A Divide Over American Identity

In How We Behave, The Upshot, Voting On

Are you an American?

Chances are your answer to this question depends on whether you have (or could get) a United States passport. That is one way many people think about what it means to be American. Another way is to think less literally and more culturally. Being an American, in this sense, can conjure images of apple pie, baseball and summer picnics. It may evoke ideas about working hard and being rewarded, or treating people equally and extending everyone opportunities. We teach these notions to schoolchildren and hold them up as essentially American.

But the 2016 election made clear that there isn’t universal agreement on what it means to be an American, with restrictive views centered on ethnicity and religion playing a major role in the Trump campaign. And yet trends in public opinion suggest that the nation as a whole is moving away from an exclusionary notion of American identity.

The Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation that funds political research, recently put a series of questions about this topic to 8,000 people who voted in the 2012 presidential election as part of its Voter Study Group collaboration. The survey was fielded in November 2016, but it included re-interviews of people who were originally surveyed in 2011, 2012 and the summer of 2016. As John Sides, a member of the consortium reported, the results reveal more consensus than you might expect about American identity, but also some stark differences across parties and even within them.

. . .

These data clearly show that the nation as a whole is moving away from exclusionary conceptions of American identity even as Mr. Trump’s strongest supporters hold on to views that look more the way the nation did in 2004 than in 2017. They found a champion among the crowded field of candidates in 2016, but it’s important to keep in mind that only one of the many contenders for the Republican nomination embraced these views — even after it became clear they were popular with a key bloc of voters. The battle for the meaning of America is lopsided, and despite the recent success of exclusionary views, they are waning.

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