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.



A global spread: novel strain of authoritarianism infects democracies

2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.

At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.

Warnings from Hungary

Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?

Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies

Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.

Freedom of Assembly  

 Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.  

Police powers

Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.

Surveillance powers

Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.

Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.