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News Report on Public Confidence
in the State of the Nation
2013
Foundation Project III:
The American Identity

Part 1: Is There an American Identity?

Part 2: Character and Kids: Coping with Exposure to Conflicting Cultural Influences

Part 3: Education and the American Identity

Part 4: "A House Divided"? Polarization, Politicians, and the American Identity

Foundation Project III:
The American Identity

       As America grows ever more diverse, the question of what it means to be an American yields an increasingly complicated answer. How do Americans really see themselves today, and how does the world see Americans? Do we have a culture that is based on well accepted American values, or is our culture now a battleground among competing and opposing ideologies and subcultures? To what degree is “mass media” America the real America? America’s ability to accommodate diversity is one of the nation’s great strengths. How is it working? Is the changing ethnic composition of America altering the way we think about American democracy? Or are our political institutions and civic values resilient enough to remain relatively stable, even as we absorb new citizens from many different cultures? How well or badly is America doing at achieving racial equality? What progress has been made, and what challenges remain?

       This project will explore the evolving nature of the American identity as we embark on the twenty-first century. It will explore issues of immigration, diversity, and racial equality, assessing the nation’s successes and failures in these arenas. It will allow the audience to hear voices from America’s diverse populations, and their distinct perspectives on the American identity and the American Dream. It will ask how the world has come to see Americans, whether our image abroad has changed for the better or worse and why. It will examine the impact of positive and negative influences in our entertainment culture. It will look at the role of education in shaping an American character and American identity. And it will ask if the increasingly intense political, ideological, and religious conflicts that dominate America’s public square reflect a fragmentation of the American identity and, if so, what means can be found to restore it.

Part 1:
Is There an American Identity?

       As our democracy has progressed, what makes it distinctly American? To some degree, America still lives off the capital of its post-World War II image: that of the largely innocent, generous, well-meaning, strong, and pragmatic G.I., the liberator of oppressed peoples. In recent years, Hollywood, with movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” has attempted to resurrect this image, which it was so instrumental in creating in the decade immediately following World War II. Yet the face of America has clearly changed since that former era. What is the American identity today--in our own minds and that of the world? Diversity is a key part of the answer. America has always been a nation of immigrants; it remains so today. Are immigrants radically changing the nature of the American identity, or is the gravitational pull of basic American values--the love of freedom, the desire for economic advancement, the promise of the American Dream--sufficiently strong to create a new “melting pot” of citizens sharing common aspirations and values, even as they celebrate and honor their special racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious heritages. How big a role does discrimination--racial, ethnic, cultural--continue to play in American life? Are things improving, or getting worse? Part 1 will hold up a kind of mirror to our increasingly diverse society, helping Americans to understand the American experience from the perspective of citizens of vastly different backgrounds. It will draw heavily on some of the nation’s most insightful commentators to explore American culture, its strengths, its weaknesses, its promise. It will attempt to assess the health of our civic values. It will ask whether the question of the American identity has a hopeful answer today.

Part 2: Character and Kids:
Coping With Exposure to conflicting Cultural Impulses

       The question of American identity is partly a question of character. To survive, a democratic society must be able to pass on to its younger generation the commitment of all citizens to civic responsibility and instill in children character traits such as honesty and personal responsibility that are necessary to support a democratic political culture. This task has unquestionably become more difficult in recent years. Responsible American parents worry constantly about the exposure of their children to multiple dangers. It is not simply popular culture, with its excessive sex and violence, that bothers parents. It is an anything-goes society, where children have so many more dangerous “options” at their fingertips than even their Baby Boom parents had. The culture has changed; society has become more affluent. Children generally have more freedom and money at their disposal than their parents had. The new information culture exposes them to much more information than kids of an earlier generation had about every conceivable subject. Mothers at all income levels generally spend much less time rearing and supervising their children than the parents of the Boomers did. How are Americans coping with this new environment? A series of “culture war” conflicts crisscross this terrain. There are continuing disputes over the role of schools in sex education and the question of whether there should be tight controls or freedom in children’s access to the Internet. Part 2 will ask whether parents or institutions have arrived at any satisfactory answers to these dilemmas. For example, is religious involvement a means of protecting children, or does the answer lie in a certain kind of family dynamic, or both? Or is there no fool-proof way to shield children from danger in a society where they are prey to multiple temptations and multiple threats? Over the past forty years, courts have greatly expanded the rights of expression. In this area, have we emphasized rights at the expense of a responsibility to protect children from exposure to toxic cultural influences that may endanger their moral development? How do we balance the rights of adults with the responsibility to protect children in our democracy? With more questions than answers, this subject is likely to speak powerfully to parents worried about the fate of their kids in a democracy that, currently, offers little in the way of protection to children from such exposure.

Part 3:
Education and the American Identity

       Public education is one of the core institutions for shaping our national identity and national character. A democracy cannot survive without an educated citizenry. The notion that basic education should be available free to all is an idea that dates back to the nineteenth century. Yet today many of our public schools are clearly failing to do the job. What can be done? Rather than dwell on the many problems in American education, Part 3 will look at successful public schools—in inner-city neighborhoods, in non inner-city neighborhoods, and in the suburbs—and ask why they succeed and other schools do not. It will assess at the ground level the extent to which federal programs such as “No Child Left Behind” translate into a positive educational environment. It will ask how important is funding in determining educational quality? Is class size a key factor? Equipment? What about style of leadership, or the role played by the school district and the district bureaucracy? And the project will explore what some schools do right that less successful schools could emulate. It will examine various aspects of the curriculum--math and science, reading and the humanities, and civic-values--to discover what American students are learning today and, especially, how well they are being prepared to inherit American democracy.

Part 4: "A House Divided?"
Polarization, Politicians, and the American Identity

       The American identity has always been partly a dream about shared values and national unity. Our Founding Fathers hoped for this. Partly for this reason, many of them actually opposed the formation of political parties; they thought political parties would be unhealthy to a democracy. But it did not take long for political parties to emerge in the new American republic. Within a very few years, George Washington’s first cabinet split into two factions, leading to the formation of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. In our own time, divisions between our two major parties, Republican and Democrat, have noticeably hardened. Lately America has been described by pollsters and pundits as a “50-50 Nation,” irreparably divided between “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democratic) states. What is the cause of this widely discussed “polarization”? Are we in fact more divided as a people than at other times in our history? Are Americans separating into two distinct political and moral cultures? Or is polarization mostly an “Inside the Beltway” and media phenomenon? How is polarization affecting our democratic political institutions--the legislature as well as the judiciary? Part 4 will help to explain why many Americans feel the country to be unhealthily polarized. It will explain the reasons for the current divisions in political ideology and ask whether there are ways to encourage politicians of both parties to solve problems more pragmatically, in a centrist spirit. It will explore whether America is now a “House Divided”--or whether, despite our sharpest political and ideological divisions, we continue to share common aspirations and a common national identity.

Foundation Project III:
The American Identity

Part 1: Is There an American Identity?

Part 2: Character and Kids: Coping with Exposure to Conflicting Cultural Influences

Part 3: Education and the American Identity

Part 4: "A House Divided"? Polarization, Politicians, and the American Identity

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