With 2020 election past, we must now define ourselves as a nation and as Americans

The 2020 election was never just about Donald Trump. It was a critical inflection point for a nation wrestling with the fundamental questions of who we are, and who we want to be at home and in the world.

Trump’s narrow defeat may be one indication of what we don’t want. But neither does it affirmatively guide us to a vision of America that the country can broadly embrace.

Nor will a change in administration resolve the questions about American identity that have been brewing for decades as we have confronted the twin displacements of globalization and migration. With the election behind us, but the shadow of the last four years lingering, we can no longer avoid addressing these questions head on.   

What we believe about who we are as a nation — our values and our common story —matters. The question of the identity that binds a nation together matters more in a democracy of diverse ancestry, religion, ideology and relationships to the land. 

But though Americans have a shared history, we lack a common story about that history.  Are we an exceptional country that pioneered a radical experiment in democratic self-government? Are we a haven for the tired, poor and downtrodden of the world, who in this country can find freedom and opportunity?  Are we a country that denied freedom to minorities so that they could help build prosperity for others at their own expense? The story of America is all of these narratives — both the redemptive and the damning.  

Today’s polarization is rooted both in a contestation of who we have been, but also who we believe we should be. Two distinct sides are trying to superimpose their versions of America on the other, one that is rooted in the fear of losing its longstanding cultural dominance and another that wants to push the country toward embracing our growing religious and ethnic pluralism. 

American flag with ripples.

But in a zero-sum contest where one side wants to “win,” the other side must lose, and the contest becomes an existential fight for survival. 

Meanwhile, as this argument intensifies, a pandemic rages, social unrest over police brutality is bubbling over, and a tense election raises risks of violence not seen in this country since the 1960s.  

America faces fundamental questions

And if we widen the aperture even farther, we see are in a much larger moment of contestation over the demands for fundamental changes to the nature of our political and economic system, to the rules of who can participate in elections, to who is allowed into our polity as a citizen, or who is even allowed across our borders.

Amid this uncertainty we are asking: How do we build a more inclusive society, and can we do so without banishing those who currently sit at the table? And do we truly want to?

There is a hopeful opportunity in this question: To recommit to be in relationship with one another. 

If we recommit to that union, we might come together with a clearer sense of purpose and a more nuanced understanding of what being American has meant historically for different segments of our country and of how we want to walk together as Americans toward our shared future. 

Looking ahead, as we rebuild the economy after COVID-19 and invest in our country’s  physical infrastructure, we must also rebuild our social infrastructure. This means reaching new understandings about what binds us together and how we live in community with one another. We should begin by re-defining “who is us.” 

This will involve both looking back and looking forward. We must reckon with a national narrative in our past that never reflected the perspectives of Native American communities or enslaved people and their descendants. 

Reparations may be a way to atone, but truth-telling, memorialization and lifting up stories of resilience also are critical components of shaping a more inclusive narrative. 

We must rediscover the story of immigrants in this country, who have come here from every continent seeking the promise of a better life, and whose contributions to this country are another critical part of our nation’s identity.  

And we must knit this fuller understanding of our past with a vision of the future and of how we want to live in relationship with each other. What do we want the idea of America to be for the next generation? And how do we realize this idea?  

Research will explore nation’s identity

These questions are at the heart of our new research project called Who Is Us. Over the course of two years, we will explore how Americans from a multitude of backgrounds grapple with the question of what it means to be American today, and ultimately how this impacts the way American democracy functions. 

On the basis of this input, we will make recommendations in terms of values, processes and skills that will help put a more inclusive American identity into practice in a range of contexts and institutions. 

Our working hypothesis is that a new American identity should be omni-cultural. That is, it should begin not with our differences, but with what we have in common: our humanity, our ties to our families and communities, our desire for opportunity for ourselves and for our children. 

After building a foundation of commonality, omni-culturalism allows us to articulate, understand and embrace our differences. Through exploring and articulating the omni-cultural story of America, we believe we can help to equip ourselves with the language, the common understandings, and the mutual respect for differences that will enable us to develop a narrative of shared American-ness.

Ashley Quarcoo is senior research manager for Who Is Us: A Project on American Identity at the Aspen Institute. Caroline Hopper is managing director at the Citizenship & American Identity Program at the Aspen Institute.

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