fight tooth and nail to prevent low-cost housing from being built within a Tesla’s battery range of their “In this home, we believe…” yard signs.
With that said, it’s true that Native Americans, black Americans, and many others have historically not been regarded as true Americans. As many answers as there are to this question, it’s multiplied by each generation and its particular issues, trends, and moral blind spots. “Who is a true American?” during the Cold War, for example, had a completely different complexion that it does now, or did prior.
Perhaps the simplest answer to the “real American” question is “all American citizens.” There are those who would no doubt narrow this to native-born citizens, or even white American citizens, and a smaller subset still who would include only those who could trace their ancestry back to colonial days, and to Britain before. This flies in the face of the entire American project. The US is not an ethnostate. It never has been, despite the ahistorical revisionism of Nikole Hannah Jones, and it never will be, despite the deranged daydreams of Jared Taylor.
True to its diversity, white chauvinism is not the only variety on offer. Black nationalists regard African-American descendants of slavery as the real Americans, on whose backs the nation was built. American Mormons, given the geography of their theology (they believe the Garden of Eden was near Jackson County, Missouri), assign themselves a special status in the country. Some immigrants view themselves as the most American, as they have an appreciation for the US that the native-born take for granted. And so on.
Other litmus tests of real Americanness revolve around notions of patriotism, loyalty, love of country, or embracing American culture. But like the question itself, these metrics are all highly subjective, and mean different things to different people. Edward Snowden believes himself to be a patriot every bit as much as Dick Cheney believes himself to be. They could both be wrong. Under an expansive enough conception of patriotism, they could both be right. But they can’t both be right by the light of each other's conception of patriotism. Similarly, what do we mean by American “culture”? Are we talking about hamburgers, Coca-Cola, and blue jeans? An appreciation for jazz? Speaking English, as 1.5 billion people globally do? Or do we mean Western culture more broadly, as in, the values of the Enlightenment — reason, science, liberalism, etc.? Because I regret to inform you that the self-deputized arbiters of real Americanness are not noticeably more reasonable, scientifically-minded, or liberal than many foreigners whose cultures they deem disqualifying of belonging in ours.
One thing that does seem disqualifying is any sort of soft spot for the Confederacy. It’s frankly mystifying that anyone could consider themselves a true American — and have the gall to tell others they aren’t! — while clinging to the treasonous, rotting corpse of a racist, slavery-loving rebel state. Folks hide behind the cop-out that it’s “part of their history.” So learn that history. There’s nothing wrong with that. Germans learn about the Holocaust. But no decent German hankers for its return. You can be a true American, or you can be a fan of the Confederacy. You can’t be both.
It’s infeasible to cover every answer to “Who is a ‘real’ American?” There are as many opinions as there are people. But I’ll leave you with my own. I prefer an answer that builds off of the foundation of “all American citizens” to also include anyone who believes in the idea of America. A villager halfway around the world who is not a US citizen, who has never so much as visited the country, who speaks not a word of English, but who dreams of the day when he can move to America to build a better life is, to me, every bit as much an American as I am, in spirit if not on paper. To my mind, America is not mere land. It’s not the culture. It’s not the US government, or the Constitution, or some avatar of the West. America is not its worst mistakes nor its greatest triumphs. Those things are all part of it, of course. Fundamentally, America is a promise. An aspiration. An orientation. An attitude. At its very core, America is the idea that a better world is possible, that striving toward it is right, and that we can build it. Together.
See also: “To Improve Your Country, You Must Love It First”
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This notion is helped along by international observers and commentators, whose caricature of the quintessential American is usually someone from the deep South.