What’s in a Word: ‘Buying American’

In the past decade or so the phrase ‘Buy American’ or ‘Made in America’ has been thrown around pretty heavily.  And while it’s been thrown around, it has been connected with all things Tea Party Republican.  To be patriotic you must buy American; to be a good citizen, you must buy American.  It has become a marker of what a ‘true’ American is or should be — a ‘true’ American won’t give away money or jobs to Others/Outsiders.

But I’ve always found that my knee-jerk reaction to dislike things that proclaim ‘Made in America’ as conflicting with some of my other strongly held beliefs.  For example, I whole-heartedly support buying local.  But isn’t buying local in fact buying American? So why the conflicting emotions when all that’s different is a a few words?

As I pointed out in my last post, words matter.  The phrase ‘buy American’ is specifically targeting those or what is not American.  For example, some people only buy American cars like Fords regardless of the fact that most of these cars are not made in the United States.  Buying a Honda is not supporting Americans (even though Honda has factories in the US that provide jobs to Americans).

The idea is to buy something from an American-born company with an American name.  ‘Foreign’ here become unacceptable.   It is not a leap when this argument then gets applied to buying from Americans only.  It is so particular about the word ‘American’ that the message of becomes ‘anything or anyone who isn’t American is bad.’  It becomes an extension of racism or fear of Others.

Buying Local on the other hand, does not specify who are acceptable sellers (other than specifying that local is better than chain/big box).  It doesn’t target groups of people or bring nationality into the equation.  It simply states that buying from local merchants is more beneficial than buying from large chains or global corporations.

Of course this message is directly in line with a progressive agenda, which decries the growth of capitalistic corporations, and is not without its hidden messages either.  Buying local can often be more expensive (especially when paired with a green message), which means that the message is targeted at middle-upper class citizens.

However, for this discussion, the interesting thing to note is how phrasing can alter the message and meaning of a message.  Essentially, both phrases have the same core: support for products and companies whose profits remain in the United States economy.  It is the phrasing, the wording that changes the meaning.  As we get further into the election cycle, this kind of messaging comes up all the time.  Both sides are for the same ultimate goal, yet the phrasing is changed to appeal to core voters on each side.  We have to be able to peel back the words to get at that central message.  We have to understand what words mean.

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