A recent New York Times article, which promised to tell you which U.S. political party you vote for based on your demographic data, referenced a book excerpt that I both agree and disagree with strongly. The passage read:
This identity-based polarization [occurring in the United States] threatens to make politics ‘less about what the government should do and more about what it means to be an American’, write John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck in their book, ‘Identity Crisis’.
I disagree with this statement because I don’t believe that a government and citizenship engaging in a process to redefine and update their national identity is a “threat,” or inherently bad. In fact, I believe it is a good and natural endeavor that is critical to a healthy democracy.
I agree with the statement because I see our current state of identity-based polarization as a deep crisis, but I believe this state comes in part as a result of our inability and lack of desire to redefine our national identity – to speak together about what it means to be American.
Currently, different groups have different perceptions of American identity, and refusing to create a new, collective identity that makes space for different worldviews is creating a zero-sum competition between each group to impose their visions of America on the country as a whole.
If we do not engage in a process of national reckoning in a healthy and productive way, the polarization we see today will only deepen, paralyzing our political processes and further decaying the social fabric of our society.
(As I am writing in the Times of Israel, I should mention that the state of Israeli society in many ways mirrors that of the United States; here I will write in a U.S. context, but the ideas are the same).
The idea that we shouldn’t work to redefine what it means to be American reflects two intellectual shortcomings: (1) a lack of recognition of how much our national identity has changed over the course of our short history; and (2) an inability to acknowledge that there could be better ways to organize and identify ourselves than we do currently.
The first “Americans” were white, Protestant slave-owners. After the Civil War we transitioned from a country defined by slaveholding to one defined by segregation. White women eventually got the right to vote, but immigrants – Chinese, Italian, Poles, Jews, etc. – were not considered true Americans. And so on. The point is, change in our national identity is natural, inevitable, and positive – we would never want to be the exact country our founders envisioned.
Resisting this change reflects a certain cockiness about our current way of life, as well as a good deal of short-sightedness. When we look back at both American and world history, it seems obvious that things should have changed – slavery is clearly wrong, LGBTQ+ rights are good, etc. But in the moment, societal values and systems of organization always seem logical and correct. I recently read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, in which he notes how the Hammurabi Code – the first written set of laws – decreed that the killing of a slave girl should require less restitution than the killing of a noble woman. This seems wrong to us now, but Harari explains that this was just what seemed to be the best way at the time to organize society and maintain order.
A Dominant Worldview
The same thinking that drove the Hammurabi Code is occurring today – both conservatives and liberals think their ways of seeing the world are absolutely the best and most logical.
The liberal perspective is particularly dominant – since the fall of the Soviet Union and the “end of history,” the values and systems of western liberal democracy, capitalism, and globalization have been adopted by moderates on both sides of the political map as both inevitable and inherently good. From President George H.W. Bush to President Obama, both Republicans and Democrats have held remarkably similar values and worldviews, oriented around neoliberalism, multiculturalism, and social liberalism. Party lines have become blurred: President Clinton was tough on crime, while President Bush spoke Spanish and refused to condemn all Muslims after 9/11.
This western, liberal worldview – and the perceived inevitability of globalization – became so dominant that for many years, there was no sense that there could be any other ideology. This helped bring about the populism of both President Trump and Bernie Sanders, who offered new ideas outside of the dominant framework.
Both Trump’s and Bernie’s supporters felt they were losing their power to create and live in a nation that they could identify with. Now that these outsider groups are gaining power, the old guard of moderates feel the same threat. As such, the three sides – the Trump Populists, the moderate center, and the Bernie Populists – are locked in a seemingly zero-sum competition to define the country in their own visions.
This competition paralyzes our political system and is threatening our social fabric by driving us further apart – strong Republicans and strong Democrats largely isolate themselves from one another, and every policy has a symbolic nature that goes beyond its substance – gun control is not just about guns, but could represent another crack in the dam for both sides in their ability to define and live in a country they identify with.
A Common Good Future
I argued that the dominance of one worldview in defining American identity, and our inability to consider different perspectives outside of that worldview, have led to a zero-sum competition by all groups to define American identity through their own visions. It follows then, that opening the conversation around what it means to be an American would provide a solution.
If each group thinks that its version of America is the absolute best, and refuses to consider others’ views, we will go on in this hyper-competitive state and things will only get worse (…I think. Of course, demographics are changing, White Conservatives are being replaced by younger, multi-ethnic liberals, etc. But I believe that the seemingly inevitable march towards social liberalism can and will be halted if we do not allow all those affected by it to be part of the conversation, as massive groups will retreat into their own identities and fight change to the bitter end).
Rather than this zero-sum competition, we must acknowledge that as Americans, we have a shared fate and future, and we have different ideas about how to define it. At the Israeli NGO I work at, Shaharit, we know that once people recognize their shared destiny, creative solutions emerge to difficult problems. When people feel their identities and worldviews are recognized and respected, they open up (and when they don’t, they shut down). When people feel represented in their political processes, they’re less prone to radicalism, and more open to integration.
We need to do the slow, hard work of building relationships of trust; of trying to truly empathize with others’ worldviews, and to empathize with the difficulties of going through a process of change. Together, we can create an American identity where each group has space to maintain their cultures and values, and all groups feel part of our shared national project.
For me, this is the only way forward.