The myth of America and Americanism – is it dead? Was it ever real?

Is the American idea over?

Is it dead?

The ultimate journal of America, The Atlantic turned 160 years old this year and the November issue of the venerable publication pondered this question. Both the left and right have different ideals of what America stands for and without a genuine national purpose or ties that unite, America is dying. Political polarization, greater in the Trump era than any time in US history since perhaps the Civil War and Reconstruction era has forced this question of what unites self-proclaimed Americans into full view. 

Here is a passage from The Atlantic piece:

All of this has left many Americans feeling disoriented, their faith that their nation has something distinctive to offer the world shaken. On the left, many have gravitated toward a strange sort of universalism, focusing on America’s flaws while admiring other nations’ virtues. They decry nationalism and covet open borders, imagining a world in which ideas can prevail without nations to champion them.

Even as the left is made queasy by the notion that an idea can be both good and distinctively American, many on the right now doubt that America is a land defined by a distinctive idea at all. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is curiously devoid of references to a common civic creed. He promotes instead a more generic nationalism—one defined, like any nation’s, by culture and borders and narrow interests and enemies.

This entire discussion for me is long overdue. Some of my brethren on the left look the democracies of western Europe for inspiration even though in many cases they are more classist and race-conscious societies than the United States has been in generations. Nations that enslaved whole races of people like France are seen as “enlightened” by some on the left when compared or contrasted with the United States.  They often overstate the virtues of any non-American people, including those who don’t share liberal values at all and are guided by religion, albeit religions other than Christianity.

On the right for many, Americanism is far more a statement of culture and thought, reflecting a knee-jerk nationalism and white identity more than anything truly ethnic or geographic. Various journals, books and articles have been written by conservative thinkers to create an American identity and myth which is almost wholly manufactured or theoretical. 

From where I sit, it’s time to either stress what unites us as a people or simply retire the term American, because it really isn’t a substantive meaningful one – it’s just been a term like the bastardized “patriot” used to inflame political divisions and one with no ethnic meaning with the notable exceptions of Native Americans, whatsoever. 

The reality is that Americans are an invented people by and large. Outside of perhaps Native Americans (American Indians) in reality there is no such thing as an American. No American ethnicity exists, as the United States of America is a nation-state that was drawn on political lines. The failure of Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery’s 1775 Quebec expedition as well as the 1812 Invasion of Canada, meant the USA didn’t even unite English-speaking white people largely living in North America who could trace their lineage to the British Isles within its national boundaries. Short of some future annexation of Canada, the United States will never be a complete nation-state of white people in North America from the British Isles or Northern Europe. So let’s accept that. The American Revolution also had some *possible* anti-Catholic undertones which perhaps weren’t played prominently but probably served as a reason Quebec and Florida choose at that time to stick with the British rule. 

The concept of an American or Americans as a distinct race of people came from the prose of Thomas Jefferson, a noted Francophile in the Declaration of Independence. Defining Americans as a “separate people” from Britain served to try and transform what was in all facets a civil war contested by British brothers into a conflict between different peoples. The myth somehow that arbitrary boundaries between the thirteen colonies and other British colonies in North America constituted a separate people was done expressly for political reasons. The settlers and those in power of those colonies were British in all but name, as they remained for sometime even after independence. As someone of Indian extraction, historically I find Jefferson’s notion that Americans were different than the British in 1776 almost as absurd as the claims by Muslim League that Indian Muslims were somehow a distinct people from Indian Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Christians in 1947, leading to the formation of Pakistan. Both were created narratives for political purposes, justifying the dividing and separation of a people. 

Being an “American” is more a state of mind than anything or statement of personal identity than anything else – Few if any reading these pages (unless you are Native American) can claim to be an “American,” though the spirit of Americanism is something that has been very real as myth making and the concepts around being an American. 

In the era of nation-states which began roughly with the formation of the United States, a revolution whose political impact is underplayed to this day by European-based historian, the movements and thoughts that originated from this continent changed global thought. But they weren’t distinctly “American” thoughts at all – they represented the best of English and other western liberal and enlightenment thought but finally put into practice in a new nation-state. 

The myth of American Exceptionalism has been created to keep the fiction going about a unique people with a special place in global society. But the reality is America is an idea, a myth, a thought, nothing tangible or real. It is a political entity which has a melting pot of different people’s, whose ideas and innovations have transformed human society for the better. It is a nation whose own history is lamentable and tragic, but for a few short years in the 1940’s saved the human race from likely destruction. From World War II comes whatever identity the American people have, but as that the greatest generation passes from this earth, the nation has no meaning, no sense of joint purpose. 

Americanism is a rough thought – it’s an idea more than anything distinct or tangible. The nation-state that occupies a large swath of land on the North American continent has been an indisputable force in moving forward human progress and making an impact both positively and negatively on global history. But does being an American mean anything beyond residing on a portion of the North American continent? Given the current state of political and ethnic polarization within the United States, it’s hard to make a case for unity in purpose, spirit or thought.

What is the American idea, and what is Americanism if anything? It’s a question we should continue to ponder going forward…

2 comments

  1. Thought provoking piece. Here’s a question: is shared identity a noun or a verb?

    Seems to me that Americans had quite a shared identity in the 50s-70s as we were working toward (and acheiving some) shared goals. Since the 80s when I was in college, shared endeavor took a backseat to private gain.

    I doubt that shared identity is possible in a social frame that exalts wealth extraction because the underlying theme in such a society will always be “what’s in it for me.” We are naturally set upon each other in an environment of scarcity.

  2. I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Alien Nation with the amazing actor and person Mandy Patinkin, who played an Alien/Newcomer. “You humans are very curious to us. You invite us to live among you in an atmosphere of equality that we’ve never known before. You give us ownership of our own lives for the first time and you ask no more of us than you do of yourselves. I hope you understand how special your world is, how unique a people you humans are. Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to us that so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves.”

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