The American Idea

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

Istvan Banyai
Muslim Democracy
(An illustration)

Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Confidence and Freedom
"We don't have to diminish the American idea in order to save it. Indeed, the only way to prevail in the struggle between freedom and fundamentalism is to enrich that idea in the face of threats."

Michael Bierut
American Smile
(A graphic)

Guy Billout
American Sunrise
(A drawing)

Barry Blitt
Support Our Troops
(A cartoon)

Stephen Breyer
Wise Constraints
"We are not unique; our ideals are not exceptional; and, to everyone's good fortune, our ability to put those ideals into practice, however special it once may have been, has not remained so."

Alan Brinkley
Messiah Complex
"America's self-image is more deeply bound up with a sense of having a special place in history than most other nations' are."

Steve Brodner
The Thomas (Jefferson) Crown Affair
(An illustration)

William F. Buckley Jr.
A Proposition
"Ours are loyalties to an ideal, not to a revelation, and this must have been the reason, even if he was not conscious of it, why Lincoln referred to the American 'proposition.'"

Robert Conquest
Lethal Certainties
"The American idea, as seen by the founders of The Atlantic Monthly, was never an ideological monolith."

John Edwards
The Two Americas Problem
"The idea of America—real, fundamental equality: equality of opportunity, equality of culture, equality of respect—matters more than ever."

John Hope Franklin
The Cover-Up
"Perhaps the American idea was not so admirable."

Frank Gehry
Building Dreams
"As I think of what's gone on in the years I've been on this planet, I wonder why great architecture isn't considered an important shaper of the American idea."

Milton Glaser
The Rise and Fall of the American Idea
(A graphic)

Amy Gutmann
A Dual Mission
"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."

Sam Harris
God-Drunk Society
"America is now a nation of 300 million souls, wielding more influence than any people in human history—and yet 240 million of these souls apparently believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers."

Ron Haviv
Darfuri Girls
(A photograph)

Arianna Huffington
Pursuit of Happiness
"The promise of unlimited opportunity has given way to rampant narcissism and misplaced perfectionism (and the disappointed self-loathing that inevitably follows the search for a flawless self)."

T. D. Jakes
The World's Pulse
"The question is: Do we live to serve ourselves alone, or shall our lives bear witness to something larger?"

Ed Kashi
Denied: The Crisis of America's Uninsured
(A photograph)

Alex Katz
Vivien with Baseball Hat
(A painting)

George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson
"In thinking about the American idea, we decided to revisit a concept we first took up in these pages 25 years ago."

Ray Kurzweil
"The American idea is to push beyond frontiers, whether in geography (Manifest Destiny), science (splitting the atom, DNA), invention (the telephone, the lightbulb, the airplane, the Internet), industry (mass production), music (jazz, rock and roll), or popular culture (Hollywood)."

Tim LaHaye
Godless Society
"America's uniqueness is based in the Christian consensus of the Founding Fathers, who penned documents guaranteeing religious and personal freedom for all."

Stan Lee
America Is a Dream
(A cartoon)

Bernard Lewis
Second Acts
"I still remember my first two impressions of Americans, derived from my wartime comrades."

Sally Mann
(A photograph)

Harvey C. Mansfield
You Can Have it Too
"The future of the American idea is clouded by the fact that the proof of its success was never intended to be conclusive. "

Greil Marcus
Autocracy and Freedom
"This spring, in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, there was a full-page ad for sheets. It showed a black woman and a white man rolling happily in their bed..."

Judith Martin
Republic of Manners
"European etiquette was all very well for those snobs and sycophants in class-stratified societies, but it would not do for the proud citizens of an enlightened and free republic."

Steve McCurry
Meditating Monk in Forest, Redwood Valley, California, USA, 2004
(A photograph)

Azar Nafisi
"The idea that I want to believe America was founded on ... depended on challenging the world as it is and, by standing up to civilized society, redefining it."

Janet Napolitano
The Arizona Idea
"Rest assured, if you come to Arizona, you'll find the frontier, and the American idea, alive and well here."

Michael Novak
What is Liberty?
"In its religious roots, the American idea of freedom recognizes the free consciences of all."

Joseph Nye
Soft Power
"During the Vietnam War, the United States was widely unpopular around the world, as it is now... Yet despite unpopular government policies, our openness and self-criticism allowed the American idea to retain its appeal."

Joyce Carol Oates
The Human Idea
"How heartily sick the world has grown, in the first seven years of the 21st century, of the American idea!"

Nancy Pelosi
"In my recent travels as House speaker, I have met with presidents, prime ministers, and kings, but what has impressed me and inspired me the most are my encounters with young people."

Robert Pinsky
"A great surprise of my brief time in Washington was how often members of Congress turned out to be more intelligent than they let themselves seem on television—better read, more reflective, more sensitive."

Richard Pipes
An Optimist's Worries
"I may be an incurable optimist, but at the age of 84—having lived through the Great Depression, Stalin, Hitler, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War—I think today's world is not in bad shape."

Gerhard Richter
September 11
(A painting)

Arnold Roth
(A cartoon)

Eric Schlosser
The Freak Show
"The America that I love bears little relation to the freak show now peddled by Hollywood and the cable-news networks."

Eric Schmidt
New New Things
"America's history of innovation has drawn on the inherent optimism of Americans, even when realities are discouraging."

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Coming to America
"I began dreaming of coming to America when I was 10 years old, because it has no rival as a Land of Opportunity."

Anne-Marie Slaughter
"The values that our Founders cherished as the universal inheritance of the Enlightenment are increasingly identified as American values—or worse still, as not real values at all, but simply a rhetorical blind for the advance of American power."

Anna Deavere Smith
Imagination's End
"As I look out at this land, I find myself in doubt, about our environment and our society."

Ralph Steadman
American Family
(A cartoon)

Laurence H. Tribe and Carolyn K. Tribe
Rekindling the Flame
"Our greatest national challenge is to reverse the profoundly misguided course the last two presidential elections have set"

John Updike
The Individual
"The American idea, as I understand it, is to trust people to know their own minds and to act in their own enlightened self-interest, with a necessary respect for others."

David Foster Wallace
Just Asking
"Are you up for a thought experiment?..."

Michael Walzer
Pluralism and Democracy
"Most Americans believed, almost from the beginning, that pluralism and democracy were compatible, even mutually enhancing."

Steven Weinberg
Inherited Opportunity
"If any one idea can justly be called the American idea, it is that a child's circumstances at birth should not determine the station in life that that child will occupy as an adult."

Cornel West
"The fundamental irony of American history is that we follow the better angels of our nature when we honestly and compassionately confront the devilish realities we would like to ignore or deny."

George F. Will
The Danger
"It is a good and very American idea to avoid the definite article in locutions like 'the American idea.'"

Edward O. Wilson
Manifest Ecology
"The central issue for America is sustainable development. Somehow we, and other countries, have to find a way to continue raising the quality of life without wrecking the planet."

Alan Wolfe
Help Wanted
"We were better off wanting things the rest of the world had to offer than we are now, when we need so little from everyone else."

Tom Wolfe
"Since you asked ... the American idea was born at approximately 5 p.m. on Friday, December 2, 1803, the moment Thomas Jefferson sprang the so-called pell-mell on the new British ambassador, Anthony Merry, at dinner in the White House."