Some Questions for Studying American National Identity


After nine or ten months of not doing much of anything in the writing world, I’ve decided to hop back onto my old personal blogging track, to see where it goes, and to keep a running intellectual diary and commentary venue. Nothing formal here- just occasional semi-formalized ramblings and embryos of future essays and reviews for publication elsewhere.

A friend of mine recently asked for my advice on his undergraduate senior thesis, which he is writing on contemporary American national identity. If you’ve tracked my electron trail before, you know my older blogs are rife with self-assured pontifications on the subject. Nowadays, I’m not so sure I know much about it. I sent him a series of questions that, were I to start a project on American national identity, I would want to have a good hold on first. Edited and expanded, here they are, in no particular order:

What is “national identity” within the broader scope of “identity” questions? (As opposed to, say, “ethnic” identity, “racial” identity, “civilizational” identity, “cultural” identity, “religious” or “ideological” or “creedal” identity, “political” or “legal” identity, “class” identity,” etc. I think most would agree that nationhood or national identity does, in fact, exist as something distinct from these other groupings, with traits of all of them, but not exactly identical to any of them. Where the lines are drawn matters, and remains a matter of controversy (see Wilfred McClay’s take in a recent issue of National Affairs.)

To what degree is “American national identity,” as a concept, an idea, and a reality, primarily a political project, primarily a question of politics? That is, to what degree is “America” basically dependent on a certain conception of politics, a national identity built chiefly from political ideals, political practice, and political necessity? And if it is partly or entirely this, which political principles are its true basis? Our ideational constellation includes republicanism, liberalism, popular sovereignty, egalitarian democracy, progressivism, populism, and plenty of other internal takes on those “self-evident” truths, most of which are incompatible or contradictory. Is politics all we have? A corollary to this is, if America is a political project, then to what degree is it truly the child of Locke and Hobbes and Montesquieu and Madison, the Enlightenment in political form, the quintessential project of modernity? And to what degree is it something older, or something less grand?

If “American national identity” is, on the other hand, somewhat independent of our politics and political thinking, then what is it? Is it a pre-political cultural identity of sorts, a jumble of self-consciously held folkways whose practitioners could exist under different regimes while telling the same myths and singing the same hymns? If it is, what forces made these Americans? Was it a thing of external pressures of environment and institutions, and did Americans become Americans because of their perpetual westward conquest of more and more open space and elbow room, their free and participatory political institutions, and their lack of established churches commanding their minds? Or could it be more attributed to the ancient customs and cultural residues brought, first from England, then from Europe, and finally from every corner of the planet by settlers and slaves and immigrants across the centuries, mingling together in every generation and creating new ideas with echoes of the old?

Regardless of these, it should be asked as well- is American national identity best studied by understanding how Americans understand themselves? Or is it better to ask those immigrants, especially their English-speaking cousins, but also travelers and diplomats from the rest of the world, how outsiders perceive Americans? It’s not just to get “positive” and “negative” views, because anyone can tell you that plenty of people around the world love America, and plenty of Americans are eminently cynical about their own country. Rather, seeing the similarities and differences between different conceptions can perhaps point to phenomena that would otherwise go less noticed, and show multiple sides of Americans’ virtues and flaws.

Another thing- to what degree is American identity an intrinsic thing, or an aspirational thing? Are you born an American and raised an American, and they can take the American out of America but they can’t take the America out of the American? Are our cultural habits, internalized folkways, mental maps and other unspoken, unnoticed ways of life just so deep within us that we couldn’t get rid of them if we tried? Or, is American national identity a thing of aspiration and becoming, a kind of ever-distant city on a hill we can strive for and never fully attain, always disappointed but hopeful, and perhaps always knowing we can shake it off and choose something else if it never meets our expectations and hopes? This is- are you an American, or do you have to try to be an American?

On that note- how distinct is America, anyway? That is, are the movements and trends in America best compared to their own predecessors within the American political tradition? Or are they best compared to their contemporaries in other similarly situated countries? One could feasibly compare the Progressives of the early 1900s to the Whigs of the early 19th Century- but one could just as easily compare them to the upper-middle-class Fabian Socialists in Britain and the German positivist social scientists of their own day. The American revolutionary founders could be compared to previous generations of English political dissidents- but they might also be compared to Latin American revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar who operated much closer to their timeframes. To what degree are political and cultural movements, solutions, and identities distinctly American traditions, and to what degree are they more accurately considered American manifestations of international or even global phenomena?

And on that same note, all the aforementioned musings have worked under the implication that the American “Union” serving the sovereign “American People” was the primary unit of identity. At at least two periods of U.S. history, though, there have been other competitors for legitimacy and even sovereignty. Prior to the settlements of the end of Reconstruction in 1877- and especially in the long prelude to the Civil War- “states’ rights” was a real issue, and the questions of nullification, federal supremacy, popular sovereignty, and other essentially constitutional questions whose answers could back the Union, or back individual states, still hung in the balance. It’s harder to look at a national identity in an era when the existence of a united nation was often at issue. Meanwhile, ever since the dawn of American internationalism- especially in the last years of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, but also throughout the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to different degrees, continuing up to the present day- there have been renewed questions about America’s place in the international order. One need not be a wide-eyed conspiracy theorist to understand that the formalization of international institutions, and their proliferation across many domains, has created hard questions about sovereignty and legitimacy, and with an increasingly interconnected governing class in many significant countries around the world, these questions are not easily answered. So how stable and real is the political foundation of “American national identity,” anyway?

Finally, if it is possible to be “American,” is it also possible to be “un-American” as innumerable schoolyard and Senate floor bullies have taunted their enemies across our history? Is loving America and seeking to serve it the same thing as being American? Or are those distinctive things, as well?

I don’t really have answers to anything here. I have some prejudices and some inclinations, and I think the fact that some people will question why some of these are even questions, is more revelatory of their own prejudices- and the kinds of Americans they are, incidentally- than the truth of what the whole of American national identity is. I left unspoken the question of diversity within the American identity- diversity of class, culture, ethnicity, geography, profession, of ways of being American. The different kinds of tropes within American identity would deserve another piece to themselves, but for me it’s no longer a question whether American identity is internally diverse- it assuredly is. Rather, where the borders and boundaries of that identity are along its edges, is something more worth asking. A year or so ago I examined the identity questions here, and historians like David Hackett Fischer, Wilfred McClay, Walter McDougall, Allen Guelzo, and Michael Lind have extrapolated on the internal diversity of the American experience in their own works.