Cruz and the Ideal American: Returning to an Age-Old Question

With a speech evoking the classic John Lennon song “Imagine,” Senator Ted Cruz launched his 2016 presidential campaign at Liberty University, becoming the first candidate from either party to do so. Cruz is the junior Republican senator from Texas, known for his staunchly conservative politics, his filibuster against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and his recent appointment as chairman of the subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. Among the many questions about the Princeton and Harvard-educated Cruz’s credentials has emerged the issue of eligibility – Cruz was born in Calgary, a city in Alberta, Canada, to an American mother and Cuban father. The birther-esque debate over whether or not he is qualified to run for president raises a more complex conversation than solely the constitutional definition of a “natural born citizen”: It stirs the conversation about our perception and acceptance of varying ideas of what it means to be an American.

The ambiguity of Cruz’s eligibility for the executive office stems from the phrase “natural born citizen,” a constitutional requirement for presidential candidates. However, there is no cohesive consensus on what being a natural-born citizen entails; some believe that those born on US soil are natural-born, while others believe that people born on foreign soil who automatically gain US citizenship from their parents are also natural born. Cruz, though born in Canada, was an American citizen at birth via his mother. While the definition has never been clarified through legislation or constitutional amendment, lawyers and scholars alike have concluded that Ted Cruz is indeed a natural born citizen and can therefore run for office.

Questions of a candidate’s eligibility are not new to modern politics. Senator John McCain was born in Panama on a US military base, which led to challenges against his candidacy in 2008; the Senate unanimously passed a resolution deeming McCain eligible to pursue the office. The birther movement against President Barack Obama, as infamously perpetuated by public figures like Donald Trump (who is also leading the charge against Cruz’s birthplace), was somewhat quelled during Obama’s first term, when he released his long-term birth certificate, revealing that he was indeed born in Hawaii in 1961. The emphasis on a candidate’s birthplace links back to the country’s obsession with the identity politics of Americana – the country in which a person is born, as well as the nationality of their parents, is only the start of defining someone as an American.

Our perceptions of what it means to be quintessentially American are often interpreted in similar forms on the campaign trail. In 2004, the Bush campaign and other opponents, who described him as more “French” than American, capitalized John Kerry’s ties to France, from his family’s estate in the country to his education in a Swiss boarding school. Candidates with military service often emphasize their veteran status; a 2008 Gallup poll supports the notion that the majority of Americans find military service patriotic. McCain released a commercial that highlighted his service during the Vietnam War, including his time as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. McCain’s campaign slogan was even “Country First.” The adaptation of local accents in stump speeches is also of fascination to campaign watchers, with Hillary Clinton and even John Edwards being subject to scrutiny.

Despite the general theme of Americanism scrutiny during election cycles, this notion has been a particularly complex idea when discussing Obama, not to mention more pronounced a conversation. A trip to Europe during the 2008 campaign was meticulously tailored to appear as “American abroad” as possible — rather than play up his European appeal, and any potential connections to European mannerisms or political views, Obama presented himself as a closely to a US statesman as possible, from reiterating United States policy objectives to visiting sites significant to US history and political involvement. On a more personal level came inquiry of his upbringing. His Kenyan father fueled rumors about his faith and birthplace, and his brief upbringing in Indonesia calling his patriotism into further question. These accusations were not limited to members of the Republican Party; Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategist Mark Penn wrote in 2007 that candidate Clinton “should attack Obama for ‘not [being] at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.’” Dick Cheney asserted that Obama did not believe that the United States was “an exceptional nation.” In 2012, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu stated that he wished the president “would learn how to be an American.”

Perhaps the distinction between evaluating Obama’s Americana and that of his political counterparts does have root in racial tension or bias. The idea that “whiteness” is equivocated with Americanness is still prevalent, despite the US Census indicating that a shift to a minority-majority will occur by 2043. Nevertheless, racial profiling and legislation against those who do not conform to an American stereotype run rampant today. Arizona’s controversial law allowing police to detain anyone who “presented a ‘reasonable suspicion’” of being an undocumented immigrant in 2010 was not as grossly different from the opinions of Americans in 2012, when the National Hispanic Media Coalition found that a third of Americans believed most Hispanics and/or Latinos in the United States were in the country illegally. The failure to distinguish between Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus has led to a rise in hate crimes against all three groups since September 11; 63 percent of Republicans responding to a Public Religion Research Institute poll “believed Islam contradicts American values.” The debate over whether the Tsarnaev brothers were white after the Boston bombing unleashed similar prejudices — to be American means to be white and possess Judeo-Christian roots.

The values that constitute a “true American” are engrained in American society, particularly in the political sphere. And Cruz, a hard and fast social conservative, is the latest target, having made headlines for his presidential bid for his birthplace, among many other reasons. Yet Cruz, one of three Latino senators currently serving, clearly will not allow the debate over “natural born” deter his aspirations for higher office. Perhaps his long-shot candidacy should allow the fostering of a conversation about redefining the conventional definition of American, for Cruz is not allowing this debate to block his pursuit of a very American dream.