The events of January 6th, 2021 brought into stark contrast the current fragility and division that surrounds modern-day American identity. Both sides of the divide — those who criticize the events of January 6th, 2021 as an attack on the basic fundamentals of democracy and those who support the attempts to storm the Capitol and disrupt the democratic process — argue they represent what it truly means to be American.
On the one side are those who believe they fight to continue to uphold the ideals of the great Republic, to defend what makes great the Shining City on the Hill and the democratic experiment. On the other, are those who feel that America’s traditional identity is so challenged that the true American response should be violence in order to recapture a perceived undefined period of greatness which they believe is embodied by Donald Trump. In an age of immense demographic, social, and political upheaval, stoked by curated online experiences that establish self-reinforcing feedback loops for confirmation bias, both sides believe they fundamentally represent what it means to be American. Both feel they are adhering to the ideals of the founders and the Constitution, and both feel that they are in what could be their last existential fight.
The formation of national identity is a matter of rigorous scholastic and popular debate. Some theorists argue that identity is fundamentally an irrational and emotion-based phenomenon. Others suggest that national identity is instrumental and pragmatic, and consequently more closely representing a thought-construction to which humans develop relatability and affinity. In a heterogeneously comprised U.S. with citizens of a short common history or none at all, this national identity is derived from characteristics such as industrialization, technological innovation, democracy, military victories, or shared value of the Constitution. As explained by Benedict Anderson, this continuous national identity is produced routinely in order to impart a shared cultural code, or ‘imagined community’ of compatriots. But what happens when the broader American community no longer agrees to that carefully maintained unifying narrative?
Not that long ago, American uniqueness revolved around the loosely defined narrative that exceptionalism, as embodied by democratic governance and a range of civic freedoms, set their country apart from all others. The events of January 6th ostensibly laid bare the fragility of that narrative. Perhaps counterintuitively, the opposing political extremes that are stoking and deepening divisions both believe they are the true defenders of those concepts. Even more interestingly, these competing identities are eroding the threads that naturally weave people together within a country: family, friends, and community. Political polarization and the new multi-dimensional, yet siloed identities that wholeheartedly believe in cherry-picked and personalized interpretations of the American ideal are tearing at the very foundation of what used to bring Americans under the big tent. This is precisely where the presumed narratives of what it means to be American collide: rugged individualism, healthy mistrust of government, and unfettered free speech while still attempting to prioritize coming together as one nation.
Divided We Fall
The U.S. government, formalized civic education, and mainstream media networks and newspapers once outlined and maintained this continuous national identity. However, declining education standards amid rapid globalization, paired with the advent of social media, provided ripe opportunity for narrative development that before would have been relegated to the fringe of political discourse. Some have argued that these outlets, by which anyone with a voice is able to draw an audience, only exacerbated vitriolic sentiments that already lay latent beneath the surface. However, the sheer strength of these mediums, combined with their manipulation by insidious forces and foreign powers, has served to create an unprecedented open arena for divisive and unchecked story telling. Few individuals on either side are able to step back from the abyss, break the echo chamber, and seek out voices that challenge rather than reinforce and further polarize their beliefs. The reliability of the streamlined narrative from childhood education to the nightly news has splintered into a free-for-all where anyone and everyone creates a national identity unique to themselves and/or their cohort.
This individuation of American national identity, which can translate into varying definitions of democracy, is falling along racial, class, and even gender lines. Democracy scholar Francis Fukuyama suggested in his 2018 book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and The Politics of Resentment,” that this individuation creates a political atmosphere of disruption. Inherent in the extreme right’s narrative is their understanding that their traditional American identity is being challenged by the rise of demands for racial and gender equality. Yet, he considers this social disruption and threat to the democratic fabric to include movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. While his primary point holds that a dismantling of a singular connection to nation is reasonable, others argue that in a nation where gender, religious, and ethnic equality has been determined by a majority of white upper class protestant men, identity politics of minority groups may not be what fundamentally ails the current divide. The underlying rifts appear to be far more complex and layered.
An Evolution of the American Narrative
So, having come to the realization that the ambiguously defined banner of American identity that we once knew as unifying is frayed, what comes next? At what point does identification with our born into identity move from healthy to destructive, much less unifying? How does the United States begin to redefine itself in an era where survival replaces exceptionalism, political identity supersedes human relationships, and the forces of news and the media undermine civil discourse?
As Fukuyama rightly points out, and as we highlighted recently in the Evolving Doors podcast:
We construct identities all the time, and I think one of the tasks is to reconstruct an American national identity that is open to everybody, bound together on the basis of political principles — like the Constitution, like the rule of law, like the principle of equality and the Declaration of Independence. That’s the kind of constructed identity that we need as an antidote to the kinds of polarizing identities that our politics has fallen prey to.
There are no easy answers, of course, and we attempt in this series of articles to address the root causes of the current divisiveness prevalent in American society and provide context for possible solutions. To narrow these divides, America will need a combined and sustained effort by local and national leaders. Additionally, we will need to draw on a range of civil-society actors with social cohesion goals and a growing push towards offline communication that creates genuine interaction. But, in a time where the status quo identity of leadership and the very concept of cohesion are taking on new definitions, we are likely to see more disharmony and churn in our politics and social discord before any semblance of unity will be possible. Birthing a new American identity will be a dynamic process that involves both steps forwards and back in order to evolve into a more whole version of itself.