What It Means To Be An American

Both major political parties have now held their national conventions in advance of the fall election. During those conventions, two divergent views emerged of what it means to be an American. Of course, within each party you'll find those who disagree with the prevailing viewpoint. Nonetheless these are the two visions of America that I observed:

One view: We are a declining, threatened tribe losing our way of life and in danger of actually losing our lives. To become great and safe again, we must expel and eliminate any perceived threat.

The other view: We are an increasingly diverse community, made stronger by our differences. By working together in a spirit of hospitality and generosity, we become safer, healthier, more prosperous, and a more perfect union.

One view defines patriotism by who is excluded.

The other view defines patriotism by the breadth of inclusion.

The former defines oppression as anything that threatens their privileged status. The latter views oppression as the fruit of systemic injustice in which we are all complicit.

The first ideology looks for scapegoats to demonize as the cause of our woes and seeks a savior to deliver us from the evil ones.

The latter perspective looks in the mirror and seeks to take responsibility for selfishness, fear, and bigotry in the hope of awakening millions of saviors, each doing daily acts of justice, courage, and generosity.

An example of the difference is seen in Khizr Khan's speech to the Democratic National Convention and the reaction to it. Khan spoke of his Muslim-immigrant son, a U.S. Army Captain, who was killed when he sacrificed his life to save fellow soldiers from a bulldozing taxi carrying 200 pounds of explosives. He said his son and the sacrifice he made represent the best of what it means to be an American. His take on Mr. Trump was that his view of what it means to be an American is skewed because he has sacrificed nothing and no one.

Monday on CNN's "New Day", Mr. Khan continued his line of thought, "Communities coming together is the solution. We are as concerned as Mr. Trump is about the safety of this country. We need a leader that will unite us, not disrespect, not by derogatory remarks...That's all I wish to convey to him. That a good leader has one trait...empathy."

In response to Mr. Kahn, Mr. Trump enumerated his sacrifices: built structures, created thousands of jobs, and made money.

I have no illusion that either party will fully live up to the best of its values. Both political parties are prone to hypocrisy and pandering. But a core question has emerged from the conventions. Is being American about:

  • Exclusion. Self-obsession. Fear. Looking for scapegoats?


  • Inclusion. Self-sacrifice. Empathy. Looking to collaborate?

Which view of what it means to be an American more closely aligns with your own?