Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
It happens almost every campaign year: Candidates urge us, like repo men, to "take back America." The phrase and its natural variants are everywhere in American politics -- and have been for some time, making them among the hardiest cliches of American political discourse. And yet with each fresh cycle, the command to "take back America" or "take America back" reappears, uttered with fresh vigor by politicians undeterred by the history the phrases have had in campaigns run by those with diametrically opposed views.
Most recently, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who is reportedly considering mounting a presidential bid, told a group of Republicans in Manhattan on June 14, "We will take America back." And declared 2012 GOP presidential primary candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann has appeared at at least two conferences dedicated to American reclamation projects -- one hosted by the Eagle Forum in St. Louis in 2009, and another hosted by FreedomWorks in Washington, D.C., last August. The words have adorned countless online promotions for tea-party rallies since President Obama took office.
Below, a few examples of how the phrase has been deployed since 1988:
The recurrence of a slogan is not unique, but what is it precisely that has made this one stick? And from whom or from what, exactly, are we supposed to retaking America?
As one might expect, the phrase is typically used by challengers and opposition parties. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) used it in 1988 as he ran against sitting vice president George H.W. Bush. It became a mantra of the tea party in 2009, as the movement railed against Washington's powers-that-be, President Obama and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. It wouldn't make much sense for Obama to talk about re-taking America -- he's already taken it. Today it's used as a populist refrain, implying grassroots ownership of American government and coupled with denunciations of Washington's elite.
Economy and geopolitics may have something to do with its repetition, according to Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin, an expert on early American populists. "I think it's a reflection of a fear of decline, that's been with us since the 1960s, since the period of tremendous growth stopped," Kazin said. "Since the 1960s, we have not had a period of long sustained growth, and also skepticism about the government" has risen.
The phrase appears to have its roots in a rhetorical tradition that goes back to America's puritan days -- the jeremiad, a diatribe about about how bad things are, named for the Biblical prophet.
The Puritans didn't talk about "taking back" anything, since America was a new place. But they had their own formal way of warning about a troubled political direction.
The puritans would deliver "political sermon[s] -- what might be called the state-of-the-covenant address, tendered at every public occasion (on days of fasting and prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving, at covenant-renewal and artillery-company ceremonies, and most elaborately and solemnly, at election-day gatherings)," wrote Sacvan Bercovitch in his 1978 book The American Jeremiad.
When politicians urge us to "take back America," they always at least imply that it has fallen into the wrong hands, even if they don't specifically list the wrongs of the party in power. The subtext is: Things are going in the wrong direction.
Jacob Duche, chaplain of the Continental Congress, once declared that "I see the last efforts of a powerful Providence exerted, in order to reclaim our wandering race form the paths of ignorance and error." That reclamation from "path of ignorance and error" seems to be what politicians want us to snatch America from when they use the modern exhortation.
Warnings about America's direction are unlikely to disappear from politics anytime soon. Bercovitch writes about the sermon-like political warning as a "powerful vehicle for middle-class ideology: a ritual of progress through consensus, a system of sacred-secular symbols for a laissez-faire creed, a 'civil religion' for people chosen to spring fully formed into the modern world."
As long as there's a market for middle-class populism, we'll keep hearing about the American reclamation project, as politicians urge us to take the country back.