When she ran for office, Sarah Palin distinguished “Real Americans” from “not-quite-real” Americans. She never defined the phrase and would make a fool of herself if she tried. We can try to infer its definition, or at least its meaning, from some features about those to whom she or the term appeals. “Real Americans” are white, fundamentalist Christian, conservative, Republican, lower middle class, and rural or rural-descended). Ersatz Americans are of all colors (white, too); mainstream Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other small denominations; independents, moderates, and liberals; the poor and the upper middle class; and urban and suburban dwellers. Palin has little appeal to “juniors” and divides seniors.
Of course, inferring the import of this phrase from demographic features is futile, and a serious effort at such inference implies that the phrase has serious import. It does not; the phrase is meant to be rousing, not rational. Its logic intends it to be divisive and it is divisive—“real” versus whatever is not “real”—by implying that some Americans are better in some unspecified way or ways from other Americans. “We the People” are only Palin’s people and exclude most others. That is the important point.
Probably the most common criticism of Palin and her followers is that they are racist. I believe they are, but they could be any demographic “ist,” and I would have a problem with them. For any effort making any of the usual demographic factors the cause of moral, legal, and political differences among Americans is un-American. That term can also be pernicious, but I mean to give it a meaning consistent with traditional American values, which identify those who accept or reject them, not a demographic group.
I begin with three well-known phrases: “We the People,” “E Pluribus Unum,” and “One Nation.” Thus begins the Constitution, thus says the Great Seal, and thus asserts the Pledge of Allegiance. These phrases reflect a myth increasingly divorced from reality. All three phrases arose during times when the only “visible” people were whites, who assumed that they all shared the same cultural values, which sharing makes for unity. Not only the “invisible” non-whites, but also some groups of whites, did not share the same cultural values. So the phrases have been misleading because they are mythic.
The facts of history tell a different story. Never, from its founding, has America been a nation, that is, a people united by a shared culture of attitudes, beliefs, experience, and values. Dissenters from the Anglican Church settled New England and quarreled among themselves; royalists settled the South. In the early seventeenth century, bad blood between them followed them to America. To the cultural disparities of these groups was added even greater disparities of the many cultures of the slaves imported from Africa, and, later, cultural disparities of immigrants from other areas.
Ever since the Declaration of Independence declared the equality of “all men,” America has struggled militarily, politically, and morally, to achieve this paramount ideal. The struggle for the equal legal and political rights of “others”—Catholics, Jews, blacks, women, Indians, and other minorities—has been uneven, with advances followed by retreats. The Civil War amendments establishing the equality of white and black men spurred the reaction of the Jim Crow laws which prompted the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The Nineteenth Amendment established the equality of women, but recent efforts to restrict women’s’ freedom to choose some forms of health care for themselves threaten their integrity as equal citizens under the law. The last frontier is the rights of LGBT citizens to enjoy the same civil rights as other citizens. Whatever the back and forth in matters of the franchise, the “trajectory of history” has been toward equality as the basis of “justice for all.”
As this trajectory indicates, the unstated corollary of equality in America is inclusion. In a democracy, every person counts, however diverse the people are. Whatever their differences, they cannot sustain a democracy unless they are inclusive. It should be evident that as cultural diversity proliferates, the idea of a nation unified by a single, shared non-civic culture is an impossibility. The issue is whether Americans can follow a path of emotional, moral, and psychological development and direction which ensures cultural identity of individuals and cultural association in groups, yet enables national cohesion by a shared civic culture.
For the short-term, one group’s struggle to maintain its hegemony and all other groups’ struggle for their share of political and economic power will divide us. Thus, Republicans controlling state governments are passing bills or enacting laws and are making administrative decisions to curtail Americans’ legal rights to vote.
Republicans forget or ignore that the Founding Father followed their grand statement about equality and unalienable rights with another grand statement about the purpose of government: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Believing in the organized reasonableness of men, they further believed that government was the guarantor of these rights, not guns in the hands of seditious citizens, thus by ballots, not bullets.
By rejecting the basic belief of democratic government in “the consent of the governed,” Republicans are attempting to erode and, ultimately, to eliminate democratic procedures except as political charades. For, if the demographic threat to their political power motivates Republicans to destroy, it would motivate them not to restore those procedures. If their efforts succeed, they will create different classes of citizens divided by disparities in rights, with some dominating others. If conflict among these different classes were to continue for more than a decade or so, the older adage “united we stand, divided we fall” foretells America’s future.
But the country can survive these short-term, presently intensely hostile, divisions by reaffirming that a democratic society can be unified, or re-unified, by cleaving to a civic culture based on the ideals of political equality and demographic inclusiveness. Allegiance to, and advocacy of, equality and its corollary inclusiveness distinguish those who believe in democracy from those who do not. Those who believe in democracy must insist upon these ideals as the defining characteristics of Americans, “real Americans,” as it were. To this end of democratic cohesion, such Americans must apply these ideals as criteria in judging candidates and causes; and laws, regulations, and administrative procedures; and social programs across the spectrum, for child care to criminal justice.
Vote accordingly this fall.