How the Belief in American Exceptionalism Has Shaped the Pandemic Response

A political scientist discusses how national identity influences how the country has dealt with the Covid-19 crisis

Americanization mural
Americanization, a mural by Dean Cornwell. The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is out of control: As of December 1, more than 13.5 million people have been infected nationwide and some 269,000 people have died. Yet many in the U.S. still resist wearing masks in public and even deem mask orders and social distancing guidelines as affronts to their personal freedoms.

For political scientists like Deborah Schildkraut of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, the U.S. response to the pandemic can be seen through the lens of American identity. For more than two decades, Schildkraut has been studying what it means to be American, a topic she explored in an article in the Annual Review of Political Science. In it, she wrote that scholars increasingly regard American identity as a social identity, “which refers to the part of a person’s sense of self that derives from his or her membership in a particular group and the value or meaning that he or she attaches to such membership.”

According to Schildkraut, at a minimum American identity consists of two sets of norms. One involves an evolving set of beliefs that anyone can follow. These beliefs harken back to Thomas Jefferson and the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”) The other set of norms depends on attributes such as one’s race and religion.

Knowable Magazine spoke with Schildkraut about the sometimes contradictory attributes Americans consider to be at the core of their national identity, the evolution of these ideas and the impact they have on the country’s ability to confront the pandemic. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is one’s identity so important?

Social psychologists have written about the need to have positive distinctiveness. We like to feel good about the things that we think are unique about us. That drives a lot of in-group and out-group thinking. We like to think good things about the groups that we belong to. It doesn’t always lead to thinking bad things about the groups that we don't belong to, but it easily can.

What’s an American identity, and has it evolved over time?

Some parts of it haven’t evolved all that much. A lot of the things people think of as being uniquely American are appropriately called aspirational: the idea of individualism, equality of opportunity, self-governance and engaged citizenship. For as long as we’ve been asking people how important certain things are in being American, there’s not been much variation over time in those kinds of things.

You see more change over time on issues that are more explicitly about race and ethnicity. There’s this idea of being a nation of immigrants. It’s the American creed: the idea that anybody can become American if they do and believe certain things, and that your country of origin, the language you speak, your religion, all of that is separate from becoming American. It’s crucially tied to the notion of the work ethic and that the opportunities are here for the taking. Of course, we know in practice that hasn’t been true.

The aspiration is that race and religion don’t matter. And that anybody can be a true American. We know that in reality, certainly at an unstated level, when people think of what an American is many have an ideal in mind: It’s white, Christian and, honestly, male.

The U.S. is an extremely diverse country. How do different groups of people react to these aspirational ideals of individualism, equality of opportunity, self-governance and engaged citizenship?

We have done surveys in which we ask people what they think are the important things in making someone a true American. One of the big stories across all the years that we’ve been asking this is that a lot of the variation we see comes down more to party and ideology than it does really to race. There’s actually a lot of agreement on the things that are considered to be most essential such as respecting America’s political institutions and laws and believing in individualism. There’s also considerable agreement on things that are considered less essential, such as the language one speaks, or whether someone was born in the U.S. or has European ancestry.

What does individualism mean in this context?

Individualism is tied to the notion of minimal government intervention. So that people are free to pursue what they want, with rare exceptions where it may be necessary for the government to intervene so that they don’t inflict harm on others.

Does American individualism conflict with other values?

Most Americans believe in and want certain values to be prevalent in their lives and they want the government to support them. Some of these key values are freedom, equality and order. Those don’t always go together. And when they conflict—and politics can be thought of as a conflict between these values—the government has to pick one.

What’s the effect of these conflicts on the U.S. response to the pandemic?

You see the conflicts between freedom and order and freedom and equality playing out now, in how we’re responding to the coronavirus pandemic. People want freedom to be able to go where they want, to not wear a mask if they don’t want to, and that conflicts with the government imposing some kind of order to address the pandemic. We also know that this pandemic has exposed great inequalities and that in places where they are choosing freedom they are not addressing those inequalities, and maybe making them even worse. Other democracies might be more likely to pick equality over freedom when those two conflict; in the U.S., we tend to pick freedom, although there are certainly exceptions.

In any society, there’s always going to be some degree of autonomy that people have to give up in order for society to function, for us to live as a collective. What type of autonomy are you willing to give up? When are you willing to give it up? In the U.S., nobody bats an eye at the idea that we all have to stop at red lights on the road, even though that’s an infringement on our freedoms. But any time it’s something new that we’re not already used to, there will be resistance to it.

There’s also a deep distrust among Americans towards government, and they often do not believe that government will execute programs efficiently or use its resources responsibly. Compared with other countries, we also have the complexity of federalism where we value devolving power to the states in some areas, but not others. And people like to celebrate their state identities. Part of our national character is the immense variation across the states, and all that feeds into our response to the pandemic.

Have other countries demonstrated a tendency to put equality before freedom and does that influence the policies they pursue?

Countries that have multiparty systems, where there might be a stronger Labor Party, or a Democratic Socialist Party, where you have a stronger history of a welfare state, places that have national health care systems, for example—those are all evidences of greater government intervention and less reliance on people going it alone and figuring it out for themselves. In those countries, there’s an acceptance that government intervention is something of value so that there’s some equity and equality, and that the government is going to play a bigger role to ensure some minimum quality of life.

How else can one understand the U.S. response to the pandemic, seen from the perspective of American identity?

I don’t pretend to have the answers. There’s one thing that has long been puzzling to me: President Trump’s insistence that this is not a big deal. At least initially, where there were lockdowns, there was this real sense of national purpose and community. People were applauding health care workers in the streets and putting up teddy bears in their windows for kids to go on scavenger hunts in their neighborhoods. There was this sense of solidarity that didn’t really last very long.

We know from a lot of political science research that elite rhetoric (meaning messages coming from prominent elected officials) can be really powerful. Once a politician decides to take a certain line—that this is not a big deal, places should be able to do what they want, we should prioritize freedom and so on—it’s not that surprising that many Americans would follow suit and prioritize that interpretation of American identity as well.

Can that messaging be changed?

There’s a lot of potential for leadership here to frame this in terms of national sacrifice: that this is who we are as Americans and we can find ways to come together to solve this.

Joe Biden is now President-elect. Do you foresee a sea change in how the U.S. will respond to this pandemic, because of the messaging that might come from his administration?

I would hope so. But I’m not particularly optimistic, because while Trump has clearly been the leader of his party and the leader of the country during this time, he could really only have been successful with the support of the Republican Party. And all of those other politicians who either repeated what he said or didn’t contradict it are still going to be there.

One thing Trump certainly demonstrated is that you can do a lot with the executive powers of the presidency. And so even if Biden doesn’t get a lot of cooperation from Congress, there are lots of things he can do on his own with the executive branch. In terms of this idea that we are facing this national crisis, wouldn’t it be great if there was a sense of common purpose and common identity? We know that elite messaging can matter. And hopefully, there are enough people who are either already predisposed to support Biden’s messaging or just fed up with politics and conflict, that it would make them receptive to that kind of messaging.

A cynic would say that politicians are manufacturing identities and then manipulating them. Is that possible?

Oh, it’s definitely possible. It may be a strategy that’s helpful for winning in the short term, but isn’t necessarily in a political party’s long-term interest. We think of this a lot with the contemporary Republican Party. They may be trying to increase the salience of a white identity, for example. In the short term, this may be a winning strategy in enough places for the Republican Party, but it’s not going to be a long-term strategy as the population continues to change.

Is that because the notion of what it means to be American is somehow changing because of increasing diversity and immigration?

That’s right. The younger generation today, which will be the dominant makeup of voters in the not too distant future, is much more diverse. Whether they are going to find a campaign that capitalizes on white racial anxiety attractive or not remains to be seen, but it’s going to be harder than it is now.

What have the last nine months been like for you, personally and professionally?

A group of us political scientists joke—a kind of gallows humor—that some of these really bad things that are happening are great for political science. People who study anxiety and people who study anger and its political effects are getting great data. The problem is, none of us have time to actually do the research, because we’re all home with our kids. And that’s a concern, because political scientists can contribute to our understanding of a lot of big problems.

This article is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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