Do we have an identity crisis in America? Some say “yes.” Some say “no.” Others say, “well, maybe.”
If you are in the category of those who believe we do, let me ask you this: Do you think the identity crisis we are now embroiled in is really that different from what we have been through before?
If you do, permit me to offer some historical perspective.
In 1950, German psychologist Erik Erikson observed after he came to America, “This dynamic country subjects its inhabitants to more abrupt change during a lifetime or a generation than is normally the case with other great nations.” In other words, Americans change, and sometimes those changes happen very fast.
In a classic film from another era starring Jimmy Stewart titled “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the character Mr. Smith said, “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.”
Our nation went through a crisis during the 1930s and then again in the 1960s. Those defining decades echo the current political environment. Unprecedented unemployment and economic devastation of the 1930s and the race riots and political upheaval of the 1960s seem strikingly similar to today’s uncertainty.
Let’s take a closer look at the 1960s.
This decade was sparked by years of economic hardship. We saw protests erupting in Newark, Detroit, Watts, Chicago and elsewhere. In fact, there were numerous protests across the country on college campuses. Some were against the government and the Vietnam war while others were fed up with what they saw as government overreach. Military units were called upon to control the student uprisings. Some students were even killed. To those watching these events unfold on the nightly news, it appeared that battle lines were being drawn and America was headed toward massive civil unrest.
The societal disorganization unfolding became very real to those watching the nation they loved being hurled into a crisis. The crisis they were witnessing was in real time, thanks to television. No previous generation had ever witnessed this before unfolding as it did in their very living rooms (TV dinners and TV trays became all the rage during this time).
Slogans like “power to the people” and “bring the war home” were echoed by the dissident voices of the time. The agenda varied with the groups. Some were protesting over free speech, equality for people of color and women’s rights. Protests ranged from non-violent sit-ins to bombings. Groups differed on how to bring about change. Some groups favored non-violence while other groups believed that violence was needed to bring about political change.
Sound familiar? It should, because it is.
If the 1960s and early 1970s were like the unrest we see today, why are some so negative about America’s future? Is democracy really crumbling? I don’t believe it is.
Great principles that founded our great nation don’t fade away. They sometimes get reinvented, reworded or revamped. If America’s past identity crisis has taught us anything, it has taught us that we as Americans are constantly reinventing ourselves.
America is still the most advanced, the most progressive and the most diverse nation in the world.
We value freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom to live as we choose.
I don’t ever see these things changing. Why? Because we have fought too long, too hard, to have these freedoms taken away. Americans of all political stripes won’t allow for our freedoms and shared ideals to be lost by internal division. America will emerge from this identity crisis, just as it always has, with a renewed sense of hope.
Mr. Smith was right. “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.” They just get redefined.
Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.