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A Strong American Identity Doesn't Make One Civic-Minded

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The idea of what it means to be American has been a central theme in our increasingly polarized political landscape -- from immigration policy to the controversy over NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Of course, you can find people on both sides of any of these debates playing the “it’s un-American” card. So, what factors do Americans actually believe are important to the American identity?

“There's been a lot of agreement over the years for things like support for the free speech right,” said Deborah Schildkraut, a professor of political science at Tufts University.

“That's what people say in the abstract,” she said. “As you know, in concrete situations some of these differences can emerge.”

Schildkraut is the author of Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration. She uses national survey data to study Americans’ attitudes about a range of politics. 

Other broad areas of agreement about the American identity include being involved in politics, engaged in civics, and self-governing, she said.

“There's still a lot of support for the notion that the United States is a nation of immigrants, that our diversity is our strength,” she said.

But it's complicated.

“On the one hand, people are very nostalgic about immigration in this country,” she said. “But when thinking about immigration today, people will sometimes judge current immigrants against this nostalgic standard that they hold. And so that might seem like people have immigration attitudes that are less welcoming.”

In surveys, few people say that it’s important to be white or Christian, she said.

“But we know that people have stereotypes in their heads when they think of a true American,” Schildkraut said. “They might picture a white person a Christian person a person who speaks unaccented English.”

How important is a national identity to making the country function? The data is mixed.

“It is important to have a sense of common purpose,” Schildkraut said. “Democracies don't just survive on their own. People have to be committed to the enterprise and do the hard work of being informed and involved citizens and they need to be other-regarding.”

A common argument is that that's easier to make a democracy work if there is the kind of common purpose and common connection that a national identity provides.

But the data show there’s a weak correlation between having a robust American identity and exercising one’s democratic rights. For example, people who say being American is important to them are not as likely to vote as people who say being American is not important.

The same is true for volunteering in the community.

“Maybe sometimes we do care a little too much about whether people think of themselves as American and feel American,” Schildkraut said. “[We should] focus instead on whether they are doing the behaviors that actually help the National Enterprise succeed.”

Web content produced by Liz Lerner and Elsa Partan.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.