Opinion: What does it mean to be a real American?

President Donald Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives to speak at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

That is one of the questions asked last December in the Grinnell College National Poll. The polling firm that conducted the study, Selzer & Company, mentioned a number of traits that people commonly associate with being an American. Respondents then rated their opinions on each trait listed in the poll. At first glance this seems like a fairly innocuous question, but while it can be useful to know the importance people place on different traits, the phrasing of the questions is by default divisive.

A lot of politics in recent years has focused on who is and isn’t a real American. Conservatives will say that liberal coastal elites are out of touch with “real America.” On the other hand, many liberals claim that those who embrace what they see as Trump’s hateful policies and rhetoric are not what America should be. The consequence of this narrative is that political adversaries often no longer see each other as being on the same side (albeit with policy disagreements). More and more, those with competing political ideologies see each other as enemies who need to be stopped.

Discussing political disagreements in this way can be a double-edged sword. While disagreeing on policy isn’t in and of itself an adequate justification for hating the other side, there will be political parties who suggest initiatives that must be stopped. Policies based in bigotry and hatred need to be identified for what they are, and the response should not be muted for the sake of “hearing out both sides.”

Take, for example, the Trump Administration policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Regardless of how you feel about issues relating to border security, separating families is a line that any nation should be ashamed to cross. If we have to resort to terrorizing people who just want a better life for their family, then we have failed. This shouldn’t have been a Republican vs Democrat issue or liberal vs conservative issue. This should have been something universally recognized as morally abhorrent. Issues like these are more than just policy disagreements and must be treated appropriately.

There are many more areas, however, where there are legitimate policy disagreements. On issues like the opioid crisis and criminal justice reform, there are many different approaches we as a country can take. Here, we cannot afford to see those with different ideas as enemies. All sides have something to contribute, and it is only through good-willed discussion that a viable solution can be reached. Recently, we saw a decent criminal justice reform bill pass both chambers of Congress. The bill introduced some meaningful reforms, such as pulling back mandatory minimum sentencing laws and including “earned time credits” that encourage inmates to participate in rehabilitative programs. While it didn’t go too far in addressing the underlying problems of America’s prison system, the FIRST STEP Act was an appropriately named good start.

Bills like this show us what we can get done when we’re not glaring at the other side from our respective camps. If politicians keep using the idea of “real America” to stoke tensions and win votes than this sort of compromise will become even rarer.

It’s fine to have a discussion about what qualities we want our fellow citizens to possess. And it’s great to see that traits like “believing in treating people equally,” “taking responsibility for one’s actions” and “accepting people of different racial backgrounds” were the highest rated. At the same time, asking people whether being a Christian or being born in the country were important traits can only exacerbate tensions. While these two examples were rated as the least important out of those put forward, they reinforce the beliefs of those who agree with them. At the same time, it tells those that don’t belong in these categories that a significant portion of the country wouldn’t consider them real Americans.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “real American.” Such a concept is, in some ways, laughable. Yes, there are certain traits I would like my fellow citizens to possess. But I also recognize that in any country, you’re going to have people you disagree with and even hate at times. We need to realize there is no specific list of qualities that makes someone an American. If we stop this romanticisation of the values we identify with ourselves at the expense of others we can better communicate and cooperate with those we don’t always see eye to eye with.


Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.