Guest op-ed: Are Americans losing their identity as Americans?
For more than a few decades, economics has branched out beyond the inclusion of traditional economic areas of investigation, such as crime, fertility, marriage and suicide. Following that tradition, George Akerlof, Nobel laureate in economics, and Rachel Kranton have investigated the role of identity in decision-making in their book “Identity Economics.” Their focus on identity implies how people think of themselves and others, how society and its norm affect their motives and behavior. They argue that “identities and norms derive from the social setting.”
Identities have economic consequences for people and the economy since they affect motives, behavior and decisions toward work, fair treatment of others, sense of responsibility, saving and investments, and even vaccination for contagious diseases to protect themselves and others. Americans among different subidentity groups do believe in the core value of freedom and liberty. However, among many, this value seems to be forgotten when others’ freedom is concerned. John Lock (1632-1704), a British philosopher, believed that “when one voluntarily joins a community, he/she inherently consents to the forfeiture of some freedom.” (John Locke Foundation, Oct. 31, 2017).
Our identity as Americans must supersede our secondary identities, such as white, Black, Asian, conservative, liberal, Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. All, as Americans, have to work, make decisions and take actions for the common good of the country. The divisiveness in the country, along political party lines, political ideology, region, religion, race, country of origin, not believing in the same set of facts, not trusting other Americans and the political leadership, and even hostility against others’ points of view, is undermining our identity as Americans; it also creates an environment for adverse political, socioeconomic consequences.
Peggy Noonan opined in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 18-19, 2021) that, “It had to do with a sense that we are losing the thread, that America is losing the thread.” The uniting common thread is that we are all Americans, and as Americans we must strive for the common good that promotes political stability and an economically healthy economy. For example, if all Americans do their part to eliminate the pandemic of COVID-19 and its variants, all Americans will benefit from the increase in economic activity and growth.
Pew Research (Feb. 19, 2020) found in a survey that only 34% have trust and confidence in the wisdom of American people in making political decisions and 59% do not. This attitude filters down from the political leadership at all levels of government. The Center for Economic Progress (May 26, 2021) reports, “Talk of national unity is seen as an illusionary goal as various factions press their ideological agendas on government.” Even leaders in Congress and the states emphasize ideological agendas to win favors from their ideological groups, rather than working on an American agenda that benefits all Americans. Antagonistic effects of divisiveness have even reached medical professions, school boards and the media.
The divisiveness prevailing in the country is astounding, even though surveys of adult Americans at Grinnell College (www.grinnell.edu) on Dec. 3, 2018, and March 3, 2021, reveal that Americans still believe in certain core values that unite us. Almost 70% to 90% of adult Americans surveyed in the poll believe in core values such as treating others with respect; belief in responsibility; acceptance of different races, backgrounds and religious affiliations; free and fair elections; and peaceful transfer of power. However, the survey in 2018 revealed a disturbingly un-American and unconstitutional view. Close to 25% believe that real Americans are those who are born in the country or have lived here for a long time and are Christians. The same poll also found that “hate of a person, group or organization is becoming more normalized.” President Trump and most of his followers highlighted this extreme animosity and divisiveness toward others.
Our identity as Americans affects our behavior toward others and our sense of cooperation for the common good, political stability and national prosperity. Divisiveness threatens democracy, as implied in the Grinnell surveys, and hence the economic well-being of all freedom-loving Americans. I earnestly hope that most Americans remember the core values that bind us as Americans and work toward a more perfect union. Losing our identity as Americans could be damaging domestically and internationally. As President Joe Biden stated, “Our future cannot depend on the government alone. The ultimate solutions lie in attitudes and the actions of the American people.”
Mathur is former chairman and professor in the Economics Department and now Professor Emeritus at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He resides in Ogden.