Skip to main content

Is Ted Cruz American enough?

By Eric Liu, Special to CNN
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Wed August 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: Ted Cruz's excellent birther adventure has been a moment of absurdity, irony
  • Liu: It is a reminder that people of color are still more likely to be presumed foreign
  • He says John McCain and Mitt Romney never faced conspiracy theories on their origin
  • Liu: Maybe Cruz now will have greater empathy for those on the margins of American life

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu

(CNN) -- Ted Cruz's excellent birther adventure has been a moment of absurdity, irony and comeuppance, for him and for many in his party.

Cruz, the freshman GOP senator from Texas and a tea party darling, has made a name for himself as an incendiary obstructionist in the usually genteel Senate. He may run for president in 2016. Which means, under the Constitution, that he has to be a "natural-born citizen."

He is indeed a natural-born citizen -- of Canada. Born in Calgary to an American mother, Cruz learned that he has unwittingly held Canadian citizenship all his life. What was in doubt, thanks to a few birthers from the right and some mischievous eggers-on from the other side, was whether he could also claim American citizenship by birth. It turns out he can, given his mother's status.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

Initially, Cruz issued affronted denials that he was anything but American. Then, upon discovering that he was "technically" also Canadian, he scrambled to disavow and formally renounce any tie to his native land -- even though dual citizens can technically become president. Cruz's comical predicament illuminates three things about the politics of American identity in this era of demographic flux.

First, it is a reminder that people of color, whatever their party, are still more likely than whites to be presumed foreign. John McCain, born in the Panama Canal, and Mitt Romney, born to a father born in Mexico, never faced conspiracy theories about whether they were ersatz Americans or Americans with divided loyalties. Barack Obama, of course, did. And for a moment, at least, so did Cruz.

They're the lucky ones. Millions of regular Americans who don't care about their qualifications for the presidency are nonetheless subjected daily to suspicion based on their non-whiteness.

Second, those who live by race-tinged insinuations can die by them, too. Cruz felt that he had to act swiftly to nip rumors of his outsiderness in the bud because he realized just how viciously they could spread out of control. He realized this because it was members of his own party who had incubated and propagated such insinuations about whether our son-of-a-Kenyan president was insufficiently committed to the American way.

What goes around comes around, and when Donald Trump (who declined to rule on Cruz's status because he hadn't "studied it enough") is an arbiter of national authenticity, nobody is safe.

Can Ted Cruz run for president?

Perhaps the most delicious aspect of the Cruz citizenship flap is that his form of alleged alienness was Canadian. What could be worse, for an anti-government rugged individualist, than a blood association with the land of free health care and the home of brave bureaucrats? What could be worse, for a party struggling to diversify, than to have this Latin-Texan hopeful smothered in the blandness of a Canadian Eh?

Perhaps Ted Cruz, chastened by his brush with un-American identity, will proceed with greater empathy for those on the margins of American life. Perhaps leaders in his party will learn to forego the short-term electoral benefits of whipping up white fear of decline and white mistrust of people who may seem foreign. And perhaps activists from the other party will resist the temptation to brand any nonwhite conservative as a traitor or a fraud.

Or perhaps not. What is certain is that the rest of this century will bring only more and more visible instances of political leaders who embody the ethnic complexity and impurity of citizenship in the United States. The party that figures out best how to embrace that complexity and convert it into an asset will be not just the majority party. It will be the most American party.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT