Competing Americas

The recent victories for the Tea Party brigade have brought an enduring
and fascinating ideological battle in America back into focus.

Ever since the web of American ideas of freedom was spun – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact and the concept of the American Dream itself – there has been a contest for the inherent meaning of the freedoms and rights that engender so much ferocious pride.

The current surge by the Tea Party is another chapter in this battle for the very idea of what America stands for. The ‘American dream’ can be claimed by the political right as a championing of individual rights and personal liberty, an ‘anyone can make it if you work and play by the rules’, ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality. Its mantra is small  government and low taxes.

One of the many reasons that the Tea Party has been provoked into such a frenzy is the fact that President Obama appears to them to represent the very essence of the alternative, more leftist, meaning inherent within the American Dream, and so the ideological struggle for American identity has become acutely polarised. The other meaning is a much more collective interpretation of what the country represents, that it’s the land of the free, a melting pot, a country that lives the creed of all men being born equal (and treated equally, no matter whether they are, say, non-white or Muslim), and sees federal government as a way of helping to realise equality. Within this version of a more open, tolerant America, Tea Partiers are becoming as concerned with race, ethnicity and the disappearance of a white majority, often perceiving the implications of this as a green light for the Islamification of the country, as they are about economic issues.

Obama’s universal health care plan, for example, is a philosophy that flows naturally from this interpretation of America, but is inevitably viewed as ‘socialist’ and ‘evil’ by those that regard the American dream as individualistic. Likewise, the dialogue over the so-called 9/11 mosque sees the same ideological clash. However the current political struggle is defined, right versus left, conservative versus liberal, a skirmish in the culture wars, a last ditch defence of WASP society, it is revealing to read it, as it always is at some level, as a contest for the true meaning of American identity.

Two major Tea Party organisations, Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity, run with the slogans ‘Take America Back’ and ‘Defending the Dream’ respectively, whilst regional Tea Party organisations regularly feature rallies such as ‘Save the American Dream’ and ‘Preserving the American Dream.’ They are trying to lay claim to ownership of ‘the’ dream, staking out the dream as one of individualism, of personal liberties. They infer that American identity has somehow become lost as it strays from this philosophical bedrock and try to cast their version of the Dream as the ‘true’ and historic version that is under threat from the current administration.

What they clearly don’t acknowledge is that what they are opposing is not some radical, socialist corruption of America, but another version of the American Dream. The struggle is one of internal ideologies, one of patriotism versus patriotism. When Ronald Reagan said that the “dream is the heart and soul of America; it’s the promise that keeps our national forever good and generous, a model and hope to the world,” there is not one homogenous, monolithic dream but fundamentally two, sharing the same roots and having grown into quite different concepts. At any one time, and as a reflection of American culture, society, zeitgeist, either interpretation is consciously or subconsciously embraced as the consensual ‘dream’ – the individualism of the 1950s, the collectivism of the 1930s, and the desire to present either as the accepted version and so represent the ‘spirit’ of America is immense. The history of claiming and re-claiming the dream is a three hundred year old tug of war over meaning and identity.

Obama said in 2007 that he wanted to “reclaim our American dream. That’s why I’m running for President of the United States. It’s the same reason I packed up my car and moved to Chicago. Because in this country, that dream is worth fighting for – not just for ourselves, but for each other” This implicitly collective interpretation is in large part responsible for the growth of the Tea Party seeking to haul identity back to its own American creed.

Both ‘sides’ acknowledge imperfection, a current shortfall between reality and promise, and often blame the other ‘side’ for the problem and the need for rescue (indeed the shortfall has often been the driving force behind political campaigns and protest movements) They inevitably claim that the betterment of America will only come through the fulfilment of their interpretations, both are challenging America to live up to their version of the Dream. As Martin Luther King said, all he wanted was for America to ‘be true to what it said on paper’, but it’s the duality in understanding, the ambiguity, that creates constant friction.

The Tea Party, unsurprisingly, draws from the historical well of the American Revolution, referring to noble American revolutionaries standing up to the corrosion of individual and economic liberties by the tyrannical tax-imposing British. Obama hitches his wagon, often by association, to more collectivist eras in the country’s history, tapping into Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes that championed strong central government and universal relief programmes.

The upcoming political confrontations are a reflection of the increasingly tense ideological struggle over the meaning of American character and identity, and by extension, the ascendancy and privileging of certain themes in American history itself. A current example of the way in which even Martin Luther King, who firmly believed in a more collectivist reading of America, struggling for rights for all races and the poor, is being hauled into the tussle. King’s legacy is being co-opted by those who believe in a more individualistic reading of America.

Rocker Ted Nugent recently wrote that “A prime motivator for the Tea Party is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr….Dedicated to standing up for our rights and the American Way through nonviolent direct action, just like the glorious and pivotal American upgrade of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Tea Party represents a long overdue wake up call for America, and more importantly, American politicians and its lapdog media megaphone.”

Glenn Beck at the August 2010 Restoring Honour rally said that it was the moment to “reclaim the civil rights movement”, attempting to appropriate such a powerful symbol of the collectivist reading of the dream.  “Blacks don’t”, after all, “own Martin Luther King” he said.

The patriotic in-fight has become so critical that the legacy of King, custodian for so long of the idea of a universal and collective dream, is having the idea of his ‘dream’ being prized open to extract anything that support the individualistic interpretation of the Tea Party.

It is not, clearly, exclusive to America. The same sort of ideological
battle for national identity and meaning wages in many countries, not
least Britain. Particularly since World War II, there has been a similar
battle between those touting individualism and small government – Thatcher, Cameron – and those pushing for a more collectivist agenda of the welfare state. It is, at a deeper level, the struggle is over what defines Britain

It is a common enough situation in which history, national memory and
identity intersect, but it has a particular ferocity in America because of both the strength and ambiguity of a critical philosophy – the American Dream. As Martin Luther King used to say about his own efforts, it was, (and still is,) a struggle for the “soul of America.” Tea Party activism is a manifestation of a longstanding individualistic interpretation of the American creed, knee-jerking against the high visibility of a more collectivist interpretation embodied by Obama. It is a high stakes clash of American patriotisms.

Dr. SAM HITCHMOUGH teaches in the Department of History and American Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom.