America has always contained many different communities, both physically and philosophically. The founders conceived a nation where people could pursue differing (though perhaps complementary) visions of life, liberty and happiness — speaking to a desire for a liberal society in which many groups might coexist. But whether the country was designed to be a homogenous “melting pot” or a heterogenous “salad bowl,” the implication was that these many groups were allied in some way, with a shared vision or set of qualities that could still combine to create a distinct and unified whole.
Today, however, it seems that many Americans increasingly see each other as almost foreign, with little in common when it comes to background, values or ideals. This has led to less loyalty to any particular shared American identity or its attendant institutions, up to and including the presidency. This election’s #NotMyPresident protest is just the latest example.
Some of this separation is due to economic divergence: While a majority of Americans would still prefer to describe themselves as part of the middle class, the lives of those at the top tier of income look very different from the lives of those in poverty or even at the median. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for the two groups to interact.
This split is also seen along lines less easily measured in economic terms but just as easily perceived. The difference between coastal, liberal “elites” — with pursuits, norms and values more often shaped by a distinctive educational background than anything else — and the traditionalist, often working-class-identified “middle America” is at this point taken for granted as a settled split.
And, of course, there still exist America’s most foundational divisions, along the lines of race and religion. Although the country continues to become more racially diverse and less religious — today, the majority of American children are members of minority groups, and the Christian share of the population is rapidly declining — the fissures between different ethnic groups and different sets of values seem to have in many cases become more visible and more deeply entrenched.
These divisions aren’t helped by the fact that people within these groups manage to speak and share information only with each other, consuming news sources and modes of communication increasingly tailored to them. Yet in our schools and state houses — and even on our currency — Americans are still asked to pledge allegiance to the same government and espouse a unifying set of values regardless of race, class or creed.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards brought the idea of “two Americas” into the public consciousness, and the image seems apt now more than ever. In fact, the number of “Americas,” may now be higher. Can it truly be said that a shared American identity still exists? If so, what does it look like and how does it function today? As different subgroups move further apart, what effect will these shifts have on the roles — and continued existence — of the institutions meant to uphold the shared vision of the United States?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from: