Every nation is a story. It’s almost never a simple one, and the story’s meaning is usually contested. National identity itself depends upon how we tell the story—about our past, our present moment, and our future.
Many national stories are rooted in a particular ethnicity or religion that forms the core of that national identity. Here in the United States, things are more complicated. Since our founding, our national identity has been the story that we tell ourselves and the wider world. Consider, for example: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. And: We the people, in order to form a more perfect union. Americans possess the beginnings of a fantastically good story, one based on something different from ethnicity or religion. Yet throughout our history, the most profound divisions in American society have required us to focus on the meaning of our loftiest words: Who is the we? What is the union? Put another way: What does the story mean, and who gets to tell it?
Rarely in our history have the answers to these questions been more contested, with the very fate of American democracy hanging in the balance. Former President Donald Trump’s Republican Party embraces fundamentally reactionary answers to these questions. In doing so, Trump taps into a vein that has run through the American body politic since our founding. The United States, in the most simplistic telling of the story, is a fundamentally ethno-nationalist construction: a white, Christian nation that embraces capitalism and a sense of its own exceptionalism.
Trump’s movement, like many nationalist authoritarian movements around the world, defines the American we by focusing more on an adversarial them: a Black president, who must not have been born in America. Radical Islam, which wants to spread Sharia law in our communities. Black athletes, who kneel during the national anthem. A caravan of brown migrants, making their way to the border. Women of color in Congress, who are told to “go back to where you came from.” George Soros, a shadowy financier (that is: a Jewish person) who wants to control the world. Communists, who want to destroy the country. All of these vaguely foreign forces represent a demographic future in which the United States becomes a majority-nonwhite country, and must be countered by an effort to Make America Great Again.
Democracy has always had an uncomfortable place in Trump’s story. Like other notable autocrats throughout world history, Trump has celebrated certain democratic values—for a time—as a useful populist vehicle for his political ascent. But once he could no longer win a democratic election, in 2020, he rejected the will of the people expressed through votes—and an elemental form of American identity along with it.
Unfortunately, the former president’s autocratic instinct was a natural outgrowth of the Republican Party’s anti-majoritarian playbook, one familiar from the recent history of places such as Hungary. In America, this playbook is fundamentally concerned with the retention of minority Republican political power over the majority. Congressional districts are being redrawn to entrench Republicans with legislative control. New voter-suppression and electoral-subversion laws are intended to distort the electorate that casts votes, and change who gets to decide the winner. Campaign-finance laws allow for a flood of special-interest money in politics. The courts are packed with right-wing judges who will reliably favor these Republican power grabs. Right-wing broadcast media have been turned into a propaganda machine. Unregulated social platforms are being manipulated to spread disinformation. Trump’s rejection of the 2020 election result simply took this anti-democratic playbook to its logical extreme.
There is no sense in avoiding or diluting the magnitude of this turn in our story: One major political party no longer accepts democracy. This once unthinkable political outcome underscores the extent to which we no longer have a shared sense of national identity. Even traditionally shared experiences like media, popular culture, and sports have become extensions of the contest over the American story, as Americans select the history their kids learn, the narrative they accept, the celebrities they admire, and even the lifesaving medicine they will take, all based at least in part on their political affiliations. To put this in the starkest terms possible, Americans are now bound together by the presence of a federal government and laws, but not by a shared sense of what it means to be American. This is a recipe for sustained political instability and social disruption, if not outright conflict.
This predicament presents greater challenges for those of us who feel a sense of fidelity to America’s democratic tradition than for those who are willing to abandon it. If you believe in America’s founding values, it is past time to reckon with the extent to which one party has made them partisan.
The notion that enough Republican leaders would somehow awaken to the dangers of what they’ve been doing fundamentally misunderstands what the Republican Party had already become by the time Trump was inaugurated. And for anyone who doubted this truth, the events of January 6, 2021, and their aftermath left no doubt. On that day, Trump led an assault on the core symbol of representative government. In the year since, he has proved that he can count on broad Republican support to dismantle American democracy and recast American identity in an ethno-nationalist, autocratic image.
No investigation, no select committee, and no traumatic event like January 6 will reverse this radicalization. Those of us appalled by this betrayal are thus confronted with a fundamental question: How do we save America’s democratic identity? For starters, we must tell a story that can consistently win sufficient victories at the ballot box. And, given the bifurcated nature of American politics, the rise of a far-right, nationalist authoritarian story means that the largest and most vocal bloc of opposition will necessarily come from the left. However, to defeat that story, we will have to convince enough Americans who do not think of themselves as progressive, or even center-left, that there is an American democracy that needs to be saved.
Much has been written about what sort of policy agenda can accomplish this goal. This approach misses the point. Of course Democrats should be responsive to voters’ needs with their agenda. But Trump and his cohort are only tangentially interested in policies; prominent Republicans now engage on policy issues to make an argument about identity: the border is open, spending is socialist, America is weak, the Democrats are in some innate way endangering the country. Here is the mission, for any American who wishes to save democracy: We must tell a captivating story—one concerned primarily with an American identity that is broad and resilient enough to succeed in the face of this assault.
The greatness of a nation’s story is not invalidated by its flaws. The Americans who have most memorably told the story of our country always understood its complexities. If Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. had simply lamented the reality of America’s imperfections and the hypocrisy of its aspirations, they would have rendered the political movements they led incapable of achieving change. Conversely, had they simply asserted the fact of American greatness, positive change would not have been possible.
During my decade as a speechwriter for Barack Obama, he used to say that our entire job was to tell a really good story about America. He wasn’t just talking about speeches. Everything from the words he spoke to the way he carried himself to the policies he advocated had to add up to a single story about the pursuit of the promise of multiracial, multiethnic democracy. Of course, he didn’t get everything right. But it was the capacity to joyfully and defiantly tell a patriotic story about progressive change that allowed Obama to win two decisive victories, outperforming other recent Democratic election results. He did not deny the darker aspects of American history and politics. As a Black man named Barack Hussein Obama, he experienced them. However, he was able to succeed politically because he framed the effort to address those flaws not as a repudiation of what it means to be American, but rather as a validation of it.
America, Obama pronounced again and again, was a great country precisely because it gave us the capacity to try to fix what was wrong with us. The failure to try to do so was a betrayal of a civic religion. The flag stands for that; so do protest anthems. The military fights for this very ideal; so do activists who bleed in the streets. This must be the starting point for a different conversation with people who may be unsettled both by Trump and by the reckonings that have accompanied his rise: Change is an affirmation of American greatness, not a rebuke of it.
There is an added difficulty that makes this challenge more vexing. The progressive movement in American politics is inherently more inclined to see clearly America’s own flaws and contradictions. The political left, in many ways, exists to address the gap between the story America has told about itself (all men are created equal) and the reality that has been experienced throughout American history—whether racial injustice, economic inequality, corporate power, gender inequity, environmental degradation, or imperialist foreign policies. As someone who associates myself with this political tradition, I say this with a sense of pride.
Yet wittingly or unwittingly, Trump has created a trap for the left. In so many ways, the resilience of his appeal seems to confirm some of our worst fears about the country we live in, the cold reality of the American story. It is therefore no coincidence that the rise of antidemocratic politics has been accompanied by an insistence on reckoning with the uglier aspects of American history and society. Indeed, Trump himself almost perfectly represents the worst version of what many on the left have feared about American identity. He is a rich, unaccountable white man who spouts racist, xenophobic, and misogynist ideas while associating himself with global autocracy and kleptocracy. He’s the guy who embraces the lazy patriotism of flyovers at football games, hugs the flag (literally), and boasts about dropping large bombs on people in other countries. How tempting it is to point at him and proclaim: This is who we are.
The trap is that this would ensure we lose the contest over the American story. If you cede the terrain of national identity to its worst elements, you are playing straight into the hands of autocracy, which counts on a blend of cynicism and apathy among its opponents. Moreover, politics is ultimately about persuading enough people to vote for your candidate or agenda. If the starting point for your argument is that the very people you need to persuade must accept that core aspects of their identity should be a source of shame rather than pride, then no well-crafted agenda of utilitarian policies is likely to win them over. The same holds true for young people who are ambivalent about participating in democracy but essential for rescuing it: If you are led to believe that America is inherently corrupted, then why would you decide that American democracy is worth saving?
Those who argue that America was founded in sin are correct. So are those who point out that American elites—including high-profile journalists—should be doing more to hold accountable those in the Republican Party who cynically manipulate issues like critical race theory into boogeymen far out of proportion to lived reality. At the same time, persuading a diverse constituency to embrace a shared democratic story can’t just be about diagnosing flaws. A focus on what’s perceived to be broken works for a more uniform and shallow ethnic coalition like Trump’s, but not for the broader United States.
A large share of Americans are currently living in an entirely different and constructed reality. They are locked inside their own prejudices and information ecosystem, which leads them to believe things that aren’t true. But the past two elections show that it’s a mistake to presume this swath of America is big enough to win in the long run. Defeating these MAGA believers requires a refusal to concede that they are the force in American society that gets to determine what it means to be American. But it also requires a sense of optimism in the struggle to defeat them.
We live in a time of profound economic, technological, and societal disruption, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. One of the frightening and disorienting things about the past few years is how connected the MAGA community is; its members joined in hatred of perceived outsiders—including fellow citizens—and are seemingly impervious to fact-based persuasion. But it is a community, one that offers belonging and solidarity, and there is something to learn from this. Too many of us who have been repulsed by Trump’s movement have been pushed further into isolation in response—tweeting or turning off the news, retreating from one another or arguing over our own differences rather than celebrating what we share, what it should mean to be American. Faced with grim reality, politics itself often appears to be a grim and joyless exercise.
A negative story about the extremism of democracy’s opponents will not sustain the kind of mobilization that is necessary to save it. The pursuit of voting rights, for instance, cannot just be about the danger posed by those seeking to suppress the vote; it has to be about the kind of nation that America should be. And the movement of people engaged in saving democracy cannot afford to be riven by its own divisions and demoralized by the failure to solve everything at once. The opportunity to save a multiracial, multiethnic democracy should be approached as a defiant and joyful enterprise—a source of unity and community at a time when we badly need both.
President Joe Biden has rightly talked about saving “the soul of America.” In recent weeks, he has spoken forcefully about the need to embrace America’s better history of progress and taken aim at an anachronistic Senate rule—the filibuster—that stands in the way of meaningful democratic reforms. Recent years have seen mass mobilization by people opposing Trump or defending Black lives, abortion rights, affordable health care, and access to the ballot. The challenge is weaving these strands together into a single story that can be sustained.
In this existential moment, it is not enough to assert that America is better than this, nor is it possible to pivot from an economic agenda or COVID response to an argument about democracy. All of these things are connected. We must be alert to what is happening elsewhere. For instance, in nations that have recently moved away from democracy, we see that the consolidation of political power is always accompanied by corruption and unequal wealth distribution. A healthy multiracial, multiethnic democracy is necessary to update our social safety net, adapt to life-altering technological advances, and fortify the United States against public-health crises like COVID-19 and the inevitable disruptions wrought by climate change. This sense of national purpose must also be extended abroad, in a world that needs an America that sets a democratic example instead of just talking about democracy.
The last time America had a clear sense of its purpose in the world was during the Cold War. Although that was an era filled with its own hypocrisies and shortfalls, the imperative of anchoring national identity in a defense of freedom helped broaden support for the civil-rights movement and put guardrails around the type of leader who could assume command of the nuclear codes—indeed, it is hard to imagine someone as plainly unfit as Donald Trump being elected president through that era. This value proposition infused everything from American popular culture to the solidarity that American civil society had with dissidents and democratic movements abroad. By 1990, for political, cultural, and social reasons, democracy looked more attractive than the available alternatives.
Today, the diminution of America’s story is propelling the ascendance of authoritarianism and division both in the United States and in the wider world. Meanwhile, the ascendance of ethno-nationalism in America is feeding off of—and in turn fueling—the rise of ethno-nationalism elsewhere. Precisely because of our multiethnic character, America’s own diversity mirrors the world. If we can’t figure out how to make democracy work, how can the rest of the world address the seeming drift into autocracy and conflict? Conversely, if we can fight through our current era to preserve and make more perfect our multiracial democracy, we will set a far more relevant democratic example for the world than dictates from Washington. Having done our part to prove that America is vulnerable to the same trends afflicting everyone, we can show how to recover.
Success will require political leadership and also the mobilization of citizens and various sectors of our society—including cultural, media, and business institutions that have often been reticent to engage in debates that drift in the direction of politics. But this is no time for passive patriotism. American democracy will not survive if Americans lazily assume that enough people will just come to their senses and recognize that it must be saved—that there is something fixed in the national character that ensures Trump and his cohort will inevitably face harsh judgment. There’s nothing inevitable at all about the verdict of history. Part of the reason so many Republicans are willing to place their bet on Trump is that they believe his vision will, in fact, prevail. And even in the absence of Trump himself, it is more likely than not that a different Republican leader would draw (perhaps more skillfully) upon the anti-majoritarian reforms that enable Republicans to wield political power with a minority of voters.
Nor can we succumb to a cynicism that presumes that belief in America’s better story is naive. This is the easy certitude that concludes that it is better to be right than to do the hard work of trying to actually change things. Indeed, there will be failures along the way. To take one example, the latest push for voting rights and democratic reforms hit a wall. But that’s why it’s important to see that effort as part of an ongoing struggle and not the end of the story—to leave a dent in that wall and do the work necessary to succeed next time. That, after all, is what American identity at its best has always been about: doing the work, and insisting that the story we tell ourselves is worth the effort. The obligation to advance the American story—the fact that this country has been one long pursuit of multiracial, multiethnic democracy—is the only way toward a more just and democratic future.
What it means to be American is something that Americans themselves have always determined. That is as it should be. Democratic norms are not self-executing. Whether they survive and are strengthened depends on people. We Americans know who we are. And we, the majority of the people, get to tell the story of where we are going.