From the Desk of Joshua A. Claybourn: Finding Our Sense of National Identity

Joshua A. Claybourn is an attorney and editor of Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative, a forthcoming book from Potomac Books in 2019 and available for pre-order now.

The bombshell New York Times op-ed by an anonymous “senior administration official” sent shockwaves through Washington and frustrated the administration after the author wrote that while officials “want the administration to succeed,” they have had to work against President Trump’s “misguided impulses” and “thwart” his “worst inclinations.”

The extraordinary column raises a litany of thorny questions. Who wrote it, why express such concerns in this way, and why write it now? What does this mean for the president and the presidency? How will Congress respond, if at all?

Pundits will continue wrestling with these and other related issues for quite some time, but the anonymous author’s call to action at the end of the piece has been largely overlooked: “[T]he real difference will be made by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans.”

The author rightly suggests an urgent need to transcend increasing tribalism which presents a troubling challenge to American civic life. We seem to be losing any shared sense of national identity to a degree that rivals most prior eras. Varying, and often mutually exclusive, narratives emerge along political and cultural fault lines so that few Americans agree on what America means and what, if anything, we can celebrate. We lack a central story, a common ground we can celebrate and enrich with deeper meaning. Unable to agree on first principles, we cannot agree on what it means to be American.

As we disregard or dismantle symbols and pastimes that previously united us, can we replace them with stories and rites to unite our tribes and maintain meaning in our American experiment? Can we come together around a defining narrative, or make our multiple narratives cohere? A new collection of essays from a distinguished group of theorists, historians, and politicians will explore this timely, important question in Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative (Potomac Books, 2019).

We need more thinkers wrestling with the way forward out of crippling tribalism and our predicament. And we need more readers reading what they find.

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