What Does “American” Mean

What does it mean to be an “American” … “we the people” ?We the People

Were the indigenous tribes of North America Americans (they were, after all, here before any white and to this day are members of other, first nations, that the US Government suppressed through violence)?

Were the Pilgrims Americans (they were, after all, subjects of the English King)?

Were the imported African slaves Americans (they were, after all, brought here and kept here against their will)?

Were the waves of northern and later southern European immigrants, who came here for reasons of economic opportunity from the 1830s to the 1930s Americans (they were typically, after all, not English speakers, with limited employment skills other than manual labor)?

Were the Irish Catholics Americans (they were, after all, followers of (then) alien religion of questionable dual loyalties to the Pope and this nation, fleeing famine more than pursuing US citizenship)?

Were the the European Jews who fled religious oppression across Europe from the 1920s to the 1950s Americans (they  were, after all, arguably coming to the US out of fear for their lives more than a desire to be Americans)?

Were the Central and South American guest workers who came to this country to support the post-WWII industrial agriculture boom Americans (they were, after all, coming at the invitation of US agribusiness interests, with the overt or implicit consent of US boarder officials, and later at the invitation of construction, lawn care, and light manufacturing industries)?

Is the Iraqi war refuge an American (many of which, after all, fear for their lives because they worked for US Coalition forces in the long Iraq war and were promised protection, only to have the US exit the country, leaving a power vacuum for pro-Iranian Shiite warlords to take over and persecute anyone who cooperated with Americans)?

The Voter Study Group’s recent study sheds light on current American (note the circularity) beliefs about American-ness.

  • Respect for American political institutions and laws
  • Have US citizenship
  • Accept diverse racial and religious backgrounds
  • Speak English

Are the four attributes of American-ness shared across the political spectrum.

Arguably, this a good basis for defining citizenship.  Respect for political institutions and laws and speaking English are the minimum conditions of individuals binding themselves to group norms (we have to suppress our personal and subgroup interests for those of the nation).  We circumscribe that larger group identity with the bright line of citizenship (Canadians and guest workers are not Americans). But then we leave the door opening to joining the group of American citizens by honoring racial and religious diversity (see chart, below).

The next group of defining attributes shows the difference among Americans and defining the width of the door for admitting new members.  (Current) Americans are mixed on how important (a) being born here, (b) living here most of your life, and (c) being a Christian is.  Debates about European heritage as  prerequisite to American-ness are mostly in the rearview mirror of our national debate.

Voter Study Group Importance of Being American

One question, not asked in our “me-centered society” and this survey, is to what degree some form of national or community service is a fundamental attribute of American-ness.

“57 percent of Americans favor requiring every American between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve one year in public or community service in exchange for educational benefits and other support. However, the poll finds that 18-29 year olds are opposed to mandatory service by a margin of 50 to 48 percent.”  – Bi-Partisan Policy Group.  2013 Survey.

Map: Climate Change Will Impact Poor the Hardest, but the Poor Still Don’t Like Government Intervention

A recent Science magazine article developed probabilistic models of economic impact on US regions with climate change.  The short answer is the South and the Poor will experience the worst negative economic impacts.

The Times summary article is here and the graphic is shown below.

Economic Impact of Climate Change - NYT

Compare this map with the ethnic diversity map (immediately below) from my Barbell Nation post – they maps look by and large the same, with the exception of the north central states.


Now remember this as you read below.

But Why is that Also the Locus of Climate Change Denial?

Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press, 2016) is the best explanation of what she calls the “great paradox” of political beliefs contradicting voters apparent self interest.  Hochschild spent years speaking with Tea Party activists in Louisianna and eventually deduced a “deep story” of their political beliefs. Quoting here from the Times book review (Sept 2016):

Hochschild detects other passions and assembles what she calls the “deep story” — a “feels as if” story, beyond facts or judgment, that presents her subjects’ worldview,

It goes like this:

“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”

Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them.

And who runs the government? “The biracial son of a low-income single mother,” and he’s cheering on the line cutters. “The president and his wife are line cutters themselves.” The liberal media mocks you as racist or homophobic. Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed.”

Hochschild runs the myth past her Tea Party friends.

“You’ve read my mind,” Lee Sherman said.

“I live your analogy,” Mike Schaff said.

The first irony is that the Science article makes clear, these very people who oppose the Environmental Protection Agency, because it is part of the federal government that is enabling these “line cutters,” will suffer the most as the environment changes (see chart below).

Risking Temps Affect Poor More NYT

The second irony is that the people who express their outrage at “line jumpers” generally live in areas with the least ethnic diversity.  So while their percpetion of “line jumpers” is surely potent, the perception would seem to be mostly based on media images of distance US citizens vs. experiences with their neighbors.

Geek Out with the Science Article Graphics

The researchers multi-factor graphics are shown here.


Read the full Science article, here.




Exit, Voice and Loyalty – Albert O. Hirschman

Albert O. Hirschman – Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.



Albert Hirschman defined three modes of responding to unresponsive governments that apply to our times too, in his monograph, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

I’m choosing “voice.”

Read about Hirschman’s intellectual legacy in Cass Sunstein’s New York Review of Books tribute.