When people are asked to name the biggest problem our country faces today, economic issues typically come to the fore. According to Gallup, unemployment, the economy in general, the cost of health care and the size of the national debt rank as four of our top five problem. The fifth is the dysfunction of Congress and of government in general.
It’s obviously true that the economy has not yet fully recovered from the Great Recession and that no one should be satisfied with the recent conduct of any of our national, political leaders.
These, visible problems, however, may be only symptoms of some deeper, more fundamental malady. Looking at the divisiveness of our politics, and our collective inability — or, more accurately, our collective refusal — to constructively address the problems people name as the issues that bother them, it seems that our deeper problem is that we are losing a shared sense of community and identity and are depleting the resources of social trust that strong bonds of community tend to generate.
In short, I fear that we’re losing the sense that, at bottom, we’re all Americans, bound together in a common political destiny.
As a legal and constitutional matter, to be born in the United States is to become a citizen of the United States. But it is one thing to possess the legal right to an American passport, and quite a different thing to become an American.
Back in the early 19th century, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited our young country to learn about democracy, the Americans he encountered had a lot in common — in addition to the fact that they were all citizens of the world’s only large, democratic state.
Apart from the descendants of Africans held here as slaves, almost everyone traced their ancestry to Great Britain and the other states of western Europe. Nearly all white Americans were Christians, who disagreed about theology but who embraced substantially the same, old-fashioned moral lessons. Virtually everyone could read and regularly did read the Bible, though almost no one had a higher education. Just about everyone Tocqueville met worked for a living, or had made their fortune through their labors in business. And modern poverty was not yet known.
And, in addition to all the cultural, economic and social commonalities that bound those early Americans together, they retained a strong sense of their political distinctiveness. When democracy was new — a “fighting faith” that had to prove its superiority to rule by kings and aristocrats — being a citizen was a point of pride. The aristocratic Tocqueville reported his astonishment at how frequently citizens discussed public affairs and how eagerly they took the initiative to find solutions to public problems.
Today, by contrast, America is far more diverse in every way than it was almost two centuries ago. Americans trace their descent now to every corner of the globe; we are more religiously diverse and more avowedly secular than before. We are still a very literate society, but we do not all read the same things, and we now see extremes of wealth and poverty that would have shocked Tocqueville had he seen them on this side of the Atlantic.
Because this diversity is a consequence of the freedom for which our ancestors fought the Revolutionary War, we should embrace it. Conservatives, therefore, are wrong to lament the increasing racial, cultural and religious diversity of our country. But progressives err when they forget that diversity poses challenges, even as it enriches us.
Among people who already share deep commonalities of culture and belief, who live substantially similar ways of life and who orient themselves by common ideals, the task of forming a common political identity is relatively easy. Even so, our 19th century forebears worked hard at it. Schools and universities worked to reinforce a common, democratic culture, and our political life, for all its faults, still managed to inspire reverence for our Constitution and our democracy.
Among people who, like contemporary Americans, share relatively few common values and beliefs, it is more difficult to forge a common political identity. Even as the task becomes more difficult, our institutions have become less interested and less effective at trying to cultivate such a sense of shared citizenship.
The task will not be easy, but when we reinvigorate our civic spirit, we will find it that much easier to solve the problems we now find so intractable.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.