By Herb Bowie
Like many of my fellow citizens, I’ve been struggling in recent months to understand exactly what it means to be American these days – to identify the central elements of our collective identity that still bind us together as some kind of unified whole.
There are certainly many possible answers here. But if I try to come up with a single defining characteristic, something that all or most of us share, and that runs throughout the entire American experience, it is this:
Americans are always on their way somewhere.
This started with Americans moving here from other nations and other continents, for a variety of reasons.
It continued with American expansion into what is now called the Midwest, and then into the Southwest and the West Coast.
It continued with the creation of great railroads, automobiles, roads and a national highway system.
It’s included the mastery of human flight, allowing us to continue our travels through the Earth’s atmosphere, at great speeds and covering great distances.
It’s included the discovery, exploration and preservation of the magnificent wild areas making up our great National Parks, Monuments and Recreation Areas.
It’s included our great migrations, such as those to our Western coast, and from the Southern plantations to the great Northern cities, and out of the Dust Bowl when those lands dried up in the 1930’s.
And it’s continued with our air-conditioned occupation of great swaths of the Southern parts of our nation, habitable in significant numbers only due the mixed blessings of irrigation and a/c.
It’s continued onwards with our trips into outer space, and to the once unbelievable destination of the moon.
And it’s included the movement of individuals and companies and industries, coming out of nowhere and ending up everywhere: Henry Ford, Louis Armstrong, Hollywood, Boeing, Chuck Berry, Steve Jobs and Apple, Bill Gates and Microsoft, Larry Page and Google, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, and many others.
So while there are many other facets of the American experience and of our national identity, I believe that our quintessential trait is to always be looking for a road to somewhere new, somewhere better. This is why we resist being tied down by kings and royalty and class systems and by the past. This is why the idea of independence, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are so important to us. We expect and indeed want no guarantees of happiness attained, but we will fight to the death for our right to pursue that oft elusive goal, in as many varied ways as our fevered imaginations can devise.
This is why sports and reality TV have such a great appeal for us: whether it is a trip to the end zone, a trip around the bases, a trip to the winner’s circle, or the fast track to wealth, success, stardom and/or personal redemption, the drama of being on the way to somewhere better never fails to capture our attention and our imagination.
It may also help to explain why we are the most religious among wealthy nations: whether we are on our way to church on Sunday, on the road to perdition, or living in expectations of a glorious afterlife, we are always in motion, in transit.
And while I was born and raised in these United States, and am proud to call myself an American, I willingly admit that this central trait of ours is not always the most beneficial, nor the most endearing.
After all, if we consider the family of large and influential nations, the USA is not only the youngest sibling, but also the surprising late arrival that no one was expecting. So while other nations are happily settling down into middle age, we’re often the twenty-something refusing to leave our teenage years behind, occasionally waking up after an all-night bender to the twin realizations that we’re really not that young anymore, and that perhaps it’s finally time to learn how to come to grips with this whole idea of maturity.
But whether we wish to heartily embrace this defining national trait of being on our way somewhere, or rapidly distance ourselves from it, it is something that we must come to terms with, especially if we harbor any political ambitions, or wish to engage in any fruitful discussions of what our governments should be doing these days.
Thinking along these lines, let me offer a few suggestions that we may wish to keep in mind as we begin preparations for future political debates and contests.
We Americans tend to prefer liberties over obligations and restraints;
We tend to favor individual liberties over governmental rule, local rule over federal control, and national power over global or international authority;
We tend to trust the judgment and discretion of individuals more than the mechanical application of rigid rules;
We will come together in national movements when our leaders can convince us that our nation as a whole is on its way to somewhere better…
However we tend to lose patience with such movements if they end up calcifying into institutional bureaucracies;
As much as we say we love “family values,” what we really value as a family unit is a couple, with children, with one of the adults (traditionally the male) acting as the powerful, adventurous leader;
We can be motivated by fear of individuals and groups who are threatening our journey, but it is hard to bring us together around fear of a situation, fear of the future, or fear of the destination to which we are headed;
We realize that our willingness to undertake a journey to somewhere better entails risks of loss as well as chances for rewards;
We have no desire to lock ourselves into systems that promise uniform outcomes for all;
We do see our country and ourselves as different in significant ways from others, and different in ways deserving of a chance at something better, for ourselves and our children.
While I have no interest today in advocating for any particular governmental policy, party or candidate, it seems obvious to me that all of these factors have tended to work in favor of the Republicans in recent elections.
And it seems equally obvious to me that, if the Democrats want to reverse their recently waning fortunes, they need to find ways to appeal to these basic elements of our American identity, or to find a way to fundamentally alter our national character.