Sununu and the Cult of Conservative Credentials

Today, Romney aide John Sununu apologized for a comment calling on President Barack Obama to “learn how to be an American.”

His apology, however, concerned only the words he used, not the sentiment expressed. (I’d love to spend this entry splitting the hair, but that exploration of profound insincerity will have to wait.) The slip, and its aftermath, are both deeply revealing about the state of today’s Republican party.

Sununu’s comment has its roots in the same impulse that manifests in Grover Norquist’s zero-tax pledge: the idea of “conservative credentials.” The tenor of public debate in the United States is curiously one-sided: conservatives take the podium and trumpet their conservatism in so many words. Remember when Romney claimed to be “severely conservative?” Meanwhile, liberal politicians have to be sneaky about their nomenclature. Sometimes they can get away with being “progressive,” or standing for “equality,” but just as often, these words are themselves smeared by conservative opponents. Under no circumstances does a Democrat refer to him/herself as “liberal.”

That’s a shame. The divergence, presumably, stems from the stated goals of the two parties: Republicans claim to stand for the preservation of all that is good about the United States, an undertaking that is perceived as somewhat obviously patriotic. Seeking only to conserve the structures of the nation, Republicans are under no obligation to prove their love of country. Democrats, on the other hand, are seen as political rag-pickers, sifting through the constitutions and common laws of Old Europe, Asia, and elsewhere for justification for their ideas.

In such a construction, liberals are always on the defensive, because their policies are always suspected of foreign influence. The reality is, of course, much more nuanced than conservatives make it out to be. The choice is not, nor has it ever been, between the preservation of the United States or capitulation to its enemies – though that does make a convenient narrative for conservative politicians. Instead, party affiliation has more to do with which battles we pick.

Conservatives do not, at the end of the day, claim to preserve what is good about the United States. Rather, they look at America as it is and label it disgusting. Their struggle is one against the demographic, cultural, and technological shifts of the moment; they seek not to preserve America, but to reshape it in the image of a legendary past. Theirs is the narrative of the golden age: once, we were true men and proud, and today we are but poor imitations of those ancient worthies. To return to the America of past ages will require sacrifice, upheaval, and a policy that favors a certain kind of person – one that believes strongly in the myth and proves himself a worthy successor to the heroes of old.

Democrats, and their liberal allies throughout the world, do not possess an overriding myth of this kind. They are forced to deal with a United States composed of an increasingly diverse population, composed of people with multiple understandings of the good life. It is no longer enough to return to an age in which sexual morality was enforced with the resources of the state, for example. Too many Americans would chafe under restrictions today that were taken for granted in the America of yesteryear.

The real danger of the Republican monopoly on patriotism, then, is the suggestion that the desires of this group of Americans do not have a place in America. Sununu’s comments suggest that it is not enough to be born and live in America to be an American. One must do more to qualify: in the case of Republicans, it appears that the qualifying criterion is belief in a pro-business, pro-military, anti-government services ideology.

Let that sink in. To be an American, one must swear to uphold a particular political position.

The primary documents of the United States seem to tell a differing story. Speech and the press are not to be suppressed. Religions of all types are permitted to worship. Policies that seek to limit acceptable kinds of speech and belief (or magnify one viewpoint to the level of official state speech/belief) are by definition un-American. And a Republican party that requires policy oaths and a stringent definition of love of country is one that is remarkably close to betraying the spirit of the country it claims so loudly to love.

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