In the last two weeks, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani has gotten a lot of attention for his claims that the President of the United States does not love America. And though he has since gone back and clarified his claim, the fact remains that Giuliani—and a bevy of other public figures—see President Obama as somehow, “less American.” It is a sentiment that has been echoed elsewhere, for as long as Obama has been president; it is the sentiment behind Michele Bachmann and others calling on “patriots” to “take our country back.”
Plenty of people see the danger in this way of thinking: Brendan Nyhan noted the connection between Obama’s race and some peoples’ perceptions of him as less American. Others have voiced their concern about exactly whom Bachman and the Tea Party want to take the country back from.
While I am saddened by how dangerous and divisive this rhetoric is, I am more scared about what a belief in “real America” means. I worry that it represents the death of one of our oldest and most important ideals: the belief that America is a work in progress.
In 1790, George Washington wrote: “The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” Our first president’s words represent a deeply powerful way to regard the project of governance. Popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, this sentiment of trial and test would come to be known as “The Great American Experiment”—a grand experiment with democracy and political liberty.
Throughout our history, our most respected and audacious leaders have regarded America as an ongoing attempt to discover how people should come together: Jefferson saw America as the experiment that would establish the righteousness of self-governance; Lincoln thought of it as an ongoing struggle to affirm the equality of men.
But today, the belief that there is a “real” America, and a “real” set of American ideals represents the widely prevalent—though perhaps latent—belief that our great American experiment has reached its fruition. As we celebrate the supposed triumph of our values, so many of us—conservative and liberal alike—claim that we have discovered the perfect way to govern America. This is why critics of Obama do not just say that they disagree with him; they say that he completely lacks the ideals necessary to lead a country. Embedded in that criticism is the belief that the ideals best suited for our leaders have already been discovered.
We canonize the leaders we agree with in order to assert that they discovered the best way to run our country. Two of our presidents have found themselves beatified in the last 100 years: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Ronald Reagan. FDR is the liberal champion, and Reagan is the consummate conservative saint. But neither president left a legacy powerful enough for anyone to claim that they discovered a “right” way to lead the nation. FDR may have gotten us through the Great Depression and a world war, but he interned Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and attempted to hijack the American judicial system. Reagan got us out of the Cold War, but his misguided economic policies (devolution and “trickle-down economics”) shot our deficit up to record levels at $250 billion and created a toxic political environment that continues to paralyze meaningful welfare reform.
No American president has been perfect, and indeed, no single set of ideals has been proven superior. Yet, so many believe that previous Americans discovered and espoused inherently superior ideals.
Because of this belief, there is outrage at anyone who believes we have the potential to revise our values, and to make them superior to those previously established. This outrage has manifested itself when Giuliani censured Obama for being overly critical of America, or when Mitt Romney advanced the (still prevalent) belief that Obama wanted to “apologize” for America in 2010. Indeed, many people believe that the ideals we have already discovered are so perfect that they are not deserving of any criticism whatsoever: Right now, a conservative Oklahoma legislature is trying to ban the AP US History curriculum for being overly critical of America.
We cannot continue to progress as a nation if we pretend we have already discovered the perfect way to exist. Our flaws must be recognized, and we must continue to try different—and often opposing—ideas of how to fix our problems. This is the nature of experimentation: When something doesn’t work, we try something else. Political liberty was established at our nation’s founding because of the belief that progress requires us to entertain a wild variety of ideas and continually reassess what we believe to be true. This is why our government changes so dramatically every couple years, and why neither of our major parties is ever able to claim permanent victory: We have yet to determine whether conservative ideals or liberal ideas are superior.
Our country is remarkable because it was founded on a model that allows our nation to constantly adapt, and continually become greater and more righteous. As Americans (and our partners in the world) discover new truth, we have been able to incorporate it into our ever-changing canon of values. When we see liberal policy working, we are able to elect liberal leaders; when we see conservative policy working, we are able to elect conservative leaders. And when their policies fail, we go back to drawing board, and devise the next stage of our experimentation.
We are made great by our grand experiment. So, if it is to continue, we must not claim that those who identify with our political opposition are inherently wrong. We must never pretend that the “real” America has already been discovered.
Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ stanford.edu