The Evolution of the American Identity

Posted by Sophia P. Michigan

The American Creed of young Americans today is not the same as that of their parents. What causes these changes, and why is this difference significant to Americans?

      In the presidential election of 2016, tensions grew as controversial issues drew divisions among Americans. Among the many divisive demographic characteristics, age differences sparked bitter debate; newspaper headlines accused millenials of “ruining” American traditions and values, while millennials tweeted complaints about the baby boomer generation “being out of touch” with modern society. Such differences were starkly reflected in the outcome of the polls, as reported by Roeper Center Research: 55% of voters age 18-29 (millennials) voted for Hillary Clinton, while 52% of those age 45-64 (Baby Boomers) voted for Donald Trump . Is this division representative of greater changes in American value, of how young voters view their role as American citizens? While a single election may not be fully representative of the evolving American identity, ethnic Congressional makeup is an indicator of how minorities are gaining a greater voice in politics and in American society. According to data by Pew Research Center, the United States Congress included only 63 minority representatives in 2001, but that figure has nearly doubled to 120 representatives as of 2019. As millenials, reported to be the most ethnically diverse generation of America yet by Pew Research Center, hit the polls, a value of diverse political representation is expressed in their choices. Even Hollywood is hit by this change. A 2018 ACLU study reports, “Films with casts that were 21 percent to 30 percent minority enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment, while films with the most racially and ethnically homogenous casts were the poorest performers.” As the ethnic makeup of the American population grows more diverse, Americans demand greater representation in media and politics, indicating a shift in values. American identity is no longer to be represented by a single ethnic majority, but made up of diverse cultures with a voice. Diverse representation is only one of the many growing values among Americans, but significant to the tone of political debate and policy differences observed between generations.

       Media has always held a heavy influence on how Americans formulate political stances, but significant changes in how we consume media have been made with the development of new technology over the past couple of decades. With social media platforms such as Twitter hosting the debates of millions and the announcements of many American politicians, this difference in degrees of influence by social media marks a change in how Americans interact with political issues. Within my own lifetime, I have noticed this change in my family. My parents flip through the Wall Street Journal and tune into NPR to be informed of current events, while I scroll through Twitter and Apple News. Most notably, I have observed a difference in not the quality of the information, but in what is more frequently reported by each source to captivate their audience. This shift on how we receive news has impacted our perception on its value and credibility, as shown by President Trump’s “fake news” concerns and a general proliferation of bias within online sources. Today, many Americans are able to seek news that caters towards a predetermined opinion, and more easily than ever. By following influencers with like opinions and reading headlines that only appeal to similar interests, online media has become a tool in changing how single issues or events can be viewed by varying groups. For example, Fox News is a source catered towards Republican viewers and CNN towards Democrats, which was clearly seen in the depiction of presidential candidates Trump and Clinton in 2016. The two sources are selective of information in bias, raising the question of their value in appropriately educating the public on significant issues and events. Younger Americans, having grown up with these new media platforms and the concerning marketing of news to interest groups, are more susceptible to perceiving American identity and responsibility as it is presented to them online. Despite differences in media platforms, the American value of freedom of speech remains essential to American political involvement and expression. Whether it be the Watergate scandal being reported by the Washington Post newspaper in the 70s, or Twitter sharing the Flint Water Crisis to millions, Americans exercise their freedom of speech to enforce justice and pressure the government. With different generations using different mediums to receive news, there is a gap in how Americans of varying ages formulate opinions on key issues, but a common strive to be informed and involved citizens.

       During the 70s, American college students across the nation voiced discontent with American involvement in Vietnam, an event that proved to be influential on how they viewed their role as active citizens and their nation’s role in international affairs. Decades later, their children experienced the shock of 9/11 and the following “war on terrorism”, similarly influencing what they believe to be the responsibility of Americans in global conflict. War has consistently been significant in developing an individual’s American identity, as it challenges how Americans view their nation, although such views vary with evolving political climates. American author and journalist, Jeffrey Zaslow, investigated generational responses about the global conflict through individual case studies. One interviewee, Dennis Spivak, comments on his experience in Vietnam. Before his service in the war, Spivak confessed, "I believed what my country was telling me about the Communist threat." Having witnessed the shocking death toll, though, he said, "I came to see the protesters as patriots." Spivak’s testimony serves to illustrate the evolving image of an American “patriot”, whether it be someone who fights for their country, or someone who protests the conflict. The counterterrorism war efforts have also proved to be influential to American values, as younger Americans have grown up with perpetual involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Former President Bush, and other influential leaders, have emphasized an American duty to combating global terrorism, pushing America into a state of war against the (often radical Islamist) terrorist enemy, much like the communist enemy fought by former generations. While the public generally supports anti terrorism efforts, especially due to a surge of nationalism following 9/11, critics question the loss of American troops and the long term impact on the Middle East’s political stability. In a comment to the New York Times, “Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who lost a son in Iraq and is a critic of military operations, says that ‘a collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.’” These conflicts highlight the influence of war, nationalism and globalism on Americans over time, revealing an American responsibility to not only combat injustice abroad, but question the actions and motivations of our government.

        Throughout America’s history, only three presidents have been unaffiliated with a specific religious tradition. Religion, especially Christianity, has played a big role in influencing the values and priorities of Americans as well as our political decisions. Presidential candidates, of both the Republican and Democratic parties, emphasize their faith as a positive trait to appeal to the morals of American voters. Easter at the White House is annually covered by the press, and trips to churches are common the campaign trail. After all, even the Pledge of Allegiance describes America as, “one Nation under God”. Even so, religious beliefs have conflicted with secular thinking throughout American history, and such clashes can be defined by generational differences. As reported by The Atlantic/Aspen Institute American Values Survey, 48 percent of Americans in 2012 considered religion to be very important in their lives compared to 75 percent in 1952. The same reports shares that 46 percent of Americans in 2012 believe that the influence of religion on American life is decreasing. Such a decline in the influence of religion, particularly Christianity, can be seen in political issues today. Pro Life protesters often cite the Bible in their argument against the legality of abortion, while Pro Choice protesters argue that it is right that must be upheld despite protests of the church. Gay marriage, thought to be immoral by some Christians and other faiths, was not nationally legal until a Supreme Court decision in 2015. American identity, historically developed around Christian values, is evolving as younger generations increasingly support secular political choices.

       While Americans often look to the past to understand what it means to be an American, the values and events of present day significantly influence an individual’s perspective of their nation. Voting patterns, media consumption, war, and religious values are some of the many indicators of an evolving American Creed, one that changes to accomodate for the attitudes of young Americans. Although attitudes are likely to change with each generation, every American is brought together by a passion for civil education and political activism. Overall, an American identity is not fixed on the traditions of a single generation, but adapts to be representative of an evolving American landscape.  This adaptation is valuable because it is representative of the American capacity for change and for open dialogue between varying demographics, characteristics that define American society and sets it apart from other nations.  

Published on Jun 7, 2019
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Writing Our Future: American Creed is part of the National Writing Project’s family of youth publishing projects, all gathered under the Writing Our Future initiative.

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