This past year has challenged us to think about what it means to “be American.” Our country’s divisions have been on full display, from racial justice protests to divisive electoral politics to a Confederate flag in the Capitol on January 6.
We are, indeed, a nation divided by identities. With some 330 million people, the United States does not have just one shared race, religion, or historical background. According to the Census Bureau, approximately 60 percent of Americans identify as non-Hispanic white, while the remaining 40 percent are a mixture of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and more.
The Pew Research Center estimates that some 65 percent of Americans identify as Christians, with more than a quarter registering as religiously unaffiliated, and the remainder believing in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or other faiths. More than a quarter of Americans are either first or second-generation immigrants. And those Americans who are not recent immigrants trace their ancestry to different groups — the first native inhabitants, settlers who chose our country for freedom, or those brought by brutal force and injustice. To compound this complexity, this diverse racial, religious, and heritage landscape is predicted to change significantly over the next decades.
While we are a nation divided by identity, we are also bound together by an essential component — our democracy. Our shared civic identity — in essence, our “American democratic identity” — unites us under longstanding democratic values, institutions, and processes.
Our Constitution is a timeless and clear governing framework. Our Bill of Rights articulates the rights of our citizens, beginning with the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly. Our electoral system establishes regular, free, and fair elections that ensure the peaceful transfer of power based on the will of the people. Our free media and open civil society give voice to advocates and experts. Importantly, democracy — unlike any other system in the world — also has built-in correcting mechanisms to challenge, change, and check undemocratic behavior.
In this diverse nation, the ideals of democracy are both a key national unifier and our best hope for a peaceful future within our diversity. The alternative is unrest or even violence.
American democracy has naturally never been perfect. U.S. history is marred by injustice, violence, and conflict when our democracy has failed to live into our democratic ideals fully. This past year has shown there is still significant work to be done.
While American history is replete with examples of falling short of democratic ideals, it is also marked by democratic progress that has allowed courageous patriots to overcome our nation’s greatest shortcomings. Those patriots who chose to honor their American democratic identity by challenging our nation to live more fully and completely into the ideals of democracy.
As Americans, we bear a responsibility to use democratic mechanisms to strengthen our system when the institutions, processes, or values of our democracy fall short of their promises. This is no less true today, as we face divisions, polarization, and threats to our democracy.
Despite a growing narrative to the contrary, our “American democratic identity” does not undermine or negate our other identities. In fact, it is democracy that ideally allows us to live fully in our other identities. For people of faith or no faith, it is democracy that protects our freedom of religion. For people of all races, it is democracy that requires laws to apply equally to all people and gives mechanisms to appeal when they fall short. For women, it is democracy that has allowed for laws to overcome our history of disenfranchisement.
Because democracy protects individual and group rights, we must invest in it, just as we invest time and energy into each of our identity groups. We must do this through free and open voting, staying informed, holding elected leaders accountable, and — importantly — supporting the strong unbiased functioning of our democracy.
This unbiased functioning of our democracy is essential. Our democracy can only protect space for groups to exist and flourish if it is not conflated with any single identity. Democracy ceases to function properly when democratic protections are extended only to one group, or institutions function for the benefit of one group over the other, or processes are manipulated for the benefit of some. This is not to say that groups should avoid advocating for their beliefs or interests, but rather that the system itself must be an even and unbiased playing field for all Americans.
What we saw during the January 6 incursion into the Capitol was a hijacking of our shared democratic identity and system by those who put their partisan — and in some cases, white supremacist — agenda ahead of our democracy.
We now have an opportunity to unite around our “American democratic identity” to strengthen and protect our democracy and allow each American to live and flourish in their respective communities.