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Portfolio organization More in Common’s new analysis on the complexities of American Identity American Fabric: Identity and Belonging.
In this first report of the American Fabric series, More in Common delves deeper into the complexity of American identity. We explore how associations, experiences, and norms of our shared identity differ across the political and demographic diversity of the United States. Conducted against the backdrop of a deeply contentious year, the study articulates where Americans continue to diverge and highlight places of meaningful commonality
Below is an excerpt from the incredible 79-page report's Foreward.
"The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours.” — Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation
A central element in America’s story is that the United States is bound together not by the shared ancestry of its people, but by a shared allegiance to a set of values and beliefs. To citizens who share this allegiance, America has promised equality under the law. Even when this promise has been dishonored, the pursuit of justice has very often reinforced, rather than rejected, this shared creed. As with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s stirring metaphor of a “promissory note,” hopes for a better future for all rest on the act of more fully living out the country’s foundational creed.
This sense of shared values and beliefs is so central to American identity that historians have described America as a “creedal nation”1. As More in Common’s research found in 2018, Americans are united in believing that commitment to freedom and equality is important for being American, with more than nine in ten recognizing the relevance of those values.
But as the United States enters 2021, it feels far from fully realizing this vision. The Biden-Harris Administration was elected on a promise to “restore the soul of America”3. Entrenched polarization has left us feeling that we share less in common with each other and that ever more parts of our national fabric are stretched and worn thin. After a pandemic, a historic movement against police brutality, and a contentious presidential election, the country feels exhausted—not least because each event appeared to inflame rather than abate existing political conflict. To many, 2020 has been an experience of frustration at opponents of social distancing measures, of profound reckoning over racial injustice and of unnerving threats to democratic norms from President Trump. Meanwhile, many others saw the same events through an entirely different lens: painful restrictions on businesses and personal liberties, damaging riots and a stolen election.
However, these two general depictions overlook the perspectives of so many others. One of the many corrosive effects of polarization is that it often locks us into thinking in false binaries —leaving us seemingly trapped between two starkly opposed alternatives. In debates about American identity, we are often presented with false choices between celebrating our nation’s achievements and recognizing its failings. Debates on social media often reinforce this artificial dichotomy, offering simplistic extremes rather than fostering discussions that navigate complex realities. This poses a challenge: restoring the national fabric will demand energy, commitment and resilience in the years ahead.
More in Common has been studying the nature of division in America since the launch of Hidden Tribes: A Study of America's Polarized Landscape in 2018. Drawing on social psychology and detailed data analyses from surveys and interviews with over 8,000 Americans, the study found that differences in deeply rooted core beliefs are at the center of the divisions in America today. That report — and a series of projects since then — reveals that despite those differences, most Americans hold views that are far more nuanced than the views of the vocal ‘wing’ groups who often dominate the national discourse.
American identity has the potential to bind individuals together as American regardless of race, gender, faith, partisanship or ideology. But there is much work to be done. More in Common aims to contribute to this work, starting with a better understanding of Americans’ views on fundamental issues of identity and belonging. This report provides findings relating to identity and belonging from survey interviews completed by more than 8,000 Americans conducted throughout 2020. Additionally, we draw from conversations, interviews, and focus groups with over 250 Americans who we engaged with throughout 2020 in a longitudinal project called Hidden Tribes Live.
We note that 2020 has been a divisive and unusual year, context which almost certainly shaped the manner in which some participants approached subjects explored in these surveys — from racism to pride in the country. To better understand the relationship between context and attitudes, we will continue to study aspects of American identity as circumstances shift in 2021 and beyond. In future work, we also plan to apply these insights towards the task of building a shared sense of American identity that resonates across today’s dividing lines. We look forward to working in partnership with many others in pursuit of the same goals.
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