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Ted Cruz and the Dangers of the “Real America” Discourse

October 22, 2013

Almost five years ago exactly, Sarah Palin, then a candidate for vice president, told a crowd in Greensboro, North Carolina that it was refreshing to be in “pro-America” America. This week Texas Senator Ted Cruz went a step further, telling supporters in his home state that it was “terrific to be back in America”—even though he was returning from our nation’s capital, a place that is surely “America” in any sense of the word. When Palin spoke about a “real” America, people were outraged. Palin later apologized, but, as Cruz’s commentary shows, the idea of a “real” America apparently lives on. Indeed, it may be growing stronger. Does this frighten you? It should. Here’s why:

First let’s consider the remark in context. CNN reported Cruz making the comment at a welcome-home rally in Texas on Monday night. But, and this will become important later, he also made the comment via Twitter (a tweet that the Washington Times described as Cruz “showing his lighthearted side”):

I call these kinds of remarks the “real America” discourse because they posit the existence of a kind of un-American America (which is a strange idea, I know). So why do these kinds of remarks frighten me? And, more importantly, why should you care? I’ll give you three reasons.

1. Cruz went a step further than Sarah Palin and no one seemed to notice.

I pointed out above that the reaction to Palin talking about “pro-America America” was significant. So, I was surprised to find relatively little attention being given to Cruz’s comment, especially taking into account his high media presence during the last few weeks. On the face of it, Cruz’s comments aren’t all that different from Palin’s. In fact, his statement is actually stronger, epistemically speaking, than Palin’s. Palin divided the United States into anti-America/pro-America whereas Cruz divided our country into America/not America. Cruz neglected to add even the “pro-” modifier, which made Palin’s comment, if not particularly nice, at least sensical.

Think of it this way: Back in 2008, when Palin made her controversial comment, those of us who did not live in areas that qualified as “pro-America America” could at least console ourselves with the knowledge that we were probably living “anti-America America,” which sounds like a confusing place, but is at least still nominally America. We have no such luxury in Cruz’s case. You are either in America or you’re not. There’s more bad news: so far all we know is that Texas is in America, but Washington D.C… isn’t. No word yet on Pennsylvania.

And, again, no one seems to mind. I wasn’t present when Cruz made the comment, and I couldn’t find a video or detailed transcript. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that no one stood up and said, “What do you mean you’re back in America? You were in Washington, D.C. the whole time. That’s the capital of America!”

2. Palin may have misspoke; Cruz definitely didn’t.

Back in 2008, I was willing to overlook Sarah Palin’s comment for a simple reason: I can only imagine how dumb my words would seem if every single thing I said was subjected to extreme scrutiny. Some latitude is healthy for our democracy, and I made that point repeatedly when Mitt Romney was lambasted for his lamentable “binders full of women” comment. If we need further evidence that Palin might not have meant to say what she did, we need only look at the transcript, in which she is clearly struggling to find the right words:

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.

Did she mean to invoke a “real America” discourse? Probably. Can we be sure? No. But Cruz definitely meant it.

3. It isn’t just the Republicans

Both Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz are Tea Party “darlings” (a media cliché I have grown to hate). They’re both Republicans. Their political views are similar enough that Piers Morgan actually called Cruz “the male Sarah Palin.” So should we then assume that the “real America” discourse is a conservative phenomenon? I couldn’t find a Democrat using a verbatim “real-America” formulation—if you can find one, please post it below—but I suspect that Democrats too are prone to this kind of semantic division. We can find the liberal version of the “real America” discourse whenever we hear talk about “Main Street” or “everday people,” phrases popular across our political spectrum.

As easy as it is to dismiss the “real America” discourse as a sideshow, it can easily infect our political discourse without our realizing it. It’s pernicious. It’s divisive. It’s why I flinch whenever someone mentions “flyover country.”

If you want to know more:

  • I consider Cruz’s “back in America” comment a clear case of the dissociation of concepts. In this particular dissociation, the term America gets split into two unequally valued terms: real America and, I guess, fake America.  You can probably guess which one is more valued. For a quick introduction to the dissociation of concepts (which isn’t nearly as complicated as it might sound, I promise), please see my entry on the NC same-sex marriage referendum. Or, better yet, pick up a copy of The New Rhetoric by Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca.
  • Dissociation is usually employed to resolve some kind of contradiction. The appearance/reality split is the classic example. A pencil immersed in water looks bent, but we know it isn’t. To resolve this contradiction, we simply dissociate appearance from reality, with reality being the preferred term. In this case, I’m not sure that any contradiction is being resolved, except perhaps this one: “How can those awful people in Washington be our leaders? How can people who seem so awful be a part of this thing (America) that I value so much?!” The solution: they aren’t. They don’t live in real America; they don’t know what it’s like on Main Street. This is a caricature but you get the idea.
  • I’d be interested to hear a feminist perspective on Piers Morgan’s characterization of Ted Cruz as the “male Sarah Palin.” On the one hand, Morgan’s comparison seems like a reversal of a well-known formula, in which a woman is understood to be “the male so-and-so.” But then, many of the feminists with whom I speak regularly are not, uh, fans of Sarah Palin. It’s probably a wash.
  • If Cruz had simply said “it’s good to be back in ‘Merica” I would not be writing this. As any avid consumer of popular culture can tell you, ‘Merica and America have very different meanings. And there I go, indulging in the “real America” discourse. See how easy it is?
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