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Society & Culture

Who Are We?

Jun 17, 2020
  • Huang Jing

    University Professor at Shanghai International Studies University

The killing of African American George Floyd by a white police officer triggered massive protests across the United States with members of all races — blacks, whites, Latinos and others. They acted by and large in unison, marching barehanded, chanting slogans, clashing with police and National Guard troops. Predictably, there was some arson and looting, though most demonstrations were peaceful.

Protesters were mainly urban residents fed up with the antics of President Donald Trump and the authoritarian system that has kept racism in place for centuries.

Weeks ago, there were also protests against pandemic lockdowns in various states. Almost all participants were white, and they also acted generally in unison, some holding guns and other weapons declaring their opposition at public venues such as government buildings. Rather than intervening, police stood by and helped maintain order. They were overwhelmingly Trump supporters living in the suburbs.   

The two sharply divergent rounds of protests reflect a deep and enlarging division in U.S. national identity in recent years that boils down to the fundamental question “Who are we?” It’s a divide that, arguably, originated in the globalist strategy the U.S. adopted in the 1990s.

Following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the eastern European bloc in 1991, there once was a hilarious notion in the U.S. that the “Washington Consensus,” with values centered on individualism, a capitalist market economy and liberal democracy, would be the inevitable path for humanity.

With that in mind, the Clinton administration began promoting a strategy of globalism in which the goal was to spread American (later described as “universal”) values. The idea was to Americanize the world, and ultimately achieve the “end of history.”

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations that followed continued forcefully pressing ahead with the strategy of globalism, one from the left, the other from the right. The former aggressively pushed globalization of democracy in a unilateral manner; the latter focused more on the dissemination of universal values. Globalization proceeded overwhelmingly in all three aspects.

At the core of these so-called universal values are the notions of the founders of the United States — Puritans from New England. Promoting these worldwide as American values inevitably showcased the dominant role of Christian civilization in American society, the outcome of which was the evangelical upsurge during the second term of the Clinton presidency, and the Bush administration further mobilized them into a political force to prevail in elections and push their agenda.

As evangelicals became an active force in American politics, right-wing conservatives and their agendas were significantly boosted. In order to retain the moral high ground and counterbalance the surge of right-wing forcers, left-wing liberals engaged in a high-profile campaign to safeguard absolute equity in such aspects as rights, race, religion, gender, even job opportunities, resulting in the spread of “political correctness” which became dominant in areas of media, public opinion, culture, education and entertainment.

With the two forces on a collision course, the United States as a melting pot of diverse cultures and broad tolerance was damaged. Since George W. Bush’s term, what has drawn voters in elections is no longer the candidates' policy preferences but their stances on value-oriented topics such as sexual orientation, abortion, gun ownership, racial/religious relations and women’s rights.

Different policy preferences reflect "what we want,” the essence of which is a conflict of interests, which could be resolved through compromise within set rules of the game — after all, the essential nature of democratic politics is to institutionalize compromise.

Conflicts over values, however, are bound to the definition of “who we are.” Since its essence is confrontation of different ideologies and values, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for the sides to compromise. Democratic politics that can’t reach a compromise inevitably leads to populism and extremism.

Under such circumstances, the right-wing, conservative Bush administration and left-wing, liberal Obama government further split American society politically, resulting in a further stretch of the U.S. political spectrum to the two extremes, turning it from an oval structure conducive to compromise into a dumbbell-shaped structure featuring two opposite extremes.

On one side are the already globalized capitalists and white-collar professionals who have generally benefited from globalization. On the other is the angry American public, which opposes globalization and is dissatisfied yet helpless over its rapid slide in economic and political clout —  especially blue-collar whites living in traditional industrial areas and suburbs. As American society becomes increasingly divided, so does the answer to the question of “who we are” as Americans.

Since Trump’s election, his unilateral “America first”  foreign policies; his extreme right-wing, even racist, policy orientations at home; and the huge wealth gap revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic, have further enlarged the divide over “who we are.”

The public’s national identification is a cornerstone of stability and legitimacy in any nation-state. A divide in national identity inevitably leads to turmoil and even the collapse of society. The anti-lockdown protests and those against racial discrimination reveal a deep divide on "who we are" as Americans.

Trump’s self-contradictory rhetoric — on one hand vowing justice for Floyd, while on the other threatening a ruthless crackdown — reveals the dilemma, as well as helplessness of a divided nation under his leadership. As president he has played a dangerous game of division for his own gain, a game that has substantially exacerbated divisions in Americans’ national identity.

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