Why Do Americans Celebrate Difference, Not Commonality?

The 10 myths that unite us as a people.

Posted Jul 31, 2019

Given today’s mandate to express and celebrate our supposed differences, I think it’s safe say that the very term the “United States” has become an oxymoron.  Defining ourselves along the socially constructed divisions of gender, race, class, age, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, politics, and any number of other criteria has become the thing to do, a function no doubt of our intense struggle to carve out our personal identities in an increasingly “flat” world. How we view ourselves has become heavily reliant on “otherness,” I suggest, not an especially healthy model for any society.  Is it any wonder that our country has become a battlefield of competing interests?

To that point, I propose that our tendency to slice and dice the population into a million little pieces is misguided, and that it behooves us to focus on those things that unite versus divide us.  Americans have any especially powerful collective psychology that is both underappreciated and undervalued in that it operates on an individual level as well. What we share or have in common as Americans is more meaningful than the ways in which we are said to differ, in other words, a proposition that I find obvious yet challenges prevailing thinking. Whether real or imagined, there are a number of themes that operate on a deep, cultural level which have bound us as a people as far back as the nation’s beginnings and still hold considerable currency. Some are rooted in the revolutionary vision of the Founding Fathers, in fact, while others were readily apparent to Tocqueville when he made his cross-country road trip in the 1830s. These themes, or myths, if you prefer, are:

1. The Pursuit of Happiness. It’s right there in our Declaration of Independence. The pursuit of happiness, a phrase penned by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence has served as a primary ambition for many Americans in the nation’s history, especially during the past century. Ask any American what he or she wants most in life and the majority will say to be happy, in fact, a clear sign that the “subjective state of emotional well-being” is central to who we are as a people.

2. The Land of the Free. Americans’ libertarian streak and resistance against an overly powerful government can of course be traced back to the nation’s very beginnings. “Americans love to hate government,” John B. Judis stated in The New Republic in 2009 after assessing the long history of anti-statism in the country, this wariness of being ruled the foundation for the nation being known all over the world as the “land of the free.” Citizens of the United States rely on government but are famously distrustful about allowing it to overstep its bounds, a national trait that Judis felt was a “pattern of belief [that] is deeply rooted in the American psyche.”  

3. The Promise of Tomorrow. “You’re always a day away,” Annie sang in “Tomorrow” from her titular Broadway show, a reminder that Americans have consistently had a deep faith in the possibilities of the future. The firm belief that the sun will soon come out, even if it is the cloudiest of days, has guided the American people through some of their darkest periods of history. Optimism and hopefulness have served as a key marker of our national identity, with foreigners often amazed at how we are somehow able to look on the bright side of things even in the toughest of circumstances.

4. The American Dream. Rather than just a powerful philosophy or ideology, the American Dream, “a vision of a better, deeper, richer life for every individual, regardless of the position in society which he or she may occupy by the accident of birth,” as James Truslow Adams defined the phrase in his 1931 book The Epic of America, is thoroughly woven into the fabric of everyday life.  It plays a vital, active role in who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

5. The American Way of Life. Since the term was popularized in the 1930s, the American Way of Life- a belief or set of beliefs that assigns certain attitudes and/or behaviors related to our national character- has served as another guiding mythology or ethos of the United States.  Because it is simply an idea open to interpretation and is constantly mutating, it is impossible to say with certainty what the American Way is and what it is not.  While the term has been attached to everything from farming to baseball to barbecue, a consumerist lifestyle supported by a system based in free enterprise has served as its ideological backbone.

6. The Myth of Equality. Despite the obvious realities of class and race, Americans have long hesitated to assign social and economic position, something that stems from the Founding Fathers’ radical notion that “all men are created equal.” Because the United States was founded on the principles of democracy and equality, it makes perfect sense that “average” Americans are viewed as most symbolic of what makes this country great and different from others. Our mythology of the “Everyman” is an idea that is central to our national identity, and one that is unique in the world.

7. The Fountain of Youth. From the 17th through the early 19th centuries in America, people who lived a long life were venerated, their advanced age seen as divinely ordained. This began to change soon after the American Revolution, however, as the first Americans to be born in the new country distinguished themselves from those who had immigrated to the colonies. Through the 19th century, older Americans continued to lose social status as the “cult of youth” gained traction, and their “demotion” became institutionalized in the 20th century by a number of social, economic, and political powerful forces.

8. The Triumph of the Self. Since the counterculture, individualism—acting in one’s own interests versus those of an organized group or government—is a key theme across all demographic divisions. It’s important to remember, however, that from a historical view the idea and practice of individualism is a radical concept. The Enlightenment ideals of the 18th century were in opposition to the all-encompassing power of church and state that had endured for a millennium, and laid the seeds for the continual ascent of individualism over the past few hundred years.

9. The Cult of Celebrity. “In the future,” Andy Warhol prophesized in 1968, “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol was really talking about Americans’ obsession with fame, something he knew more than a little about. Since the oohs and aahs that often could be heard upon a sighting of General George Washington, in fact, those in the public eye have been considered this country’s royalty, a surrogate for Europe’s titled class. “Celebrity in America has always given us an outlet for our imagination, just as the gods and demigods of ancient Greece and Rome once did,” Jill Neimark wrote for Psychology Today in 1995, thinking that famous people were “our myth bearers, carriers of the divine forces of good, evil, lust, and redemption.”

10. The Self-Made Man. John Swansburg of Slate called it “America’s most pliable, pernicious, and irrepressible myth” in 2014, and I’m not going to disagree. The self-made man, a phrase coined in 1832 by Senator Henry Clay when describing businesspeople whose success came from their own abilities rather than from external circumstances, indeed retains iconic status in the nation’s history. It’s actually quite unusual for Americans to “go from rags to riches,” as the saying goes (upward mobility is greater in Canada, Denmark, and France) but that has done little to dispel the belief that it happens all the time.