For decades, Captain America stood at the centre of the liberal consensus in the United States. As political unity began to unravel, so too did the fictional hero’s bipartisan position. In times of political turmoil, what can Captain America tell us about the state of US politics?
Jason Dittmer is Professor of Political Geography at University College London, where he studies the geographies of comic books, and critical approaches to diplomacy. His recent books include Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics (2013), and Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity (2010).
This is a story about an all-American winner; a man loved by millions; a man who, as President, could single-handedly solve the problems facing the USA. That man is Captain America.
Cast your mind back to 1980 and the 250th edition of Captain America. It was published to coincide with the presidential election of that year. In this comic book, Captain America, fresh from battling against terrorists, was approached by the bosses of the (fictional) New Populist Party and asked to run as their candidate.
They argued that Captain America would provide a real alternative to the Democrats and Republicans — a “real leader”, someone the people could trust. While Captain America ultimately refuses the nomination, arguing that the president should be someone who doesn’t wear a mask, the moment remains a crucial one for both the character and the real American people of today.
This is because the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan marked the beginning of the fragmentation of the liberal consensus that had governed American politics since World War Two, under which both parties agreed upon many of the key issues in American politics. As the liberal consensus unravelled, so too did the idea that the star-spangled hero was backed by the American people. It would no longer be possible to envision a president of all the people, not even Captain America.
For several decades, the writers of Captain America had a relatively easy time portraying him as someone occupying the absolute centre of the U.S. political spectrum. This was partly because of Captain America’s role as a tool of foreign policy. Created by the U.S. Government prior to entry into World War 2, he was designed to be a super-soldier defending national interests at home and overseas. As one tenet of the liberal consensus put it, “politics stops at the water’s edge”. So, whether Captain America was fighting Nazis, or protecting New York from an alien invasion, he was enacting a foreign policy agenda that could be embraced by both Republicans and Democrats.
When pushed by readers to reveal Captain America’s political views, the editors would respond that by dint of his place and time of birth (New York City, in the 1920s) he would have come of age as a New Deal Democrat, a positioning that located his political attitudes squarely at Ground Zero for the liberal consensus.
Any issue arising that divided the political consensus, like the war in Vietnam, was ignored. Captain America would go to Vietnam only twice, both times not to fight alongside American troops but instead on rescue missions that did not align him with American objectives. While letters-to-the-editor would argue over the issue, the character himself never discussed it — allowing readers who identified as both left or right to continue to assume that Captain America agreed with them. After all, ‘getting political’ would only lose customers.
This strategy started to change in the early 2000s. With the breakdown of the liberal consensus now well underway — and 9/11 amping up the political atmosphere — catching ahold of the zeitgeist became a way for publishers to gain attention for a medium that was rapidly being replaced by Hollywood films.
In 2006, Marvel Comics launched a ‘crossover event’ called Civil War, in which virtually all their heroes became tied up in a ‘battle royale’ that mirrored the increasing divide in American political culture. When the U.S. Government passed a law requiring all superheroes to register with the government and effectively go to work as civil servants, Captain America led the anti-registration forces, arguing that it was un-American for the state to have that much control over superheroes’ lives.
Read widely as a critique of the Bush Administration and the PATRIOT Act, Civil War culminated in Captain America being shot and killed on the courthouse steps in a scene that was read by many as an analogy for the death of the American Dream. The perceived slight to the Bush Administration led to a vast amount of publicity, including an obituary in the New York Times and an appearance by Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada on CNN, which led to the following exchange:
CNN Correspondent: “So if the current storyline is an allegory for the post-9/11 social and political situation, what does the death of Captain America represent?”
Joe Quesada: “There is a lot to be read in there, but I’m not one that’s going to tell people ‘this is what you should read into it’, because I can look at it and say, ‘you know, I can read several different types of messages’.”
It is clear from this exchange that Marvel was trying to benefit from the political resonances of the allegory without actually committing to any particular political stance. It was the modern version of a longtime editorial practice.
Similarly, in a 2010 storyline titled ‘Two Americas’ in which Captain America and the Falcon, his African American partner, investigated reports of a racist, anti-American militia in Idaho, the Falcon noted that he didn’t think “a black man from Harlem [would be] fitting in with a bunch of angry white folks.”
The street scene before them included a large protest group, one of whom was holding up a sign that said “Tea Bag the Libs Before They Tea Bag You!”, a direct reference to a Tea Party protest sign from the early Obama years. Given that in the pages of Captain America the protesters were foot soldiers for the racist villain, this directly positioned the Tea Party as racist and anti-American.
After substantial protest — enabled by the rise of the blogosphere and social media, which eventually led to Fox News and other mainstream outlets picking up the story — Marvel apologised, blaming a rogue artist, and offered to use a different sign in reprints of the comic.
At this point, Captain America was perhaps the last holdout from a bygone media world that didn’t think in terms of advertising niches and media bubbles. By releasing titles like “Civil War” and “Two Americas” into the mainstream media, Captain America was attempting to straddle a growing divide within the American people.
All of this would change with a 2015 plot twist, in which the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, would be temporarily incapacitated and Sam Wilson — the erstwhile Falcon — would take up the title of ‘Captain America’, wielding the shield and bringing a new perspective to the job. Indeed, once Steve Rogers returned to action, Marvel continued to publish two comic books: Captain America: Steve Rogers and Captain America: Sam Wilson, each embodying a different vision of the American people.
In his stories, Sam Wilson is a hero for the age of Black Lives Matter, fighting for people of colour and immigrants, trying to protect them from the dehumanising forces both of the state and of white supremacy. Meanwhile, the somewhat fusty liberal Steve Rogers has been transformed. Via the kind of absurd plot twist only available to superhero comics, his entire history has been rewritten by a literal deus ex machina, the Cosmic Cube.
Now, instead of having his origins in the liberal consensus, Steve Rogers was raised to be a double agent for Hydra, the Marvel Comics version of a global Nazi conspiracy. This alternative Captain America abandons the traditional centre of American politics previously occupied by Steve Rogers in favour of the so-called Alt-Right, which helped propel Donald Trump to office.
While the themes highlighted by Captain America’s (almost) populist candidacy in 1980 were mirrored in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, it is notable that Trump’s values, such as masculine leadership and a claim to truth-telling and power, failed to reorient the American people around those values. Rather, they echoed through an increasingly fragmented media space.
The stories of Captain America, and the ways in which they have erupted into the American news cycle over the past 30 years, give us a hint into how the changing attitudes and changing mediascape of the American people helped to produce the fractured politics we see today. Captain America has split in two, and it may be some time before a new consensus on what it means to be American emerges.
A version of this article was originally published in Huck