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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Is this who we really are?

A flag is placed along the South Pool

A flag is placed along the South Pool prior to a ceremony at the World Trade Center site in New York on Sept. 11, 2015. Credit: AP

Who am I?

That’s the existential question we all ask ourselves. Some of us consider it daily, earnestly, explicitly. Some of us push it to the far reaches of our brains until some trauma or major life event forces us to answer.

It’s not easy.

It gets a lot tougher when an entire nation asks the question.

Who are we?

What is America?

Not surprisingly, there is more than one answer. That was clear in a survey released last week by The Associated Press that asked Americans about the country’s identity. The responses were by turns reassuring and disturbing.

The good news is that even in these most fractious of times, there is much agreement about our collective identity. Democrats, Republicans and independents cited the same things as the most important factors — our constitutionally protected freedoms, the rule of law, a fair judiciary, the ability to get a good job, and the ability to achieve the American dream.

The bad news is that our fractures also were on full display in at least one very disturbing way.

  • Democrats are much more likely to say that a mix of global cultures and the country’s role as a refuge for victims of violence and persecution are crucial components of America’s identity.
  • Republicans are much more likely to say that Christianity and the culture of early European immigrants are critical parts of our national identity.

Think about that for a minute.

Think about who that includes, and who it excludes. Think about our country’s tortured history and the gains it has made, and still the feeling persists in some quarters that some religions and some races matter more than others. And given that, think about what might be underlying the philosophy expressed by White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon when he told attendees at a conservative conference, “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.”

Consider both of those survey results together. Add a couple of other findings — that Democrats are more likely to see the country’s identity evolving as new people arrive, and Republicans are more likely to think newcomers should adopt the nation’s identity. And think about the fears felt by both sides who feel that their concept of national identity is threatened by the other.

No wonder we’re divided.

The differing conceptions of America’s identity undergird many of our policy fights, and not only on immigration, which was a substantial focus of the survey. They shape our opinions on who we are willing to help or hurt with which proposal and, to some degree, how we treat people in our own lives.

One other survey result contained both good and bad news. An overwhelming majority of 7 in 10 Americans agrees — and this is true regardless of political party — that the United States is losing its national identity.

The respondents identified a variety of culprits — illegal immigration, economic inequality and foreign government influence, among others — but the threat to our national identity cited most often, by 87 percent of Americans, was political polarization.

There’s hope in that. Because what we’re saying is that we recognize that it’s our own differences — our own refusal to work with each other and talk to each other, and the refusal of our leaders to work and talk with each other — that are breaking us down.

And so, we need to look at ourselves. We say polarization is a threat to our identity, but will we do anything about it?

Who am I?

Who are we?

We can’t answer the one without solving the other.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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