Editor’s Note: This essay appeared in Cultivating Virtuous Citizenship?: A Law and Liberty Symposium on the Ryan Foundation’s American National Character Project.
No one can doubt that the United States is profoundly riven over sharply opposed conceptions of who Americans are and should be as a people. Though Barack Obama argued that the U.S. was “dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: ‘Out of many, one,’” his two terms only saw American divisions deepen. His successor Donald Trump not only represented the opposition party. He also denounced the Washington “establishment” of both parties and promised to “make America great again,” in ways that stirred fear and anger among many Americans who had been excluded or subordinated in the nation’s past. American polarization has become so severe that many will only believe news or facts endorsed by their fellow partisans, and many shudder at the thought of their child marrying someone from the other side.
But though building and sustaining a sense of unity in any political society is always challenging, Americans have resources that can enable them to discover common ground and recover a sense of shared civic purposes. I have long argued that political communities are held together in part by “stories of peoplehood.” These are narratives that elaborate not only the economic and political benefits of community membership but also its moral worth. No complex society, to be sure, has one single story of its political identity and moral meaning. Long-lasting societies instead display multiple stories that express the distinct experiences and aspirations of different community members — but that also overlap sufficiently so that they can inspire widespread loyalty, sufficient to persuade people to work through their differences to achieve the goals and values they have in common.
Obama’s vision of America as dedicated to “e pluribus unum” is one such story, Trump’s vision of “America First” is another. But while the first promises inclusion, it is vague about the goals that might inspire senses of unity. The second makes its goal of American greatness clear, but it does so in ways that make many Americans feel left out. There are better unifying stories in America’s rich heritage that, if added to these, might help many more Americans gain or regain senses of shared purposes with each other.
The story of American identity that I find most compelling is one first told by opponents of slavery like Frederick Douglass in the antebellum era. Its most influential narrator was Abraham Lincoln. These leaders understood America as dedicated to a project of achieving, over time, with difficulties and setbacks, meaningful enjoyment by all of the basic rights in the Declaration of Independence — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As Lincoln put it, the Declaration had established a “maxim” that should be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated,” thereby “constantly spreading and deepening its influence” and “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” Lincoln saw the U.S. Constitution and the political system it created as the “silver frame” for this “apple of gold,” the fruit toward which free governments should aim.
For Lincoln, this inclusive project of enabling all truly to possess these basic rights and liberties meant that governments should help provide what we would today describe as infrastructure — systems of transportation and communication — and also education and aid to the poor, as well as systems for law enforcement and self-governance. Lincoln saw these systems as necessary if people were really to pursue happiness, as opposed to just struggling to survive. Americans have long disagreed on the roles governments should play in achieving these goals — but most share the goals. Lincoln also recognized that in light of economic, regional, religious, and other forms of diversity, the pursuits of happiness of different Americans would take different forms. Within limits, he thought those forms should be accommodated. Again, Americans have long disagreed on the precise limits, but most share these goals. By hearing each other’s stories of who they are and who they want to be, they might discover they in fact share more than they now believe.
In sum, I believe that if Americans see themselves as a people defined by the project of securing the Declaration of Independence’s rights and liberties, ultimately for all persons, of all colors, everywhere, they can find a sense of shared moral purpose that may enable them to work through their differences over how infrastructure programs should be crafted, and how far the different ways of life of conservative religious groups, of immigrants, of sexual minorities and others can be accommodated. I do not claim, however, that this is the story of American peoplehood all must accept.
As sociologist Ruth Braunstein has shown, many Americans on the right and left instead embrace stories of themselves as part of a democratic people, working for progress through democratic engagement. My point instead is that we need both a politics that advances multiple stories of shared American identities and purposes, and one that seeks to find as much common ground as possible in those stories. Then we can chart directions for progress that build on what most Americans can agree to be the greatest ideals we have inherited from our past, while achieving, partly through accepting most of our differences, greater unity in shared endeavors to enable all to enjoy the blessings of liberty in our present and future.