of

America’s Identity Crisis

December 17, 2021
7 min read
Photo credit: Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

In 1950, the German-born child psychologist Erik Erikson observed of his new American homeland: “This dynamic country subjects its inhabitants to more abrupt changes during a lifetime or a generation than is normally the case with other great nations.”

Since then, Americans have experienced an even greater acceleration in the pace of their demographic, societal, and economic transformation, one that threatens American democracy and the reliability of the United States as an ally.

The percentage of non-white people in the United States has tripled in the last half-century. The portion of foreign-born persons has also tripled. The share of births to unmarried women has quadrupled. The percentage of children living in single-parent households has doubled. Meanwhile, church membership has declined by a third. And the portion of the workforce employed in manufacturing has declined by two-thirds. At the same time, median incomes have largely stagnated.

Of course, change is not new in a dynamic society such as the United States. And Americans’ embrace of change has long been one of the strengths of the U.S. economy. But it is the unprecedented pace of change that is currently straining the fabric of American society because some of the fundamental pillars of human psychological identity—the sense of family, ethnic cohesiveness, the workplace, religion, the relations between the sexes—have been rapidly eroding.

All of these changes are happening at the same time, interacting with each other, often in negative ways. For example, older, white, male manufacturing workers, who were raised to believe they could expect a comfortable middle-class existence laboring in auto plants or steel mills, have seen their incomes largely stagnate through much of their adult lives. This is not just an economic issue, but a challenge to their manhood. The fathers of these men made enough money that their mothers did not have to work. Now they ask themselves: “What kind of man am I if I cannot support my own family the way my father did?” To them, the growth in female participation in the labor force has not been a question of “womenomics,” but a threat to their identity as the family breadwinner.

Immigration Nation

Moreover, the pace of change manifests itself politically. For example, America has always been a nation of immigrants. But never, in its nearly two and a half centuries of independence, has the United States experienced a tripling of its foreign-born population in such a short period of time. That share now totals roughly 13.7%. That immigrant portion of the population has only been closely matched in 1880–90, 1910–20, and today. Each time the foreign-born population reached that level in the past, there was a populist political backlash, manifesting itself in the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Red Scare and, most recently, the election of nativist Donald Trump as U.S. president.

But never, in its nearly two and a half centuries of independence, has the United States experienced a tripling of its foreign-born population in such a short period of time.

For some Americans, current levels of immigration threaten their sense of national identity. Republicans are nearly twice as likely as Democrats to say American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. And eight in ten Republicans believe that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity, while only a third of Democrats share those fears. Meanwhile, 78% of Democrats believe that the growing number of newcomers strengthens American society, but just 31% of Republicans concur. And 53% of conservatives believe that to be truly American one has to be born in the United States. Only 13% of liberals agree.

The challenges to personal and national identity triggered by these dramatic demographic, economic, and social changes now resonate through many different political debates. The rise in the share of non-white citizens—Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians—has called into question the white privilege growing out of America’s history of slavery. On this issue, voters are again divided along partisan lines. Asked if it is more difficult to be a Black person in the United States than it is to be a white person, 74% of Democrats (racial minorities comprise a majority of the party) agree. Only 9% of Republicans, a party that is largely white, concur.

Stokes Article December 2021
Source: Mehlman, Castagnetti, Rosen & Thomas analysis based on data from U.S. Census Bureau, Pew Research Center, U.S. Dept. of Labor and T. Piketty, Gallup

Republicans have recently further weaponized public unease about the pace of racial change. In the November 2021 Virginia governor’s race, the Republican candidate campaigned against schools teaching critical race theory, which argues that racism or racist outcomes are the result of a long legacy of complex social and institutional dynamics rather than (simply) personal prejudice. The fact that no public school in the state actually teaches this curriculum did not matter. The demand was clearly intended to appeal to whites who are concerned that their identity, with all of its economic and social privilege, is being threatened by the rise of minorities.

The challenges to personal and national identity triggered by dramatic demographic, economic, and social changes now resonate through many different political debates.

Unease with social and demographic changes also manifest themselves in partisan views on other hot-button political issues. There is a small but growing percentage of Americans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. And same-sex marriages have been legal across all 50 states since a 2015 Supreme Court ruling. For some Americans, this threatens both their gender and religious identities. More than four in ten Republicans oppose gay marriage, while less than two in ten Democrats oppose such unions. The greatest opposition is among white Evangelical Protestants, who have been the strongest supporters of Donald Trump. And more than half of all Republicans, but less than a third of Democrats, believe a small business owner should be able to refuse service to a gay or lesbian couple by claiming doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

Foreign Policy Divisions

The threat to national identity posed by globalization has also opened a partisan divide on the United States’ relations with the world, with serious implications for U.S. allies, such as Japan. By three to one, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that for too long, the United States has allowed other nations to take advantage of the United States. By nearly two to one, Republicans say the United States should deal with its own problems, not help other nations deal with theirs. Democrats are divided on the issue. And, while 63% of Democrats believe that strengthening relations with allies should be a foreign policy priority, only 44% of Republicans agree.

63%

of Democrats believe that strengthening relations with allies should be a foreign policy priority, only 44% of Republicans agree.

The undermining of the pillars of personal identity has led more and more Americans to self-segregate into like-minded enclaves. Republicans and Democrats tell pollsters they want to live in different places, surrounded by people who share their political views. As a result, more than six in ten consistently conservative Americans and roughly five in ten consistently liberal Americans say that most of their friends share their political views.

Without strong family ties, with weaker communal institutions, living in greater isolation, Americans “had to cling to something,” observed the writer Walter Weyl. And, in the absence of their old folk customs or local institutions, “the temptation to cling to party became ruthless.”

Notably, Weyl was not commenting on the partisan challenge facing the United States today, but about Americans turning to party politics as a source of identity as other pillars of personal identity withered away in the half-century between the Civil War and World War I. So, the United States has been here before and somehow survived extreme partisanship in the past. Whether it can do so again remains to be seen. But this time, the world is watching, because other countries, including Japan, have a greater stake in the outcome than ever before.


This piece was written for and originally published by the Japanese news magazine Foresight.

Related Work: Poll Shows Americans Don’t Believe in “American Democracy”

American democracy faces a challenge not seen since the 1850s in the run-up to the US Civil War. Partisanship, which has long plagued politics over policy issues, now divides the public over principle.

Related Work: The Intergenerational Gap on Challenges for the Century

While the lens through which young people see international events may become more mature and nuanced as they age, how they interpret global developments is subconsciously refracted through the prism of a worldview that was hardwired in their formative years.