The politics of American-ness needs to be cloaked in policy, simply because it’s unpalatable otherwise.
This year the Republican argument is reduced to its barest essence: Americans versus “pluribus,” unprotected by the politeness of issues or safer symbolism.
No one knows for sure what Mark Schmitt thinks pluribus means, but he seems to think it refers to minorities and marginal populations. Of course, appeals to American-ness don’t need to be “cloaked in policy,” since expressions of Americanism are rampant and all around us, especially in an election year. That Schmitt treats such appeals as inherently unpalatable speaks volumes about why Republicans are able to exploit such appeals to their advantage year-in and year-out. While American-ness can be and has been deployed as a cudgel, it is potentially both extremely inclusive and conformist the rest of the time and worryingly requires the subordination or even elimination of other forms of identity. When the content of American-ness can be made as vague and ahistorical as possible (usually when it is reduced to an abstraction or a set of propositions), it can mobilise a number of different sentiments of loyalty, pride, aspiration, resentment and fear all at the same time. When people joked about John Kerry being “vaguely French,” there was no real policy issue at stake, but a simple effort to distance him from his American identity. That he actually had European cousins (as most of us, in theory, also have at a great remove) was somehow treated as disqualifying because it made him seem less American, which was then tied to various policies on national security and so forth to put those policies in a bad light. These sorts of appeals for or against a candidate’s American-ness and general appeals to American identity are not only palatable to most of the public, but they are treated as absolutely necessary for presidential candidates.
Schmitt comes close to making a good point, but then misses it when he says:
When Republicans went after Michael Dukakis for his policies on crime, they weren’t just saying his policies were bad. They were saying, he’s not like us; he’s a cold-blooded, academic mush-brain who wouldn’t give his kids a whupping if they needed it.
On crime, they were quite explicitly saying that he was a weak abettor of felons, and that you can’t trust him. It’s questions of strength and trust that make law and order appeals so effective for the GOP. On the Pledge of Allegiance controversy in 1988, they were saying very plainly, “He doesn’t respect the flag, he doesn’t think people should be loyal to this country, he doesn’t want to instill patriotism in children!” That this was rubbish is beside the point–respect for the flag, patriotism and loyalty to America have no obvious connection to the Pledge in any case. It was this sort of purely symbolic issue, combined with making use of legitimate issues such as crime, and then portraying the opponent’s record on that issue in the worst possible light that increased the overall power of the attack more than any one alone could have done. If you can sow doubts about a candidate’s American-ness, you make it harder for people to identify with him and therefore harder to trust him, which then makes any critiques of his policies more effective in peeling away supporters than if you had simply laid out why you think the policies are objectionable. You don’t need policy to function as a cover or a code for this move. Indeed, without the original challenge to the opponent’s American bona fides, the policy critique might not gain traction at all.