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Commentary: What does it mean to be an American?

Commentary: What does it mean to be an American?

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Lee Hamilton

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be an American, to have a shared stake in this country and its fortunes. In some ways the question is unanswerable: We are a diverse country, and we each answer the question in our own way.

Yet there are traits in common that resonate across communities and political beliefs. You could start, for instance, with a belief in the promise and ideals of the United States, in its Constitution and laws, and perhaps above all in the independence and opportunity that many Americans consider their birthright.

Yet all along we’ve balanced this quest for liberty with a sense of responsibility. As an American, you accept certain responsibilities: to cast an informed vote; to respect the laws and if you disagree with them to work through the system to change them; to defend the Constitution; and to respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.

This last is not a nice-to-have add-on. It’s baked into our system. The success of American democracy rests on all sorts of values: open-mindedness, civility, competence. But we also possess a restless and impressive desire to make things better — to improve our communities and the lives of the people who live in them. At its heart, the American system — our representative democracy — is about how we resolve our differences in order to move forward.

This means we solve our problems together, by working with all kinds of people, trying to forge common ground and communicate our ideas effectively. In the end, this means that the country depends on a set of common virtues in its citizens — mutual respect, tolerance, humility, honesty, and a willingness to step up to challenges — that underlie our ability to make progress together.

All of this may seem starry-eyed these days. There are plenty of Americans who have no patience for those on the other side. Yet the basic need we confront as Americans has not changed, and that is to use the political system to resolve our challenges.

There are all kinds of fault lines in American politics right now. Resolving them is an ongoing challenge. But being an American means confronting that task, doing our best to find solutions that most Americans can live with — and recognizing that the chance to do all this as ordinary citizens is one of the gifts that being an American bestows on us.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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