Ryan Dawkins, U.S. Air Force Academy

The question before us is whether America has a distinctive identity. The answer to this question is more complicated than it may initially seem. On the one hand, the United States is certainly distinctive. Its distinctiveness is a function of this country being, in the words of Gary Wills, an “invented” country. It was constructed by individuals who built political institutions informed by political theory; it’s a country built upon ideas rather than ancestry. Indeed, Gunnar Mydral (1944) famously wrote that American identity is built around a constellation of ideals—namely, individualism, liberty, equality, hard-work, and the rule of law—that comprise the American Creed. As long as people endorse these core values, they are part of the national community--or so the argument goes. In many ways, this distinctiveness is at the heart of our historic notion of American exceptionalism.

            On the other hand, work in political and social psychology tells us that membership in the national in-group is not so easy to acquire. Even though all Americans, as Americans, share the same national identification, the normative content of that identity can vary greatly across groups. Social identity theory holds that identities are social in nature—that is, their power is derived from the degree to which people consider membership with a group as important to their own self-concept. Group membership carries with it a set of norms and stereotypes that establish the boundaries of who is and who is not a member of the group. These stereotypes are derived from elite-driven notions about who is deemed the proto-typical group member, which includes stereotypes about any number of individual characteristics and attributes, including racial, cultural, and religious heritage. Group identifiers internalize group norms and stereotypes and develop a positive self-conception of themselves, while at the same time developing negative attitudes toward those who do not conform to those stereotypes.

            In her book, Who Counts as an American?, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse applies social identity theory to American identity. She contends that the proto-typical American has historically been older, less-educated, Christian, and above all else, White. According to Theiss-Morse, being a strong identifier is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, strong identifiers are more willing than their counterparts to make sacrifices for other Americans. On the other hand, they are also more likely to place restrictive boundaries around who qualifies as a “true American.” Those left out of a strong identifier’s conception of a true American are typically racial and ethnic minorities, non-Christian identifiers, and extreme liberals. The creation and monitoring of these exclusionary boundaries among strong identifiers explains why this narrow ethno-cultural conception of American identity often corresponds with Nativist and anti-immigrant attitudes, especially during periods when there is a sudden influx in the foreign born, largely non-white, population. Such demographic shifts are perceived as a generalized group threat that not only challenges the power of White America, but it's very sense of belonging in the national community.

Indeed, over the last two decades, the country has undergone profound demographic change, and the dominance of the ‘proto-typical’ American is being systematically challenged. While the average White American continues to get older, brown and black America is getting younger. A majority of American children under the age of five are non-white, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the United States will be a majority-minority country by 2045. Moreover, at the same time that the country is becoming less White, it is also becoming less religious. According to a 2014 Pew study, only 36% of Millennials describe themselves as religious compared to 52% and 55% for Gen Xers and Baby-boomers, respectively. As the image of the proto-typical American as a White Christian is being openly contested, more Americans are now embracing a new, much more inclusive conception of American identity, a conception that embraces the country’s immigrant past and celebrates diversity as a source of American strength. 

This contestation between a vision of American identity tied to America’s European roots and a conception marked by multiculturalism coincides with the sorting of the American public into the two major political parties. Perhaps the most noteworthy trend of the last forty years is the growing social, ideological, and geographic polarization between Democrats and Republicans. As Lilliana Mason recently noted, Americans are increasingly aligning their partisan identities with their other salient identities, so much so that “the two parties have vastly different social compositions” (Mason 2018, 48). While the Republican Party is primarily composed of White, Christian, self-identified conservatives, the Democratic Party is largely non-white, non-Christian, and self-identified liberal. As a result, these two competing visions of American national identity have taken on a partisan bend. 

            Using survey data collected by Grinnell College in collaboration with pollster Anne Seltzer, my own research with Abby Hansen supports this idea. When presenting a battery of questions asking respondents what it meant to be a ‘true American,’ our research found that answers tended to fall into one of two orientations: one nativist, the other multicultural. We also found that those who endorsed a more nativist conception of American national identity tended to identify as Republican, while those who endorsed the multicultural conception tended to identify as Democratic. Moreover, as people endorsed each conception of American identity more strongly, they also tended to have more negative feelings toward the party to which they did not identify.

The conclusion from this research is clear. Partisans from each party are operating in very different political realities and misunderstand their fellow Americans on even a basic level. People are no longer operating from a position where, despite whatever differences may exist, they still share a common identity as Americans. Even though we all ostensibly share the common label “American,” the norms and stereotypes associated with what it means to be American could not be more different.