What the hell is being American?

By Raúl Granados

Reading time: 5 minutes

Historically, most of the people around the world has been looking for achieving the desired American Dream, assumed it as a specific way of life (the American way of life) determined by aspects, values, and principles such as liberty, opportunities, and development.

In this regard, the U.S.A. have experienced massive wales of immigration since its very inception traced back to 1604 when the first colony (Virginia) was founded. From then till the present, immigrants have been looking for better opportunities in the so called “land of the free”. That constant seeking could be understood on the exceptionalism sense in which the country was based, in the idea that it is the land and people chosen by God to spread the development around the world.

Thus, the immigrant phenomenon was boosted by the gold rush during the nineteenth century and the speech on the liberty land by its leaders, that inevitable has derived in a clash and deep debate on who can be considered as American, which is not limited to the academic sphere, but into real life where, not only citizens-non-born in the U.S.A. have been questioned about its Americanism, but also the born ones from any immigrant descendance.

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As streets in cities across the U.S.A. filled with activists rallying to support immigrants, renewed attention was drawn to the question of whether the rapidly changing ethnic demography of the country is changing what being American means. Some conservative antiimmigrant people belief that a multicultural America[1] will become a multicreedal America and warn that many immigrants today threaten their cultural norms, including the economic norms and the rule of law, arguing that immigrants reject the norms and values that constitute American identity.

But what the hell is being American? It is often said that Americans are people defined by and united by their commitment to the political principles of liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, human rights, the rule of law, and the private property, embodied in the American Creed, which has been the basis of national identity. However, until the middle of the eighteenth-century Americans defined themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, and culture, particularly religion.

On this approaching, and in a traditional perspective, it is plausible to consider two main components of American identity: 1) liberalism, standing America as a land of freedom and opportunity; and 2) ethnoculturalism, assuming America as a nation of white Protestants. However, recent scholars have identified complex and often competing components of American identity that has been termed the “multiple traditions” model, which also includes the understudied civic republican tradition and the incorporationism tradition. Is my intention to explain those components in this essay.

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Liberalism, in short, is the image of America that comes most easily to mind when people think about what means to be American and is widely seen as the defining essence of American political culture as well as the base for the normative boundaries that places the membership in the American community, that implies to endorse the liberal principles: not infringe upon the political and economic rights and freedoms of others, and to achieve the American Dream through hard work. Those are the basis of the American Creed.

Ethnoculturalism is an ascriptivist tradition that sets rigid boundaries on American membership. In its extreme, maintains that Americans are white, English-speaking Protestants of northern European ancestry, linked to the foundational race supremacy of the country. Even though this tradition has been increasingly discredited over the time, since the 9/11 attacks (to the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon), elites and masses have endorsed restricting the full range of citizenships rights to people of certain ethnic and religious backgrounds (mainly Muslims and recently Latinos).

On the other hand, there is the civic republicanism tradition as a component of the identity, which emphasizes on the responsibilities, rather than on the rights of citizenship. In this view, Americans should all be involved in social and political life and pursue ends that serve the public good, that engenders pride and patriotism and further motivate people to labor for the good of the state. This is an important point considering that much of the recent federal bureaus’ officers are descent from Latin, Asian, and Afro roots, who in an ethnoculturalism approach would not be considered as Americans, but despite of the fact that they disrupt those race endorsements, they work for the welfare of all Americans, constructing the nationalism and patriotism needed for the country.

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In this regard, there is the last component of the American identity: incorporationism or assimilationism. This one is a more recent addition to the set of norms that constitute the American identity and is rooted to the last century cultural pluralism. This tradition defends that America´s unique identity is grounded in its immigrant legacy and in its ability to convert the challenges of immigration into thriving strengths. Indeed, it recognizes that ethnoculturalism continues to exist, but endorse the idea that the U.S.A. is a nation of immigrants. Thus, demands the ability both to assimilate native cultures from immigrants and maintain the differences, a position on the very opposite side from statements settled by scholars like Huntington, who reject the very idea of an American multicreed.

Most Americans think liberal and civic republican norms should dictate boundaries of American identity, and that the U.S.A. should be a society that converts the challenges of immigration into strengths and feel that Americans should form a common identity while preserving the diversity that makes America so different from all other countries. But also, there are still Americans that think the content of American identity should be white and Christian, a sector that has been empowered by intolerant and xenophobic speeches such as those from Trump that has bred movements like the white supremacy.

There is a fact that contestation over identities will be a constant element of political life, most into cosmopolitan countries like the U.S.A., but into this kind of cultural war is important to bring more contestation over how to reconcile multiple visions of American identity based on tolerance and assimilation of differences, taking them as an opportunity to enrich their own national identity, but also its heritage, not forgetting that a bunch of Mexicans (around 36.25 million) are living in the U.S.A. and contribute to the economic, political and cultural American system, the liberal one defended by the Americans.

[1] Referring to the United States of America.


  • Brewer, Marilyn B; Li, Qiong. What does it mean to be an American? Patriotism, nationalism, and American identity after 9/11. Political Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 5, 2004.
  • Huntington, Samuel. Who are we? The challenges to America`s national identity. Simon and Schuster. 2004.
  • Sánchez-Bayón, Antonio. American identity crisis: attack to American civil religion and trans-westerness risk? Multidisciplinary Research Journal.
  • Schildkraut, Deborah J. Defining American Identity in the Twenty-First Century: How Much “There” is There? The Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, No. 3, August 2007.


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