The Great Divide: What Does it Mean to Be American?

For decades we convinced ourselves that the divide in this country between Democrats and Republicans was focused on policy differences. We engaged in heated arguments about things like taxes and the proper role of government. When it came to foreign policy, we had the hawks vs. the doves.

But these days, with our country as polarized as it’s ever been, those issues have taken a back seat. The real divide is about what it means to be American and how we define this country’s ideals. Philip Bump noted that on Tuesday night, fifteen minutes on cable television illustrated that political divide.

On CNN, Anderson Cooper interviewed Megan Rapinoe and spent most of the time talking about the victory of the American team in the World Cup soccer tournament. But there was also this moment where she expanded on what she’d said previously about her view of what it means to be a patriot.

On one side of the political divide, here is what it means to be an American.

[A]s one of the great countries in the world, and for sure we want to see ourselves as that, we need to constantly look within and challenge ourselves to be better so everyone else can be better around us.

While Rapinoe was talking with Cooper, Tucker Carlson was presenting an opposite view by attacking Representative Ilhan Omar for saying basically the same thing.

Carlson quoted from an article in the Washington Post about Omar.

In Omar’s version, America wasn’t the bighearted country that saved her from a brutal war and a bleak refugee camp. It wasn’t a meritocracy that helped her attend college or vaulted her into Congress. Instead, it was the country that had failed to live up to its founding ideals, a place that had disappointed her and so many immigrants, refugees and minorities like her.

But he didn’t quote the next paragraph, which is where the authors used Omar’s own words.

“I grew up in an extremely unjust society, and the only thing that made my family excited about coming to the United States was that the United States was supposed to be the country that guaranteed justice to all,” she told the high school students. “So, I feel it necessary for me to speak about that promise that’s not kept.”

For Carlson, to criticize America and speak out about the “promise that’s not kept” signals that you hate America. He then goes on to suggest that, because Omar came to this country as a child refugee and later became a citizen, she doesn’t have the right to criticize.

Ilhan Omar is living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country. A system designed to strengthen America is instead undermining it … She’s a living fire alarm, a warning to the rest of us that we ought to change our immigration system immediately, or else.

In other words, any critique of America poses a threat, especially if it comes from someone with brown skin who isn’t native-born.

It is interesting to note that Omar captures exactly what both Rapinoe and Obama said about what it means to be an American. As a reminder, here is what the latter said:

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?…

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.

The struggle to maintain that view is one that has been challenged by the likes of Tucker Carlson throughout this country’s history whenever white patriarchy felt threatened. That is the great divide we face once again.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.