A Dual Mission

The United States is identifiable not by race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation, but rather by two principles that are deeply rooted in our constitutional democracy: taking personal responsibility for one’s success in life, and contributing to the promise of equal freedom and opportunity for all through civic support for constitutional democratic principles.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

Since the founding of the republic, these two big, broad ideals have evolved in creative tension with each other. Personal responsibility requires freedom of thought and action, which is protected under our Bill of Rights’ guarantees of free speech and press, due process, and equal protection under the law. But the protection of personal freedom alone is clearly not enough to offer a genuine opportunity for all to succeed. A flourishing constitutional democracy must also provide educational opportunity, without which none of us can be expected to blossom. Our constitutional democratic culture needs to both encourage robust individualism and discourage socially destructive selfishness; it also needs to promote a principled patriotism, while welcoming dissent.

From the beginning, this bold experiment in limited government, supportive of individual freedom and opportunity, has been an excruciatingly hard work in progress. For example, the Framers of our Constitution severely compromised the principle of equal freedom by sanctioning slavery. And throughout our history, every major public controversy has challenged citizens to better realize these ideals. In the ongoing debate over immigration reform, the idea that America is a land of freedom and opportunity for all clashes with the practical reality that our borders cannot be open to all comers without imposing an intolerable strain on our resources. Completely sealing our borders, however, would erode the moral foundation of the American idea.

Leaving the fate of our democracy in the hands of a diverse and constantly changing American citizenry that is guided by constitutional democratic principles is perhaps the most enduring American idea of all. That is why protecting individual freedom and cultivating a highly educated citizenry is our society’s utmost responsibility. This dual mission—recognized from our founding but far, far from realized to the present day—has never been more important than in these perilous times. We the People will determine whether—and which—future Americans have more or less opportunity to enjoy the fruits of our great constitutional freedoms.

Amy Gutmann, a political theorist, is the president of the University of Pennsylvania.
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