Is the American Way of Life More Democratic or Republican?

The American Way of Life has long been the source of political tension.

Posted Nov 03, 2020

Since the term was popularized in the 1930s, the American Way of Life—a belief or set of beliefs that assigns certain attitudes and/or behaviors to our national character—has served as the primary guiding mythology or ethos of the United States.  The American Way of Life has operated on both a collective and individual level, making it a key dimension of both our personal and national identities.

Because the American Way of Life is an idea open to interpretation and is constantly mutating, it has represented many things to many people.  It has also functioned as a useful and powerful device for anyone wishing to promote a particular agenda that serves his or her interests.  A consumerist lifestyle supported by a system based in free enterprise has been the ideological backbone of the American Way of Life, but the term has been attached to everything from farming to baseball to barbecue.  There really is no single, identifiable American Way of Life and there never has been, making it a kind of Zelig of belief systems and a highly contested site (much like its ideological kin, the American Dream). 

Not surprisingly, given its semiotic power, the American Way of Life has long been the source of political tension.  In fact, the term has been used as a political football ever since it became recognized as an effective trope to employ in campaigns and legislation.  Democrats and Republicans have struggled mightily over the meaning of the term ever since it was coined, each side fully believing it understood and supported its true definition.

In the run-up to the 1936 presidential race between FDR and Alf Landon, for example, Democrats and Republicans fought tooth and nail over the meaning of the term.  Each party argued that its articulation of the American Way of Life was truer to our heritage and would better serve the nation’s interests.  Landon, who had been a wealthy businessman, adopted the American Way of Life as the linchpin of his political philosophy, and used the term liberally in speech after speech over the course of his campaign.

In 1940, fundamental differences regarding the two parties’ respective interpretations of the American Way of Life remained despite calls for national unity.  Although the country had by then come a long way in climbing out of its economic mess, that year’s presidential election had much to do with which party had the correct version of the American Way of Life at that point in time.  FDR, the Democratic incumbent, and the Republican candidate, businessman Wendell Willkie, would often both begin speeches with a brief declaration that it was no time for partisanship, and then proceed to explain in great detail how wrong-headed the opposition was in its thinking regarding the American Way of Life.

Skip ahead three-quarters of a century and not much had changed in this regard.  The 2016 presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a particularly nasty one, of course, with contrasting interpretations of the American Way of Life and the interests of the middle class at the heart of the antagonism between Democrats and Republicans.  “Clinton, Trump Present Starkly Different Messages on The Middle Class,” read an NPR headline a month before the election, the former framing the economic struggles of the group as “a story of hope,” the latter as “a story of loss.”

Trump’s victory proved that his narrative of the state of the middle class and his interpretation of the American Way of Life resonated with a large percentage of citizens.  Trump occasionally referenced the American Way of Life in his campaign speeches, directly or indirectly, recalling Republican candidate Alf Landon’s jingoist rhetoric when he ran for the White House in 1936.  Trump’s strong stance for protectionism and “Americanism” (versus globalism) represented a major component of his political platform; foreign influence, whether through immigration, economic competition, or cultural change, was presented as a major threat to the nation’s interests.

Immigrants would be expected to assimilate to American culture if he were elected, Trump stated in campaign speeches, framing this as a means to stop radical Islam and other terrorist groups.  “We have to promote the exceptional virtues of our own way of life—and expect that newcomers to our society do the same,” he said in an August 2016 speech in Youngstown, Ohio, positioning himself against Clinton’s appeal for multicultural tolerance.  “We will promote our American values, our American way of life, and our American system of government, which are all the best in the world,” Trump reiterated in Charlotte, North Carolina, tapping into the enduring power of American exceptionalism.

During the 2020 campaign, the incumbent again drew upon the rhetorical power of the phrase.  The “American Way of Life is at stake in this election,” Trump said in August 2020, now using the term to support his position as the “law and order” president.  Trump had tweeted a month earlier that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, wanted to “abolish the American Way of Life"—appealing to those voters inclined to believe that the nation would be in serious trouble if this supposed representative of the “radical left” was elected.