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The Book List: Who Counts as an American?

Want to get a better understanding of what has driven the Birthers, the Tea Party and the rise in domestic hate groups since Barack Obama became president? Check out Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s latest book, Who Counts as an American?: The Boundaries of National Identity. While not tackling those specific hot-button topics directly, the book does more to explain and bring into context the nascent formation of white minority politics in the United States — and the paranoia that comes with it — than any work out there right now.

In Who Counts as an American?, Theiss-Morse — chairwoman of UNL’s department of political science — draws on social identity theory to examine the dynamics of national loyalty and commitment. She develops a social theory of national identity and uses surveys, focus groups and experiments to explain why national identity is such a powerful force in peoples’ lives.

Her results show that the mixture of group commitment and the setting of exclusive boundaries on the national group clearly affect how people behave toward their fellow Americans. Those who strongly identify with the “national group” care a great deal about it — they sincerely want to help and to be loyal to their fellow Americans. But by limiting who counts in their minds as a “real” American, those same strong identifiers place severe limits on who benefits from their generosity. Help and loyalty are offered only to “true Americans,” while others are relegated to the edges of the national group.

One stark example from the book is an experiment, conducted well before the 2008 campaigns swung into gear, that asked respondents to examine three photographs. One was of Hillary Clinton, one was of Barack Obama, and one was of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Researchers asked their test subjects which of the three looked the most American. Obama finished a distant third behind both Clinton and Blair.

Don’t take our word for it. Who Counts just won the Robert E. Lane Award, given annually for the best published work in political psychology. She’ll be in Washington, D.C., in September to accept the award during the national meeting of the American Political Science Association. Congratulations, Beth!

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