National identity refers to a shared belief among a group of individuals that they form a cohesive whole due to shared history, connection to a territory and common distinctive characteristics. Within modern America there are some who question the existence of a national identity. Others argue that while a shared American identity currently exists, social division and fragmentation will result in the demise of US national identity. Contrary to such views, national identity in the United States has proven to be resilient throughout history and plays an important role in continuing to unify a diverse population.
The US was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” This identity is exemplified in American leaders and seminal texts such as the Declaration of Independence, The U.S Constitution and Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’ s “I Have a Dream” speech. US national identity continues to be comprised of America’s founding ideals, evidenced through the American Dream, American Exceptionalism and volunteerism.
Puritan settler John Winthrop conceived of America as a “city on a hill,” a distinct place with a heaven-sent obligation to build a new world. In the aftermath of the War of Independence, many citizens agreed that Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and distinct from other nations.” Today, many Americans continue to perceive their nation in this exceptional light. In the era following World War II, America has made strides to become the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon. US exceptionalism is further predicated on American’s strong tradition of successful immigration. Since its founding, America has been the ‘nation of nations’ and a refuge for the poor, oppressed and persecuted; sentiments which are inscribed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. In 1858, Lincoln stated that when immigrants internalised the creed that “all men are created equal,” they “have a right to claim it as though they were blood and flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” Today, immigration continues to be largely supported by both major political parties. In contrast to much of Europe, America has no major political party calling for ethno-cultural policies that would see a ban on immigration. These combined factors afford Americans a world-leading standard of living. Such standards outrank all other countries of major size and geopolitical importance. US history of post-WWII dominance and leadership on the international stage has reinforced and magnified traditional conceptions of American exceptionalism: a core aspect of American national identity.
A long-standing tradition of volunteerism is another hallmark of American national identity based on the founding values of personal responsibility, moralism and equality of opportunity. It was Benjamin Franklin who formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, and many American militias during the Revolutionary War were comprised of volunteers. Some of the most well-known American charitable organizations, such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, date back to the 19th century. Writing about his travels through the US in the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville frequently commented on Americans’ tendency to form voluntary civil associations. He was impressed by their desire to come together with their friends and neighbours to accomplish community goals. Today, this same tradition of civic duty and community development is exemplified by the 40% of Americans who actively volunteer their time. This figure sets the United States apart as one the most philanthropic nations in the world. The strong culture and history of volunteerism in the United States lives on today and continues to enable a highly diverse population to unite around shared goals and common purpose.
Another aspect of American national identity with particular relevance today is the concept of the American Dream. This refers to the belief that anyone can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. Imbued with a sense of community, the Dream speaks to people of all races, ethnicities and cultures. The Pilgrims realised this dream, imagining a new destiny for themselves as did the founding fathers. In the 1830’s de Tocqueville observed the ‘charm of anticipated success’ in American society and his research led him to discover that this same optimistic outlook existed among the European colonists some 200 years’ prior. The American Dream is an elastic element which continues to be a defining element of American identity in the 21st century. Athletes invoke it during championship games, immigrants leave their homes in search of it and aspiring politicians appeal to it as a basis for their candidacies. From its earliest settlers to its most recent arrivals, the shared hope and aspiration at the heart of the American Dream is a key component of American identity.
The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaim universal liberty, such documents have coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans and women. Despite immense social progress, some Americans argue that racism and sexism continue to divide American societies. The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the centre of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. The #MeToo movement similarly draws upon the historic injustices encountered by American women while also raising awareness of the contemporary experiences of sexual abuse survivors. The movement exemplifies the intention of American women to seek freedom from barriers of sexual exploitation they experience, which currently prevent them from realising the full effects of freedom, equality and the hope implicit within the American Dream.
These movements both symbolise a powerful message: all Americans long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism and sexism in the United States have prevented people from accessing these promises. In Gunnar Myrdal’s description, America has represented the ideals—not the perfect execution—of liberty. Therefore, contest within the United States does not undermine the concept of US national identity, rather the ongoing quest for greater freedom within America attempts to reconcile society with the country’s founding values, emphasising the continued relevance of core aspects of American identity: liberty, equality and hope.
American national identity is broad enough to encompass all citizens, yet powerful enough to establish a shared connection between Americans, their country and their national aspirations. Though the United States will continue to face pressure to change, American identity will remain consistent and will continue to uphold the shared culture, ideals and values which founded America.
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