The sweep of American history yields four distinct narratives of American identity, or civic myths. An ethnically inclusive, multicultural narrative of American national identity fused from our most prominent American stories has the best chance of promoting economic prosperity while also projecting a superior normative vision of America to its own citizens and the world.
“We are in the midst of a great war of national identity,” David Brooks has recently written. While Brooks is certainly right that that war has now become alarmingly intense, he might well have added that such battles are hardly new and rarely far from the surface in American politics. Deeply divisive debates over what we value, what it means to be an American, and the image that we project to the world can be traced to our earliest days as a nation. They have been a persistent and recurring, if not a necessarily ongoing, feature of American politics ever since.
Instead of simply implying that we should be comforted by the realization that we have been here before, however, this essay teases the long historical perspective on American national identity for what it might teach us about how best to navigate through this potentially explosive time of polarization. The sweep of American history, I contend, yields four distinct yet by no means mutually exclusive narratives of American identity or robust civic myths. These narratives include the Lincolnian claim that America is a creedal nation built on the proposition that “all men are created equal,” the narrative that we are a nation of immigrants, the Horatio Alger story, and the claim that we are a Christian nation founded upon and dedicated to Christian values.
These four narratives of national identity need no introduction. They are especially familiar and important as tools in the rhetorical tool belt of American politicians and political parties as they vie for office and articulate visions of the common good to support policies. Only a few comments about each is necessary to set the stage for considering their strengths and limitations and for making suggestions about the contours of a civic narrative that might help us limp through this period of polarization in preparation to run away from it.
A path out of our current situation is less than clear. The successful but extremely divisive Presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the unambiguous evidence that polarization among Americans is still increasing have brought discussions of the importance of articulating a shared narrative of national identity to the fore. But no new encompassing civic myth or meta-narrative of American national identity that ties existing civic myths together in a persuasive way is on the horizon. A frank assessment of our current situation suggests that one may not be possible. It suggests particularly that, even if we can mine our most deeply rooted narratives of national identity and find common ground to construct an embracing one, we can hardly be sure of its adoption or its effect on polarization. The problem is not simply that we may no longer really be one people who can embrace a shared identity narrative, but that such narratives themselves do not have the power to bring us together. At minimum, any new narrative set forth to bring Americans back together needs to be explored in conjunction with the articulation of new public policies that address the problems of more Americans, as well as more neutral decision-making procedures that provide participants with more satisfying resolutions to controversial decisions.
This essay sets aside these admittedly important considerations to make the normative case for an ethnically inclusive, multicultural narrative of American national identity fused from two of our most prominent American stories: the civic myth of the Gettysburg Address and the Alger story of social mobility. Although such a narrative necessarily poses risks, it has the best chance of promoting economic prosperity while also projecting a superior normative vision of America to its own citizens and the world. Connected to common American values and purged of exaggerated accusations its supporters have made of their opponents, this conception of American identity has a better long run chance of winning the hearts and minds and filling the pockets of Americans than Trump-like chauvinistic narratives of ethnic nationalism.
The story of America as an effort to live up to the proposition that “all men are created equal” is our most powerful and pervasive civic narrative of national identity.
The proposition that “all men are created equal,” so effectively and eloquently articulated by Thomas Jefferson as an expression of the revolutionary American mind and reconceived by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.in the fight for black freedom and equality, is our most powerful and pervasive narrative of national identity. To be an American, according to this civic myth, is not based upon a shared history, religion, ethnicity, or cultural inheritance. It requires only devotion to a constellation of Lockean cum Jeffersonian principles and beliefs. In what I will call the Gettysburg narrative, these commitments to equality, liberty, democracy, rights, and self-determination form the common ground of American identity. As such, they provide the principles and values on which people of different origins, ethnicities, and races can be brought together as Americans.
Inseparably branded into the American consciousness alongside Ellis Island, the Statute of Liberty, and Emma Lazarus’ poetic claim that America welcomes the tired, poor, and huddled masses to its shores, the story of America as a nation of immigrants is often connected as a sister civic myth to the Gettysburg narrative. Immigrants, proponents of this narrative tell us, come from across the globe, and become Americans once they accept the principles of the second paragraph of the Declaration.
The third of these civic myths, the Horatio Alger story, portrays America as a nation of opportunity in which ingenuity, effort, pluck and perseverance rather than birth and access to resources determine success. America is, according to this civic myth, constituted as a land of social mobility and, ultimately at least, a meritocracy in which strength of character prevails. Americans are brought together in this answer to “who are we?” by their shared commitment to the value of work and its cultural as well as economic benefits.
The final of these identity narratives, the claim that we are a Christian nation, sets forth a much more particularistic and parochial ethnic myth. Even though Christianity is, at least in part, a system of belief and faith, proponents of this narrative are not setting forth a rival propositional civic myth to the Gettysburg narrative. Unlike proponents of the Declaration narrative, they are not suggesting that becoming American involves merely accepting a set of beliefs – in this case Christian principles. They are instead seeking to establish the special status and authority in the United States of a particular people with particular religious commitments. Our identity and current political commitments, this narrative suggests, flow from the unique role that Christian ideals and people have had in our history.
Even though their partisans justly claim that these stories are rooted in historical truth, national identity narratives are normative, didactic, and personal as much as empirical and impartial.
Each of these narratives is a partial but genuine representation of America and its history. Separating historically and empirically sound claims from exaggerated and false ones within each is important in the formation of rational public policy. It is also an integral part of the relentless jostling that takes place in contests over the American story between partisans. Nevertheless, we should also realize that the claim to historical truth is only one of several claims being made by the politicians who employ narratives of national identity and the citizens who adopt them to define themselves.
Although they are usually sincerely accepted as expressions of historical truth by those who espouse them, the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves are normative, didactic, and personal as much as claims about historical truth. They crystallize beliefs and make sense of our distinctive lived experiences. Those experiences are multifarious and our perceptions of them are profoundly colored by, among other factors, race, class, gender, sexuality, regionalism, occupation, and whether we live in an urban or rural area. We are drawn, then, to one or more of these narratives of national identity because of our place (demographically, economically, and geographically) in American society. That narrative then frames and colors our perception of political reality. Thus, the question of whether the narrative that is most attractive to us is the product or the progenitor of our beliefs and our perceptions of our experience is unanswerable. It is ineluctably both at once.
Each of our most familiar narratives of national identity still has considerable potency, but recent history has also exposed weaknesses in each.
Each of these civic narratives has strengths and limitations. The ubiquitous propositional definition of Jefferson, Lincoln, and King is rightly celebrated for its cosmopolitanism and generosity of spirit. Nevertheless, over the last half century, its accuracy as an historical account of its claims about how diverse groups are integrated into American society has increasingly come under fire – often by the very scholars who are most committed to its normative premises. The more that we probe American history from the perspective of blacks, women, Hispanics, and Native Americans, the more that we find that they were not considered full Americans, no matter what propositions they held to be self-evident.
The Gettysburg narrative also faces the related problem that any conceptual or propositional understanding of what it means to be an American can just as easily be used to exclude as to assimilate. If being an American means subscribing to a creed, those who can convincingly be portrayed as holding “un-American” beliefs or being members of a religious or ethnic group said to have cultural characteristics that prevent them from accepting America’s basic principles of self-government can be excluded, denied citizenship, forced to live among Americans as second-class citizens, or even jailed. Inventing and reinventing “un-American” has therefore been as much a reality of the American experience as the justly celebrated power of the proposition that “all men are created equal” to promote assimilation. We have seen this in its baldest form in McCarthyism, but also in the ease with which a frighteningly large number of Americans have been persuaded to consider Barack Obama “un-American.”
The claim that we are a nation of immigrants has the same strength as the sister civic myth with which it is often fused. Like the Gettysburg civic myth, the story that we are a nation of immigrants is embraced for its generosity of spirit and cosmopolitanism. But especially when it is sheared from the requirement that those who want to be called Americans must be committed to democratic principles, the claim that we are a nation of immigrants seems to recognize no conceptual sieve or principle identifying what it means to be an American. It thus offers no principle of integration or assimilation through which immigrants welcomed to our shore become “American.”
The Alger Myth continues to be alluring to many Americans who understand their personal narrative in terms of upward mobility. But “rags to respectability” let alone “rags to riches” stories have never offered compelling accounts of the American experience to many groups. More importantly, they are increasingly unconvincing to young Americans. Left- and Right-wing populists have convinced many Americans that “the system is rigged.” Whether the rich are said to be Wall Street oligarchs or members of a “liberal establishment,” they are held out as the beneficiaries of unearned privilege. For many Americans today, stories of the benefits of hard work seem only to function as bald rhetorical strategies the privileged employ to claim that their wealth is merited and to shield themselves from higher taxes and greater public obligations.
Like the Alger myth, the identity narrative that we are a Christian nation founded upon and with a special obligation to Christian principles remains strongest among older, white Americans.
As Rogers Smith has observed, chauvinistic narratives that valorize particular peoples and evoke a particular tradition or heritage are persistent features of liberal societies where they, paradoxically, have unusual strength. They are particularly potent in liberal societies because they appeal to those included in the ethnic or religious narrative as special and chosen members of the community rather than ordinary equal-rights-bearing citizens. As Smith recognizes, however, the limited reach and dangers of such appeals flow from the very particularity that makes such narratives so rich and ennobling for those included. Concretely put, the proposition that we are a Christian nation has little appeal outside of the nation’s Christians, and particularly not to the growing number of atheists and agnostics in the United States.
More broadly, the historical record marshalled to establish the Christian character of the American Founding and our nation thereafter establishes its Protestant and thus more narrowly sectarian character. What is currently forgotten or elided within contemporary accounts of the Christian story of America is how discriminatory and destructive this narrative was for much of American history to Catholics who were, after all, once the only Christians. But of course, for political reasons, that part of the Christian story in America does not get told. This observation not only highlights the dangers of exclusionary narratives, it also points to the selective appropriation from the past that proponents of the Christian nation identity narrative make. Their goal is not simply to remind us of the past, but to purchase authority for values and interests in the present. .
In Part II, I will conclude by addressing the question of whether these—necessarily partial—existing civic myths can provide the foundation for a shared narrative of national identity, and, if so, what its contours would be.
Alan Gibson is Professor of Political Science at California State University, Chico