Does American National Identity still exist in 2020?

Watching the state of affairs in the US over the past few months has left many of us in a state of paralysis. Our hearts have bled for the millions of American lives lost to COVID. The violent imagery of George Floyd’s last breath and subsequent violent riots and protests have poured across our screens. From an Australian perspective, it seems America has never been more politically and socially divided. One might argue that Americans have lost the connective national tissue which once bound them together.

In spite of the recent social and political upheaval we are observing within the United States, it is important to keep in mind that socio-cultural movements are nothing new for the American people. A glance at US history depicts numerous movements which have fought to uphold and actualise the rights of minorities. I argue that the social movements bubbling within America today such as Black Lives Matter do not undermine the notion of an American identity, rather they demonstrate the attempt of modern Americans to live up to the founding values of their nation. In this way, movements of social change can help the United States move closer towards actualising the hopes and dreams that the American founding fathers had for a new nation.

American national identity is built upon the unique and radical founding of the United States.   Unlike nations whose identity is based on shared ethnicity and ancestry, America was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” Though at the time of America’s founding, these admirable ideals were not realised for most citizens, American history has steadily embraced and began to live up to the freedoms expressed in seminal founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S Constitution. Leader’s such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind as men who enabled America to live up to their founding commitments by abolishing slavery and segregation. While America has never been perfectly aligned with its founding values, what appears to bind Americans together is a dedication to see the United States lives up to its founding values.

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. Racism is one of these barriers that is deeply rooted within American history. The United States will always contend with the harsh reality that while European colonists could claim an American identity, people trafficked as slaves from Africa were not entitled to the same privileges. The practice of slavery continued in the United States until 1865 with the introduction of the 13th Amendment.  Following this, black Americans endured an entire century of racial persecution and discrimination before the promises of the Civil War were realised. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaimed universal liberty, such documents coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans. Despite an increasingly diverse US population and racial progress [evidenced through achievements such as the election of Barak Obama, the first African American president], some Americans argue that there is an entrenched racial component to American identity that divides whites and non-whites. 

Building upon historic injustices against African Americans, The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the core of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. Black Lives Matter demonstrates a powerful message: African Americans, like all Americans, long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism in the United States have prevented African Americans from accessing this promise. American citizens responsible for discriminating and continuing to exclude African Americans from the benefits of American identity are contradicting the very values which underpin American identity. In this way, the plight of members of the African American community throughout history expresses a pattern: the continuous attempt to reconcile society with the country’s founding values.

Social change in the United States has improved the freedoms of its people, reconciling the US with its founding principles and helping to evoke the true sense of what it means to be American.



What makes America unique?

Defining Elements of American national identity: Exceptionalism, Volunteerism and the American Dream

In an ordinary year, the United States expects roughly 76 million people to visit their country. People from all over the globe come to enjoy the beauty of American landscapes from the breathtaking Grand Canyon to the Utah Mountain ranges. They come to re-live American history by visiting the many historical landmarks and museums such as the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C, Gettysburg cemetery and Mount Vernon.

If those things don’t do it for you, there is a multitude of entertainment on broadway, world-class theme parks and sporting events, the best shopping in the world and a choice of global cuisines – available with a supersize option!

The United States of America certainly is the land of the plenty, and tourists commonly marvel at the confident, patriotic and entrepreneurial nature of the American people. We can point to these common stereotypes, but what is it that actually makes the American nation and its people so different and remarkable from the rest of us?

Having lived and worked in the United States, I boil it down to three defining characteristics. American Exceptionalism, Volunteerism and the Dream. It is these three components that have defined America since its founding and set the U.S apart from the rest of the globe.

In the era following World War II, America has made strides to become the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon. US exceptionalism is 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 today.

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.

A further core element of American national identity with particular relevance today is the concept of the American Dream. While the US is a country consisting of a ‘melange of beliefs, cultures and traditions,’ its common thread is that America is the land of opportunity.  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. Imbued with a sense of community, the Dream speaks to people of all races, ethnicities. From its earliest settlers to its most recent arrivals, the shared hope and aspiration at the heart of the American Dream is another key unifying concept of American identity. American exceptionalism, the American Dream and volunteerism each remain central in American culture today and establish a shared American identity that is consistent with the nation’s founding ideals of freedom, personal responsibility, equality of opportunity, stewardship and hope. 

The United States of America is a wonderful country, though it is not perfect, it has never claimed to be. Today it is promising to see that the values of US Exceptionalism, giving back to one’s community through volunteering and the American Dream of a better life have endured from the nation’s founding and enable today’s American citizens to live prosperous and free lives.