Pledging Allegiance to a New America
Author(s): Hua Hsu
When Pat Buchanan took the stage for a primetime address at the 1992 Republican National Convention, he was tasked with uniting a party that had suffered through a contentious primary. But he did much more than that. For Buchanan, the crucial contest wasn’t the one that would be decided in November. He wasn’t addressing potential voters so much as warriors-in-training. For the conservative commentator, politics was but a proxy for a deeper and far more consequential standoff on the horizon.
“Friends,” Buchanan said, “there is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
A few years removed from the Cold War, Buchanan foresaw a future in which issues like abortion, gay rights, environmentalism and, in a sly invocation of the previous year’s riots in L.A., racial inequality would come to define the country’s mission. “It’s not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call ’God’s country,’ ” he warned, imploring those assembled to take back America, just as the National Guard had taken back Los Angeles from the rioters and looters.
This wasn’t about policy. This was about the faces you were imagining when you said the word “America.”
Resetting American Identity
Buchanan didn’t coin the term “culture war,” and he was merely conveying ideas that had been circulating for some time. But his speech outlined a set of new political objectives, a new universe of big ideas and demographic possibilities that bore an acute relationship to matters of policy.
For others, however, the 1990s – the mainstreaming of “alternative” cultures, the rise of the internet, new global possibilities of exchange and trade, the Baby Boomer optimism (and contradictions) of Bill Clinton – was the period when any possibility of a fixed notion of American identity was vanquished forever. This was the America to which I pledged allegiance. The 1992 election was the first one I paid attention to, and while I didn’t then possess the language for it, it felt like something was changing within the “culture.” As the son of immigrants, I recognized that I wasn’t assimilating into the same American mainstream that my parents had navigated some twenty years prior. There seemed to be more spaces of possibility in the margins (at least from the perspective of a teenager) to pursue one’s own version of American identity.
All of which made moments like Buchanan’s speech or Vice President Dan Quayle’s attack on the TV character Murphy Brown earlier that spring so baffling. Debates that seemed cosmically unimportant to a teenager – whether Arizona would recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which books appeared on our school reading lists, Clinton’s facility with a joint – seemed to disturb the pundits in ways I couldn’t comprehend. Culture seemed to reset itself monthly, and it was thrilling; the impossible was happening all the time. Weren’t there better things for politicians to worry about than sitcoms or rap lyrics? What was so threatening about all these new ideas?
What I didn’t realize at the time was how vital the preservation of tradition was to Buchanan and his culture warriors. Central to this past that Buchanan and his famed brigade of supporters sought to defend was a mythic “whiteness.” This was what was at stake. For Buchanan and his ilk, the period I described above, where previously marginal people were busy remaking the American center, inspired an astounding retreat to ideas of public morality, the exclusive virtues of Western civilization, stable identities and an untroubled heritage built on exceptionalist American might.
Sounding the National Soul
While the election of Barack Obama seemed a final victory in the “culture wars,” his emergence merely gave birth to a newer, more modern version of Buchanan’s fears. According to recent census figures, we are still about thirty years away from America becoming demographically “majority minority.” And just as kids my age began to glimpse the possibilities of Obama’s America in the multiculturalist 1980s and 1990s, there are moments today that seem to foreshadow future struggles. The Tea Party, for example, might be seen as a moment when a certain kind of disaffected white American began to claim post-civil rights era identity politics as their own – something unimaginable fifty years ago. How will technology and media continue to shape our sense of self-identification? The personal remains political, but what, in a moment when we instinctively understand networks and webs of affiliation, isn’t personal?
I still wonder about this idea of America’s “soul,” though not Buchanan’s version. From the nation’s founding to the present, there have always been invocations of some coherent American essence or identity. But how does this idea look to us in 2013? Is it possible to still speak in such lofty terms? Was it ever possible, or does this unifying essence only emerge in retrospect? Will the idea of the American “soul” continue to hold, or will such universalist declarations come to seem quaint and oldfashioned? Will we merely rearrange the “minority majority” into the same hierarchies of privilege and power we thought we were leaving behind?
Twenty years after Buchanan’s “culture war” speech and he is no longer the type of figure invited to give a primetime address. We now understand how much appearances matter. During the 2012 primaries, both parties gave top billing to Latinos – San Antonio mayor Julian Castro and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the Democrats, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the Republicans. It’s too soon to predict the impact of those speeches – for the speakers themselves, but also the millions watching at home, some of whom will surely become tomorrow’s warriors.
Hua Hsu, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, is an occasional contributor to Grantland, Slate, New York Magazine, and The Wire. He is on the board of the Asian American Writers Workshop.