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Evolution of American identity

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(I’m interested in this topic because what happens in America continues to affect us – our economy and our political life.)

I see two things about American national identity. First, it’s not the same today as it was conceived bythe country’s “Founding Fathers”.(Yes, “fathers” because those who signed the country’s Declaration of Independence from British rule and its Constitutionwere all males.) And second, Americans’present sense of national identity is creating a growingincongruity withtheirpresidential electoral process.

Evolving idea of “national identity”.The Founding Fathers saw national identity in terms of being citizens of a State of the Union. To them, “national identity”was being a Virginian, or Texan, or from Michigan or Maine. The concept of “being American” was in reference only to their being domiciledin a continent of that name. Yes, they were “the people of the United States” but citizens of a State.

The concept of a “United States” was “a Union of States”.Governance at the Union level was limited to (1) regulating inter-State commerce (including operatingpostal services and managing a common currency and Reserve for all the States); (2) conducting foreign policy (including issuing a common passport for all citizens of the States); and (3) ensuring the collective defense of all the States.
Being “a United States citizen” was secondary to (anda derivative of) being firstfrom a State.

In the US Civil War, the “nationalistic divides” of those who fought it werebounded bywhich States they were from. They fought for their States. The Union and Confederacy flags wereemblems of the shared interests of the States, not a common “national identity”of the combatants. In a word, they were Georgians and Alabamans fighting for the Confederacy, and New Yorkers or Pennsylvanians fighting for the Union.

Not anymore. Today, “State-based national identity” has given way to a “Union-based identity”. Americans have evolved a sense of common national identity“across States” and away from the identity envisioned by the Founding Fathers. They’renow “Americans” and are “people and citizens of the United States” morethan being Georgian or from Massachusetts. They’re Americans first, before being from Dakota or New Hampshire.

This, because of three historical transformations of American life.First, their foreign wars.They fought against each other as citizens of a State in the Civil War, but when they began fighting “others” in their foreign wars (from the Spanish-American War to their engagements in Afghanistan and other places today) they fought “enemies” who were “not Americans”. They bled together, wonand lost battles together – as Americans(not as Californians or from Delaware).

Second, the globalization of US commerce created a common national identity behind a single “national brand”. They were selling products “Made in America” by “Americans” (not cars “made in Michigan” or cereals and dairy produced in Iowa or Nebraska). They were competing with products of other nations.

And third, Americans today are highly mobile and their sense of who they are have been broadened by immigration. For most Americans, these have obliterated their identity with asingular place in the Union. They could be born in a State(or another country), grew up elsewhere, get educated in another, have a career in still another. Mobility and immigrationhavetransformed American national identity from being of a State, to being “an American” (or a hyphenated American like Asian-American).

Electoral incompatibility.The Founding Fathers’ view that the Union is a “Unionof States”(and not of individual persons)referred to States as theconstituencies of the Union while individuals were constituencies of a State.A person’s suffrage (or right to vote) is assigned, legitimated, and given venues to be exercised by a State, not by the Union.

Electing a tandem President-Vice President is the only election at the level of the Union. Consistent with the Founding Fathers’ doctrine,the President-Vice President tandem is therefore to be elected by the States, not directly by the people in each State.

The “popular votes” for President-Vice President as conceived by the Founding Fathers were to be thevotes of citizens of States to“expressthe will of the people of the State” on who should be President and Vice President.The “will of the people of the State” is to be turned into “votes of the State” by way of what is called an “Electoral College”, a quadrennial assembly of representatives of the States for the sole purpose of casting the “votes of the States” for President-Vice President.

As a general rule, a State’s votes would be cast for whoever won in the popular votes in the State. (There are some variations, but this is the general rule). The number of votes that a State could castis based on the number of the it’s representations in the US Congress (number of Congressional and Senate seats), which is based on the decennial census of population of the State.(Washington DC is a “special district” for purposes of elections but has no voting rights in Congress because it is deemed only a “capital of the Union” but not a State itself.)

Confusion and kerfuffles about “winners of popular votes” not getting elected as President and Vice President came because of the presentwidened sense of national identity among Americans. The “popular vote” is now actually beingviewed as the “votes of allAmericansacross the United States”instead of only those withinaState (as was the view of the Founding Fathers).

And so, we’re seeing a situation when the total votes cast byall votersacross theUnited States(today’s view of the “popular votes”) would show a candidate winning the majority. But when the votes arediseggregated into totals ineach Stateand translated into “Electoral votes” of the States (as stipulated in the US Constitution following the Founding Fathers’ view of President-Vice President to be elected by the States), someone else could winin the Electoral College, which are the votes that finally count. This is what happened in 2016 (Trump and Clinton), in 2000 (“Dubya” Bush and Gore) and three times in the 19th century (see elections/2020/08/24/how-electoral-college-works/?arc404=true).

What if it happens again in 2024, 2028, 2032, and thereafter? How will it affect the perception of “political and public legitimacy” of the US presidential elections? It could happen again because of a federal electoral process that continues being founded on a paradigm of “national identity” that has since become anachronistic.*


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May 2024

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