Tag Archives: fragmenting

The American Idea

In the very first book I wrote (“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”), I advanced a theory I called “the American Idea.” My thesis was that one becomes an American through allegiance to what I call “the American Idea”–the philosophy of governance advanced in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Unlike citizenries that depend upon identity–ethnic, religious, etc.– for their cohesion, one becomes an American via acceptance of those overarching ideas.

Of course,it would help if more people knew what those “overarching ideas” are…

A recent book discussed in the New York Times echoes that thesis–and suggests that it may no longer be operative.

Robert P. Jones begins the column by sharing Chesterton’s description of the American Idea.

After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

This “voluntary asset to commonly held political beliefs” is what I meant in my earlier (less eloquent) formulation, and what I still believe is the essential characteristic of that elusive thing we call “Americanism.”

But it’s badly frayed. As Jones writes,

Recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations — harnessed effectively by Donald Trump’s campaign — are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.

Jones shares polling results that highlight the very different worldviews of today’s Republicans and Democrats, and concludes that America’s increasing pluralism is something of an existential challenge to many of the country’s white Protestants.

Taken as a whole, these partisan portraits highlight contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation — from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

Jones compares the current times with other eras in which the American fabric has been severely frayed: the Civil War, turn-of-the-century immigration upheavals, and the turmoil of the 60s. But as he points out, White Christians still saw themselves as owners of the civic table–the question was whether they would make room at that table for others.

Suddenly, they find themselves in a position in which they are not inviting “guests” to “their” table, but facing the prospect of shared ownership. That’s a new and very unsettling challenge, and the way forward is by no means clear.

The temptation for the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is to double down on a form of white Christian nationalism, which treats racial and religious identity as tribal markers and defends a shrinking demographic with increasingly autocratic assertions of power.

For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian. If this realignment continues, left out of this opposition will be a significant number of whites who are both wary of white Christian nationalism and weary of feeling discounted in the context of identity politics.

This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

I firmly believe that the American Idea can still serve that purpose. But we need to build a culture that supports and nourishes that Idea, and doing that requires that we improve and emphasize civic education and that we abandon–or at least stop encouraging–racial and religious resentments.