The new political interest group We Need Smith is thick with normative narratives – stories that seek to tell us what’s ordinary for Americans, and reflecting a troubled and confused relationship with this cultural identity.
On the one hand, We Need Smith seems to reject the normative American identity, as reflected through our democratic process. The shadowy group rejects the legitimacy of the leaders that American voters have chosen to represent them at the national level. In this sense, We Need Smith appears to be seeking to promote unusual, even conspicuously unpopular political ideas, writing that it opposes “the usual politics, the usual politicians, and the usual interest groups”.
However, underneath this first blush of defiance of normal politics, We Need Smith proposes to grab political power for a specific group: Normal Americans. We Need Smith promises to support only “leaders from mainstream America”, electing politicians who come from “the real America”.
What is mainstream America? It’s the America of the majority. Apparently, We Need Smith doesn’t intend to incorporate minorities into its political movement. If you are outside of the mainstream, you won’t be welcome in We Need Smith.
What is the real America? The very concept suggests the existence of a phony America – created by groups of people who pretend to be American but aren’t authentically American. They’re pretenders to the American identity, who must be rejected, and not allowed to have a say in the American political system
We Need Smith, this new political organization insists, and seeks to collect Smiths as supporters. But, what is a Smith, and what if you aren’t a Smith?
The political concept of Smith has a very culturally-specific history in the United States. It’s a history of white political power, and even more particularly, the power of English-speaking Americans of Anglo ancestry. This Anglocentric cultural narrative of has many manifestations, including the legends of Plymouth Rock, placing colonists of English ancestry at the center of American identity, even though the thirteen colonies were culturally diverse, holding people speaking many different languages, carrying names from many nations of origin. It’s carried by the members of the Mayflower Society, who seek to establish their value as Americans by proving ancestral connection to English colonists who came to North America aboard the Mayflower.
Despite the cultural diversity of the American colonies at the time of the Revolution of 1776, the idea that people of English descent are “real Americans” has been pervasive. It was particularly strong in 1939, when Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the movie that We Need Smith cites as its inspiration, was released. The name of the title character, Mr. Smith, was chosen because Smith was felt to be a normal American name, unlike surnames of Americans whose ancestors came from places other than the British Isles.
Mr. Rossi Goes To Washington would not have sent this message of normalcy. Mr. Rodriguez Goes To Washington would not have been perceived as a tale of an ordinary American. Mr. Suzuki Goes To Washington would have seemed like the tale of a foreigner. Mr. Kabbah Goes To Washington would have been considered downright exotic.
When the political insiders at We Need Smith decided to use the surname Smith as a synonym for a “real American” who comes from “mainstream America”, they chose to evoke the longstanding belief that people with English ancestry are at the core of the American identity, the normal people who are entitled to political power, while everyone else is an outsider who threatens “the American Dream”. This Anglocentric ethnic idea is present even in the scanty political agenda of We Need Smith, which seeks to require that congressional legislation to be written “in clear English”.
For the people at We Need Smith clarity and English identity seem to be one and the same. This attitude is antidemocratic, and not just because it excludes ethnic minorities. The focus from We Need Smith on adherence to mainstream normality closes off the critical thinking that is vital to effective democracy. The vague populism of the group rewards conformity, and seeks to exclude leaders who are willing to stand apart from the crowd.
The claims by We Need Smith that there is a secret cabal of mysterious elites who are culturally estranged from the authentic folk of the United States ought to be alarming to anyone who is familiar with right wing conspiracy theorists who assert the existence of an Illuminati elite that controls the machinery of political and economic power. The overlap of these new conspiracy theories with contemporary antisemitism should also serve as an additional caution: The Nazi Party of Germany in the time of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington shared the belief of We Need Smith that cultural minorities wield unjust power over the majority.
It’s quite possible that the individuals behind We Need Smith have no specific intention of relying upon the creepy political appeal of xenophobic paranoia. It’s possible it merely picked up references to these racist ideologies from standard American political platitudes that just so happen to be derived from unjust presumptions embedded within our nation’s history. But then, even if that’s the case, it’s not a valid excuse.
Any new political organization ought to be leading us away from the prejudices that have dominated American politics in the past, rather than exploiting them for its own political purposes. We Need Smith fails this test.