The Trouble with Keeping America 'American'

A single turn of phrase that encapsulates the best -- and worst -- of America has cropped up on the campaign trail, thanks to Mitt Romney.

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Monday began as just another day on the New Hampshire campaign trail for Mitt Romney. By lunchtime, he was delivering his stump speech in a Madison lumber mill. He likely used the same lines he'd delivered in Iowa a few days before, saying of President Obama:

He means what he says when he says he wants to fundamentally transform America. There's nothing wrong with America that needs transforming. I want to restore America. I want to turn around America. I want to keep America America.

Or perhaps this particular afternoon he rendered the line, as members of his audience have sometimes heard it, "I want to keep America American."

What followed might serve as a case study on politics in the social media age. Seth Masket spotted the quote in a tweet from a local reporter, and quipped that it sounded like Bill the Butcher. Steve Benen called it "kind of creepy." One of his readers took the trouble to Google the phrase, and turned up several odious associations, including its regular use by the Ku Klux Klan. AmericaBlog shortened that to Romney Adopts KKK Slogan, Reddit picked it up, and HuffPost raced to the bottom for SEO gold. By Wednesday, it was on MSNBC, and a line that Romney had been using for years suddenly became controversial.

The phrase itself seems innocuous enough, even tautological. What else might America be, after all, if not American? It's the sort of banal pledge with which stump speeches are routinely stuffed in lieu of actual policies. There is no particular reason to think that Mitt Romney was aware of the full history of the phrase, much less that he intended to invoke it. It is grossly unfair to accuse him of adopting a Ku Klux Klan slogan. The Klan may have embraced and popularized the phrase, but it wasn't their coinage. The phrase had circulated for years before the rise of the Second Klan in the 1920s, and persisted long after its demise.

But even if Romney's stump speech represents an independent coinage, it is still worth asking what he meant by it. Romney, in his speeches a year ago, used the phrase to convey a spirit of openness and optimism, promising: "We will keep America America by retaining its character as the land of opportunity." But as the campaign heated up, Romney began to draw sharper contrasts. By November, a new version of his stump speech tied the slogan to the accusation that President Obama "wants to transform America into a European-style nation." Now, Romney explains that whereas Obama wishes to "fundamentally transform America," he will "keep America American."

Some were quick to hear echoes of the past in that formulation. More often than not, calls to "keep America American" have played upon fears that our nation is beset by alien ideas, or even worse, alien peoples.
"Keep America American," urged an 1887 appeal in The Congregationalist, promoting efforts to convert and assimilate Catholic immigrants from Canada. The paper identified the efforts as necessary to "withstand the aggressions of Romanism" and reach out to the immigrants themselves, overcoming the "manipulations" of their priests and their own "superstitious" devotions.

"Keep America American," the newly elected head of the National Association of Manufacturers exhorted his members in 1909. The biggest threat, he warned, stemmed from the American Federation of Labor's efforts to "stick their wicked heads into" charitable and philanthropic groups, in order to "sow the seeds of socialism and anarchy."

"Keep America American" was the stated mission of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, founded in 1929 by the architect of the system of racial immigration quotas. After the war, the American Coalition transformed itself into an anti-Communist group, hanging its Patriotic Service Medal around Senator Joe McCarthy's neck as the Senate commenced debating his censure.

"Keep America American" and "for Americans," urged the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1946, explaining it as the core principal of their Americanizing work among immigrants.

But there is another tradition of appeals to "keep America American," at least as old, which strikes a very different note. As early as 1897, Universalist Minister John Coleman Adams gave voice to his doubts as to

whether we can keep America American, true to the principles on which her life was begun, to which it was rededicated when the Union was preserved. The hardest strain on our national life is to come in keeping the spirit of that life--freedom, equality, justice for all; the right to be one's self, the government of the community by the people of the community, the supremacy of the law over the mob, the open door of opportunity to every citizen alike. Can America live up to her light?

Adams was every bit as patriotic as his intellectual foes, and just as unsettled by the wrenching era of change through which they lived. His greatest fear, though, was not that America would change too much but that it would not change enough. He believed that embracing timeless ideals required continual progress toward the goal of crafting a more perfect union and a more inclusive nation.

And he has been echoed down through the years. "Keep America American" was "no isolationist creed" nor a "yardstick of nationality" but rather "the defiant challenge of the finest idealism the world has ever known," argued a 1945 column in Wichita's Negro Star. Mary McCleod Bethune wrote in 1951 of the need to "keep America American -- decently fed, decently housed, decently clothed -- with all of [us] free to speak out and to pray together."

When Romney used to say, "We will keep America America by retaining its character as the land of opportunity," he placed himself squarely in that tradition, speaking directly to our hopes for a better future. As the campaign has worn on, though, Romney has edged closer toward emphasizing our fears instead. The shifting contexts in which he has employed the phrase reflect an ongoing struggle to define our national character. We all want to keep America American. The trick is agreeing upon what that means.