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But what does it really mean?

March 23, 2016

As this election year wears on, there has been a resurgence of that ever mysterious phrase: “I want my country back…” I hear it trotted out in polite and not-so-polite conversation, and I see it presented as a rallying slogan in the scroll of my Facebook page, a post from one or another of my more conservative friends.

But what does it really mean? Back from whom? Who had it in the first place? Is it back as in time? Is it back to a time of supposed simplicity like the post-war boom of the 1950s, with its segregation, McCarthyism, and obligatory hats and white gloves for women?

Or is it a greedy grabback from the ruling political party of the moment—a call to retrieve something that is deemed stolen? “I want my country back…” was the 1993 catchphrase of Howard Dean, Democratic presidential hopeful, against incumbent George W. Bush, while today the saying is sometimes seen as an anti-Obama mantra. Sometimes the phrase even seems to have been twisted into a call for unity, as in the bumper sticker I’ve seen around town proclaiming: “Not a Democrat. Not a Republican. I’m an American. And I Want My Country Back.”

It seems, however, that the phrase is most closely associated with the conservative backlash of Tea Party Republicans whose peak came during the 2010 election season. “I want my country back” became the angry refrain of Tea Partiers, mainly white, male conservatives, intent on reducing the size and power of federal government, turning back Obamacare, altering immigration policy and the ridiculous “Birther Movement.”

The ubiquitous slogan is echoed in the present-day campaign of Donald Trump, another whiney “Birther,” with his promise to “Make America Great Again,” (actually a retread of Ronald Regan’s 1980 campaign slogan) and in the motto of Ted Cruz: “Reigniting the Promise of America.”

But the question remains: what does it really mean? In the end, is it just a self-serving, sound bite of a phrase as glib as its retort—“I want my country forward”? An exclusionary vision of American identity tailored to fit whoever is shouting it? America is being fought over in the manner that Kindergarteners fight over a toy truck. It’s only a matter of time before the tug and pull results in the wheels coming off.