On its face, trying to define “an American” may seem like a silly exercise. In our present circumstances, however, nothing could be more important for the future of our country.
In December 1941 and in August 1945 the answer was pretty simple and easy: We were all Americans. (An extraordinary exception was mistakenly allowed by FDR in the jailing of American-born Japanese in California in anticipation of an imminent invasion.) That existential threat and the great military victory brought the nation together and, combined with the post-war economic boom, served as a great leveler, bringing prosperity and stability to millions of families.
Today, that sense of commonality is beset on all sides by an emerging nationalism that is steadily eroding our post-war progress, at home and around the globe. Fueled by changing demographics, economic uncertainty and anger toward all kinds of elites, this “new wave” of diffuse, if ill-defined nationalism is sparking anew questions about who is entitled to claim the mantle of “American.”
It is a far more complicated question than it was in either 1945 or 1865. The Civil War, perhaps the most vicious war in our history, was fought philosophically on relatively simple, if fraught, grounds, and geographically pitted only two sides against each other. Today’s challenges are more daunting on both counts, with multiple points of division geographically dispersed across all fifty states.
The breakdown appears mainly –but not exclusively–to be between people who:
- Were educated through college or not
- Work in industrial jobs or not
- Were born a minority or not
- Had some experience in government or not
- Have incomes less than the national average or not
- Who are at or beyond retirement age or not
- Whose IQs are above or below 100
Those seven variables suggest a broad theme: a lot of different “have nots” who are angry and fearful about their futures. That would include quite a lot of middle class whites – male and female — who for the first time feel they are losing control and are blaming it on a black President. The result is that those people are resorting to ancient tribal instincts of exclusion, claiming to be “real Americans” because they represent the essential base on which America was built and now rests.
It is a little like a military in which the noncommissioned officers and men might feel that they can do their jobs without any of the commissioned officers to help.
That strikes me as somewhat similar to the racial divide that once defined and still haunts the South, in which simply being white was the last thing poor people had as an advantage over similar blacks.
But flukes of nature like that are not the basis for a solid democracy, and where one is born and to whom, are beyond everyone’s control. We all, moreover, are relentlessly and constantly subject to powerful statistical forces that inevitably mold us into a massive Bell curve distribution of 350,000,000 people.
It should go without saying that if any large part of either half of that Bell curve were simply removed, the rest would all be in grave danger. We need to recognize that we ALL—in a general sense—need each other ALL the time.
The same general distribution of the American population along that Bell curve has existed since the Second World War; what has changed is that the gap between haves and have-nots has grown sharply with the haves keeping for themselves an ever-larger piece of the economic and political pie. The historic promise of the middle class in the post-war boom wasn’t so much prosperity, but rather economic security. Today, that security is threatened by stagnant wages, skyrocketing costs for housing, education and health care, and a volatile economy undergoing painful shifts.
Trump, of course, mercilessly exploited those anxieties and fears to (almost?) get himself elected President. One might have expected, or at least hoped, that he would then use that platform to address all these very real challenges; instead, Trump has exacerbated them seemingly for no better purpose other than to try to stay in office.
If the nation continues down Trump’s road of divisiveness, we may just fall into the trap of thinking we can get ‘it’ all for ourselves – forgetting that we all need each other.
That is a sure recipe for serious conflict. Indeed, it’s designed and likely to spark conflict. We urgently need new national leadership that does not seek its power based on division but exerts it power and influence toward TOGETHERNESS!