The question of who we are as Americans is an important question and one that arouses heated discussion in the United States. There is terrible dissension and evidence of polarization in our country today, from the national political debate to the arguments at our family Thanksgiving dinner.
But here is a ray of hope: there is new empirical evidence about our shared American identity!
An organization called More in Common has a project to study polarization and learn what can be done to bring people together. In a report entitled “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” they conclude that the majority of Americans are really tired of the divisiveness and actually share a common set of beliefs.
A majority of Americans, whom we’ve called the “Exhausted Majority,” are fed up by America’s polarization. They know we have more in common than that which divides us: our belief in freedom, equality, and the pursuit of the American dream.
After analyzing over 200,000 pieces of information and surveying 8,000 Americans, they conclude that this is the heart of the American identity:
To be American, for most, does not require someone to be white or to be Christian. Rather it is to believe in freedom and equality and to pursue the American Dream.
We couldn’t agree more! Our task is to focus on these values, see where they came from, and analyze how they have endured since the founding of our nation:
- We have to take a look back at our history.
- We have to examine our deep-seated cultural values of freedom, equality of opportunity, and the American Dream—along with how we achieved these benefits through self-reliance, competition, and hard work.
- We have to understand how the founders conceived a government that was of the people, by the people, and for the people—envisioning a land where all were equal; the freedom of the individual was protected, and the role of government was limited.
- We have to acknowledge that these are ideals that we strive for—aspirational goals imperfectly realized. From the beginning of our history, there have been glaring failures to live up to these ideals.
Throughout this process, we will be drawing on the wisdom of a famous observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Tocqueville came to the United States as a young Frenchman in 1831 to study the American form of democracy and what it might mean to the rest of the world. After a visit of only nine months, he wrote a remarkable book called Democracy in America, which is a classic study of the American way of life.
Tocqueville had unusual powers of observation. He described not only the democratic system of government and how it operated, but also its effect on how Americans think, feel, and act. Many scholars believe that he had a deeper understanding of traditional American beliefs and values than anyone else who has written about the United States.
What is so remarkable is that many of these traits of the American character, which he observed nearly 200 years ago, are still visible and meaningful today.
Another reason why Tocqueville’s observations of the American character are important is the time when he visited the United States. He came in the 1830s, before America was industrialized—the era of the farmer and small businessman, and the settling of the western frontier. It was the period of history when the traditional values of the new country were being established. In just a generation, some forty years since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the new form of government had already produced a society of people with unique values.
What are these values? Who are we? Let’s find out.
American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know
By Maryanne K. Datesman
October 22, 2018 DRAFT
Chapter 3: We are our beliefs: An overview of our traditional American cultural values
Imagine sitting in the middle of the Moscow symphony and knowing that some of your fellow musicians are actually members of the KGB, watching you to make sure you don’t “run away.” This was the story I heard back in the early 1970s from a friend who did manage to escape and defect to the United States.
The orchestra was on a world tour, and that night they were playing a concert in New York City. The KGB had them on a short leash—making sure they stayed in their hotel rooms and went to and from the concert hall as a group, never venturing out alone. He tells an exciting story about retrieving his instrument before it was packed up, and then rushing to the subway to make his escape. He sat down in the train with a sigh of relief, but it did not leave for about five minutes. He was sure that at any moment the KGB would appear, but he made it and was soon united with his New York friends.
This musician also had friends in Japan and various European cities who had offered to help him defect, and he gave it much thought over several years. He could easily have chosen from one of those countries.
“Why did you decide to come to the United States?” I asked.
“Because I would always be a foreigner in the other countries,” he replied. “But here, I would fit in. I wouldn’t be different—I would just be an American.”
What is it about America that has allowed us to take in immigrants from all over the world and make them into “Americans”?
The pollster John Zogby says that what holds the United States together is that “we all share a common set of values that make us American…. We are defined by the rights we have…. Our rights are our history, why the first European settlers came here and why millions more have come here since.”
What is this set of values? What are these rights?
There are three pairs of values: Three reasons why immigrants have come (and still do) to the United States, and three prices paid for these benefits.
Equality of Opportunity
The American Dream
Responsibilities/Prices to Pay
The first reason for coming is for Individual Freedom, and the price for that is Self-Reliance. We cannot be truly free if we cannot take care of ourselves and be independent.
The second is for Equality of Opportunity, and the price for that is Competition. If everyone has an equal chance for success, then we have to compete.
The third is for The American Dream, the opportunity for a better life and a higher standard of living. The price for the American Dream has traditionally been Hard Work.
The relationship among these values—the rights and the responsibilities—creates the fabric of the American society. It is this fabric that defines the American Dream—the belief that if people take responsibility for their lives and work hard, they will have the individual freedom to pursue their personal goals and a good opportunity to compete for success.
Individual Freedom and Self-Reliance
Equality of Opportunity and Competition
The American Dream and Hard Work
It is our belief that this simple paradigm explains the core American values. Deep down inside, we all believe in these values to one degree or another.
Now for a bit of history. Where did these values come from?
Individual Freedom and Self-Reliance
The earliest settlers came to the North American continent to escape controls that existed in European societies. They sought freedom from:
- kings and governments,
- priests and churches,
- noblemen and a hereditary aristocracy.
By limiting the power of the government and the churches and eliminating a formal aristocracy, the early settlers created a climate of freedom where the emphasis was on the individual.
The concept of individual freedom is probably the most basic American value and the one that is most revered.
However, the price for individual freedom is self-reliance. You should learn to be self-reliant, or you risk losing freedom. If you have to depend on someone, they have a measure of control over you.
Traditionally, Americans have believed that they should take care of themselves, solve their own problems, and stand on their own two feet. Relying too much on the support of government or even family could cause them to lose some of their freedom to do what they want.
By the 1830s when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and wrote Democracy in America, these cultural values were already observable. He wrote about Americans’ belief in self-reliance:
They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Equality of Opportunity and Competition
The second important reason why immigrants have traditionally been drawn to the United States is the belief that everyone has an equal chance to succeed because individuals are free from excessive political, religious, and social controls.
Because titles of nobility were expressly forbidden in the Constitution, no formal class system developed in the United States, and immigrants had a better chance for personal success without a hereditary aristocracy. In the 1830s, de Tocqueville observed:
The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that…equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived.
However, Americans do not generally believe that everyone is—or should be—equal. Rather, they believe that everyone should have an equal opportunity to compete in the race for success. Competition is the price to be paid. Abraham Lincoln expressed this belief in the 1860s when he said:
We…wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor for his whole life.
Competition is such an important value in American society that those who are unable to compete successfully—for whatever reason—are often marginalized. The pressures of competition often begin in childhood and continue into retirement, nurtured by competitive sports and greatly reinforced by our belief in the free enterprise system.
The American Dream and Hard Work
The third and possibly the most compelling reason why immigrants have come to the United States is to have a better life—to seek the great American Dream. Because of the great abundance of natural resources in the New World, the dream of a better standard of living was possible for many, or for their children.
The phrase “going from rags to riches” became a slogan for the American Dream. Without a hereditary aristocracy, material wealth became a means for measuring status in the United States, although most Americans would certainly not want to be thought of as “materialistic.”
Of course, the price for having material wealth and achieving the Americans Dream is hard work. Traditionally, new immigrants had to work extremely hard to have a chance at the good life. Some scholars believe that the Protestant religious heritage reinforced the notion that material wealth was a just reward for hard work. In 1900, for example, Bishop William Lawrence proclaimed:
Godliness is in league with riches….Material prosperity is helping to make the national character sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christlike.
American religious leaders, however, never encouraged the idea of gaining material wealth without hard work and self-discipline, giving rise to the “Protestant Work Ethic” or the “Puritan Work Ethic.”
Today, many Americans work extremely hard, taking an average of only two weeks of vacation time a year. New immigrants in search of the American Dream often work two jobs to build a better life for their children and help family members in their home countries.
What is important to remember about these values?
First, these six values are cultural values and not moral values, or even personal ones.
Second, putting these six values together into a system creates something new. As Aristotle said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The relationship among these values—the rights and the responsibilities—creates the fabric of the American society.
They are the foundation of our democratic nation. Rooted in the beliefs and visions of our Founding Fathers and reinforced by historical experience, these cultural values are what distinguishes our country from all others. They are what make us “Americans.”
This is who we are.
The new book is tentatively titled, “American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know,” written from my perspective as a grandmother.
This is an awesome task, even though we will be drawing on the six cultural values presented on our website and developed in American Ways.
Here are working titles for the first twelve chapters:
- Chapter 1: Desperate times call for desperate measures!
- Chapter 2: Behavior, beliefs, and values: Chipping away at the cultural iceberg
- Chapter 3: We are our beliefs: An overview of our traditional American cultural values
- Chapter 4: Culture wars, and rumors of wars: What divides us now?
- Chapter 5: Our rights and freedoms: What’s so important about our Constitution?
- Chapter 6: Equality of Opportunity: A mighty aspiration and a challenging paradox
- Chapter 7: Self-Reliance: Use it or lose it
- Chapter 8: Competition: Sports and the entrepreneurial spirit
- Chapter 9: Hard Work: What do you do?
- Chapter 10: The American Dream: Dead or alive?
- Chapter 11: Patriotism is not a dirty word
- Chapter 12: Civil Discourse: Talking across the political divide
The final draft version will be out on or before March 1, 2019. It will be available as an eBook, and possibly in a print version in the future.
We’d like to invite you along on this journey—let’s begin a dialogue.
We want your opinions, your stories, and your wisdom. During pre-sale, which ends March 1, 2019, you can buy the book for $5.00. Pre-sale purchasers will not only get the book, but you’ll also get behind-the-scenes updates (via email) as we move this project forward, and then you will be the first to receive the final draft version, on or before March 1st, 2019.