There’s a small house near where I live in Cedar Rapids that is next to a noisy, dusty construction zone where its companion houses were demolished a few weeks ago.

This little house, like its neighbourhood, has seen better days. The yard has already been cropped by street development and is ragged and unkempt. The roof needs help and the exterior walls need some work as well.

But you recognize this house right away: Next to the front door on the porch the owner has an elaborate display of electric lights that spells out “God Bless America.” At night they light up.

The owner cares little for the grass, for it’s what’s resting on the lawn that’s important: Next to an impressive display of pink flamingoes there are numerous American flags, large and small, and red, white and blue bunting, patriotic garden figures (imagine Uncle Sam as a garden gnome) and other signs saying “Support our troops.”

This phenomenon of the patriotic home display is rather widespread in my country but especially noticeable in working class neighbourhoods. In addition to homes, often the oldest and most dilapidated cars on the highway are similarly festooned with numerous patriotic stickers and the now-ubiquitous ribbons, most of which say the same things as the signs outside the aforementioned little house.

In Canada, such cars make U.S. tourists easy to spot and my Canadian friends often wonder what is the motivation behind such demonstrations of working class patriotism?

I make the clear distinction between the white (especially Southern and rural) working classes and African-Americans and other people of colour whose history in the U.S. comes from a far different dynamic and imbues these groups with far different perspectives on America than the people I am writing about — the most visible of the lawn ornament patriots who now seem to be the stereotype that people outside of the U.S. see as the norm in American culture.

Think Toby Keith singing about “putting a boot in your ass; it’s the American way,” and then look at the constituency he sings for. These are the people who gave George W. Bush his margin of victory in 2004.

It’s an odd thing to speak of this, since Americans are taught as a rule never to mention class differences. It took the better part of two centuries to be able to have honest conversations about race and gender (and we’re backtracking on those now) but to mention class inequalities in America is still a serious taboo.

So I note that the expensive cars on the road, when they do carry any kind of conservative or patriotic message, usually sport a very neat “Bush-Cheney 2004” sticker properly affixed to the lower left hand part of the back bumper or rear windshield. In many cases, it’s a more expensive “W” decal morphing into an American flag also neatly and carefully applied. Ribbons and other signs are rarer on these vehicles.

And people in the “better” neighbourhoods would rather die than to have their front yards look like the little house on Oakland Avenue. Even if they support Bush, the war and love their idea of America, what would the neighbours think of your taste?

So what is going on here? Why do the least advantaged among America’s white working classes support the system with the most fervor?

Thomas Frank covered much of the topic in his excellent book Whatâe(TM)s the Matter With Kansas, which I recommend to anyone who wants to take a peek inside the Middle American mind. But there’s more to this phenomenon than voting for prayer in schools and losing your job.

For there is a supreme dual mindedness at work here: America is not merely the sum of its policies and governing documents to most people, but there is something almost transcendent about being able to call yourself an American.

Those who have not been able to live out what we commonly refer to as the “American Dream” don’t blame the economic or political policies of their country or the circumstances of their birth for their lack of opportunity or success in acquiring material goods.

In fact, merely being able to live in the USA seems to be its own reward for even the most disadvantaged of the white working classes.

For being an American vaults even the most disadvantaged of the American scene into the pantheon of exalted status.

This is a phenomenon that has been little discussed. Adolf Hitler summarized it perfectly when he said of his ideal for Germany that “it must be a greater honour to be a street-cleaner and citizen of this Reich than a king a foreign state.”

And that is the psychological mechanism that works so well for the ruling élite in the U.S. today.

If you listen closely, you’ll hear the same exhortations expressed by Americans who have the least to gain from blind allegiance to the cause. No matter what their circumstances, being an American places them above literally everyone else in the world.

We have come to view America as the best in the world for our living standards (first, let’s admit it) and freedoms (second). And membership in this club is, in and of itself, a mark of exclusivity worldwide, or so the average American believes.

The military might of the U.S. also adds weight to this feeling. Being a part of the biggest, baddest, most feared gang on the block has its psychological rewards as well.

And many of these fine salt-of-the-earth folks feel that God has ordained the world into those deserving and those undeserving and they have accepted their lot in life and been thankful for what they have.

We have a common refrain down here: as bad as things are, at least you were born in America. We tend to see the rest of the world as a wild place where people not only don’t enjoy freedom, but good TV, good fast food and God as well.

When NAFTA sent their jobs overseas, these folks didn’t blame the American system. When rapacious capitalism and government policies priced them off their farmland, they didn’t blame the American system. Not that they liked it at all, but it was due to forces beyond both their understanding and control. Scapegoats could be found that would distract from questioning the system and they were provided by the popular media.

These Americans understand why every day, thousands of people risk life and limb to get into the U.S. from Mexico. But they view these people as a threat. For the white underclass does not view the world’s poor as brothers and sisters in the struggle, but as usurpers, trying to become members of the club without proper credentials (of birth) or merit, again a perspective fueled by the only media they have access to.

This has been the central dilemma of not only the Democratic Party but of union activists and advocates of working class mobilization all over the U.S.: how do we reach these people on a ideological level when any explanation that blames the economic system dies on the trip wire of this form of patriotism?

This may be the greatest psychological advantage that the Republicans and their economic allies have over the American electorate.

And it raises the question that Frank didn’t really cover in his fine work: How bad do things have to get in the U.S. economically or politically before the white working class begins to understand how badly they’ve been duped?

And then who will they listen to? And what will they do with all those ribbons?

Keith Gottschalk

Keith Gottschalk

U.S. Keith Gottschalk has written for daily newspapers in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. He also had a recent stint as a radio talk show host in Illinois. As a result of living in the high ground...