History is written by the winners. And history becomes closer to myth as those winners portray themselves without fault and the losers as villains. A prime example is the origin story of the United States. As the story goes, America is a beacon of hope for the world, the shining city on a hill. All because it was founded on ideals popularized by the Enlightenment — liberty, toleration, constitutionalism and democracy.
While the founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — indeed state the American commitment to the protection and pursuit of these ideals, actions speak louder than words. What’s forgotten by many from the American myth is those founders such as Jefferson and Washington owned slaves and committed genocide. That myth has continued through today. America has been a public champion of national self-determination and democracy across the world since its founding. Yet it has held colonies and interfered in numerous countries’ affairs in Latin America and the Middle East for centuries. America has done both righteous and awful things under the guise of progress. It has been and still is far from perfect.
But history does not determine the future. Citizens and, more substantially, voters determine what America is and will be. Every citizen has the ability to vote and therefore to exercise their power and enact their vision on the republic. It can be made into citizens’ own vision as a sculptor creates a masterpiece through time and effort. Yet many people don’t get involved in government.
There are many reasons for this, from forgetting to vote to outright voter suppression. Of all the possible reasons people cannot or choose not to vote, polarization is the fastest growing. During election cycles and a political climate of desperation, people tend to demonize one another and the things those demons take pride in. Specifically, many right-wing self-proclaimed patriots are profiled as white nationalists for their defense of constitutional rights by their opponents. In turn, many left-wing critics of America and its government are profiled as communists for their calls for radical change propagated by a larger and more powerful government. There are innumerable downsides to this state of affairs, the most prominent being that the people who find themselves in between far-left and far-right are bullied into silence, which will only lead to less participation. And less participation in any democracy takes away the authority of the government as its decisions are made by a shrinking few.
While the effects of polarization listed above are reason enough to try and stop it, they are symptoms of a larger issue. In order to kill a weed for good, it must be pulled out from the roots. This name-calling is the stem that takes root in deep fear and hatred of what is other.
To both sides of the debate, the worst insult is to be called un-American. They diverge in their definition of the stereotypical American or what an American should be. To state them definitively would generalize the opinions of millions of people.
Though, it can be said without disagreement that America is unlike any other country and Americans are unlike any other people. “American” is not defined as adhering to a particular ideology nor being a member of a particular creed or color nor being born on American soil. This is why the U.S. is the only place in the world where people define themselves as Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc. In other countries, such as Russia, you get Italians who live in Russia and Irishmen who live in Russia. There is no other place in the world where identity is melted down and mixed together with such ease and on such a scale. All an American is is a citizen who believes this is a place where liberty, equality and justice are protected — and if they find those qualities lacking, they can change America to make it so.
The American myth does not show the whole picture — this country is far from perfect. Only through participation can this democracy strive for perfection. Alarmingly, though, people are abstaining from politics due to polarization. This is symptomatic of a deeper issue: different definitions of American. To address that, U.S. citizens have to come together in agreement and appreciation of the fact there is no singular strict definition of what an American is. There is a basis an American prescribes to the belief people should have liberty, justice and be equal — and laws can be upheld, altered or replaced to achieve such ends. But past that basis, American identity varies wildly.
People can love America whilst feeling indifference, hatred or appreciation for the government in its current form — because their government can be changed through the democratic processes protected by the Constitution and the courts. America is what we make of it — it is up to individuals whether their time in this country will be a dream or a nightmare.
Harry Quick ([email protected]) is a freshman studying economics.