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A Way to Tamp Down the Toxic Politics of National Identity


Indianapolis, an example of a city with a strong local identity. (Shutterstock A central promise of the calls for unity that now saturate our public sphere is that a renewed focus on American identity — not partisan identity — will usher in a more humane politics. If only we could remember our shared national identity, it is said, we could reduce polarization and end what President Biden has called our “uncivil war.” Numerous well-funded initiatives with this goal in mind have sprung up, such as the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, whose aim is to “promote a shared sense of national identity.”

But here we are, despite widespread emphasis on national identity, more divided than ever.

The persistent “national identity” framing might be part of the problem. In reality, settling the content of American identity isn’t a prerequisite for tackling other issues — it is itself our most divisive issue. The defining political battle of our polarized age, as a trio of political scientists recently argued , is an “identity crisis” over what it means to be an American.

In a country transitioning from mono- to multi-ethnic democracy, this reckoning is unavoidable. And recognizing previously excluded contributions to the […]

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