US politics this year will focus on the midterm congressional elections in November. Much of the political debate will center on competing visions of American identity.
The US was built on shared ideals and political principles, not on a shared religion, culture, race or ethnicity. It is large and diverse, encompassing varying subcultures. In such a country, a vision for what the country is — and who is a part of it — is a crucial part of politics.
There is a long history of competing visions of the country. One way to examine today’s competing narratives is to consider four approaches, along a spectrum of right to left politics. There is a populist vision strongly associated with former President Donald Trump, a traditional conservative vision, a moderate vision and a far-left vision.
Trump successfully crafted a narrative of the US that struck a chord in American culture. While his populist narrative appeals to a minority of Americans, it is a large and passionate minority. His vision emphasizes strength: Never apologize, never compromise, always fight. The motto “Make America Great Again” suggests a return to an idealized time of power and prosperity.
In all visions of the US, a crucial question is, “who is an American?” The Trump narrative particularly focuses on the “out” group. This approach emphasizes a long list of who does not qualify as a true American, such as recent immigrants, so-called RINOs (Republicans in name only) and anyone who questions this group’s narrative about US history. Trump, his allies and his followers often express disdain for “socialists” and “communists,” as well as liberals and Democrats more broadly; they often suggest that liberals are not real Americans. Trump’s approach is populist, condemning “elites” and “the establishment” as un-American. This narrative is uncomfortable with minorities and concerned about the country’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity.
The “in” group tends to include people who support Trump, see themselves as patriotic and profess to value strength and toughness. It is predominantly white. In a reflection of shame/honor culture, the group’s adherents often feel deeply wronged by any insult or disrespect toward their group. They share a sense that they are persecuted by their opponents. “Unity” means unity of the group against all those who oppose them.
Another vision of America is a traditionally conservative narrative, which tends to hark back to an idealized 1950s version of the country. This vision overlaps with Trump’s narrative, as “MAGA” appeals to both. However, the traditional conservative approach is less anti-institutional than Trump’s populist approach and much more interested in traditional morals. Upholding “family values,” sexual morality and Christian identity is very important to this group. Adherents also are deeply attached to traditional ideas of US history — this perspective often holds that all Americans already have equal opportunity, so there is no need to reevaluate US history and call for social justice.
A 2019 poll found that almost half of people who are “strong Republicans” see Christian identity and being born in the US as factors that are crucial parts of being American. Those respondents mostly fall into the Trump narrative, the traditional conservative narrative or both.
The moderate vision of America takes pride in the country’s many admirable characteristics but is willing to critique it. There is recognition of the amazing progress the US has made and an awareness of more work to do to improve equal rights and opportunities. Adherents to this vision strongly believe in the institutions and norms of democracy, including accepting when your political team loses an election. Compromise is a respectable way to accomplish pragmatic policy goals. Pluralism is important and political polarization is deeply concerning.
This moderate vision accepts that all US citizens are real Americans, regardless of their background and how long they have been in the country. This approach emphasizes that Americans should share key values, such as treating others with respect, working hard, rewarding people based on merit, equal opportunity, personal responsibility and playing by the rules of democracy. Any citizen who embraces those values is a true American, which makes the moderate group the most inclusive of all the visions. “Unity” means all Americans striving for the common good, even when they disagree.
Further along the political spectrum is the far-left vision of America. This group is most likely to embrace “democratic socialism” and is deeply skeptical of capitalism. This approach blames most of the country’s problems on a wealthy elite; it shares a populist, anti-institutional streak with the Trump vision. When considering US history, the far-left approach sees more bad than good and emphasizes the need for dramatic change. It focuses more on equality of outcome than equality of opportunity.
The far-left vision has the smallest group of supporters. It aligns closely with the “Progressive Left” identified by the Pew Research Center as consisting of 6 percent of the public. While adherents to this view tend to be white, they care deeply about racial and ethnic diversity. It is not especially tolerant, however, and can be quick to cast aside those who do not fully share its vision.
In terms of America’s global role, the Trump approach and traditional conservatives believe in American power and unilateral action, but the America First camp favors a transactional approach to foreign relations while the traditional conservative approach is more likely to seek US engagement with allies and partners. The moderate vision and far-left approach see a role for the US in promoting human rights and opposing authoritarianism, although acknowledging that the country has made mistakes in foreign policy. The moderates tend to believe in American leadership in the world while the far-left is more skeptical and prefers to focus on domestic needs.
The US has a long history of grappling with its identity and the current moment represents one of the peaks of conflict over competing visions and narratives. The 2022 elections will strongly reflect different views of what the US is and should be.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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