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What does it mean to be an American?

Guest Column
Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Tell me: What does it actually mean to be an American? In the press of day-to-day events and amid the ongoing tumult of politics, we don’t think about this much. Yet it’s a crucial question, one that each generation in this country is called upon to answer for itself.

I believe the aim of our representative democracy is to enhance the liberty of free people, and to offer them the opportunity to make the most of their talents. This lies at the root of what it means to live in a representative democracy: extending respect to all and wanting every person to be aware of his or her political importance.

Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this view is the awe-inspiring Declaration of Independence, which remains a core inspiration both for our political values and our shared identity. The notion that all people are created equal, that we possess God-given inalienable rights, including to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — these are beliefs that undergird our democracy.

Bringing these values into our policies and our politics depends on all of us — another notion embedded in this country since the beginning. Though the quality of our elected leaders makes all the difference, ultimately our success as a nation will rest on the strength and capabilities of our citizens.

Politics as it is practiced in our country can bring despair and crushing defeat. But it can also produce splendid achievements. If you enter politics, you have to be prepared for both. The atmosphere has changed from when I first got involved — that was a time when it was possible to find common ground across partisan divides, and when respecting one’s opponents did not bring immediate censure from donors and primary voters. Yet the basic need — for using the political system to resolve fundamental challenges — has not changed.

Nor has one of its most basic features: a permanent tension between the preservation and expansion of individual freedom on the one hand, and the stability and strength of the nation on the other.

These are not contradictory goals, but they do rub against each other. How we interpret them —how far in one direction or the other we go as our national circumstances change — is a constant challenge. Being an American means not shying away from that task, but instead embracing it as part of our birthright.


Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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