WASHINGTON -- "A full-blooded American."
That's how 24-year-old Josh Fry of West Virginia described his preference for John McCain over Barack Obama. His feelings aren't racist, he explained. He would just be more comfortable with "someone who is a full-blooded American as president."
Whether Fry was referring to McCain's military service or Obama's Kenyan father isn't clear, but he may have hit upon something essential in this presidential race.
Full-bloodedness is an old coin that's gaining currency in the new American realm. Meaning: Politics may no longer be so much about race and gender as about heritage, core values, and made-in-America. Just as we once and still have a cultural divide in this country, we now have a patriot divide.
Who "gets" America? And who doesn't?
The answer has nothing to do with a flag lapel pin, which Obama donned for a campaign swing through West Virginia, or even military service, though that helps. It's also not about flagpoles in front yards or magnetic ribbons stuck on tailgates.
It's about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.
Some run deeper than others and therein lies the truth of Josh Fry's political sense. In a country that is rapidly changing demographically -- and where new neighbors may have arrived last year, not last century -- there is a very real sense that once-upon-a-time America is getting lost in the dash to diversity.
We love to boast that we are a nation of immigrants -- and we are. But there's a different sense of America among those who trace their bloodlines back through generations of sacrifice.
Meanwhile, immigration trends have shifted dramatically in the past 40 years, as growing percentages of Americans are foreign-born. In 1970, just 4.7 percent or 9.6 million people of the total population were foreign-born. By 2000, 11.1 percent or 31.1 million individuals were foreign-born, according to the Census.Contributing to the growing unease among yesterday's Americans is the failure of the federal government to deal with the illegal-immigration fiasco. It isn't necessarily racist or nativist to worry about what these new demographics mean to the larger American story.
Yet, white Americans primarily -- and Southerners, rural and small-town folks especially -- have been put on the defensive for their throwback concerns with "guns, God and gays," as Howard Dean put it in 2003. And more recently, for clinging to "guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them," as Obama described white, working-class Pennsylvanians who preferred his opponent.
The "guns, God and gays" trope has haunted Democrats, and Republicans have enjoyed dusting it off when needed to rile the locals. It's an easy play.
But so-called "ordinary Americans" aren't so easily manipulated and they don't need interpreters. They can spot a poser a mile off and they have a hound's nose for snootiness. They've got no truck with people who condescend nor tolerance for that down-the-nose glance from people who don't know the things they know.
What they know is that their forefathers fought and died for an America that has worked pretty well for more than 200 years. What they sense is that their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative. And they fear what else might get lost in the remodeling of America.
That God, for instance, isn't something that comes and goes out of fashion. That clinging to religion isn't a knee-jerk response to nativist paranoia, but is the hard work of constant faith.
Likewise, clinging to guns isn't some weird obsession so that Bubba can hang Bambi's head over the mantel. To many gun owners, it's a constitutional bulwark against government tyranny. As Condi Rice has noted, it wasn't long ago in this country that blacks needed guns to protect themselves when the police would not.
Some Americans do feel antipathy toward "people who aren't like them," but that antipathy isn't about racial or ethnic differences. It is not necessary to repair antipathy appropriately directed toward people who disregard the laws of the land and who dismiss the struggles that resulted in their creation.
Full-blooded Americans get this. Those who hope to lead the nation better get it soon.