Abortion rights and gun control are among the most polarizing issues in our polarized nation. But with states as red as Kansas and Kentucky (and as reddish as Ohio) upholding abortion rights, plus polls showing considerable consensus on gun control, we may reasonably ask why America keeps getting diagnosed with an identity crisis across the political spectrum.

After all, when far-right GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and progressive civil-rights Harvard Law Professor Guy-Uriel Charles, who agree on nothing, both find a national identity crisis owing to not knowing who we are as Americans, it’s tempting to think the diagnosis is correct. Yet, I don’t.

That’s because I see America’s sociopolitical identity as that of a nation divided by citizens who disagree on the fundamentals of democracy itself. This definitional divide helps explain the neck-and-neck Biden/Trump polls. Pundits say it’s too early to take these polls seriously. But I suggest they reflect confusion about distinguishing democracy from autocracy.

For example, a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 38% of Americans agreed “we need a leader who is willing to break some rules,” if will get the country “back on track.” Did they realize that’s an autocratic sentiment? If not, then semantics are contributing to our polarization, with dire antidemocratic consequences that transcend semantics. Still, this isn’t an identity crisis.

Mid-20th-century psychoanalyst Erik Erikson defined “identity crisis” as a failure to establish one’s beliefs and values, a sense of self. That’s the opposite of what’s happening today, when our identities are shaped, heightened, and rigidified along political-party lines, despite nontrivial points of consensus.

Think of it this way: Most of us have experienced internal conflict about people, goals, daily decisions. That doesn’t mean we lack individual identities, but rather that ambivalence can create internal discomfort.


Most assume our identities are somewhat set by the time we’re adults. But in their book “The Power of Us,” psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer explained how aspects of our identities are more malleable than we think. They summarize substantial evidence that demonstrates how environments can affect whether our self-described identities determine our thoughts, perceptions, and actions. The more a situation brings to mind a self-identified characteristic, like being a liberal or a conservative, the more that characteristic influences our responses in that situation.

For instance, Van Bavel and Packer described how “Southerners preferred the taste of grits” only after their Southern identity was made salient. Similarly, bringing to mind our political identities makes us more likely to believe the rhetoric of preferred/in-group leaders over out-group leaders, despite the veracity of either. Because we’re in a profoundly heightened political environment, our political identities are activated frequently. This speaks to our polarized politics. In 2014, before Trump’s presidency, the Pew Research Center reported that we tend “to associate primarily with politically like-minded people … actively avoiding those with whom we disagree.” That’s intensified now.

In 2008, then presidential candidate Obama remarked that “small-town Pennsylvania voters, bitter over their economic circumstances, ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’ … to explain their frustrations.” We now know that standing nearby were authoritarian-wannabe politicians, ready to exploit the loss in income and status of White working-and-middle-class Americans. Their demagogic “Us-vs-Them” rhetoric offers ready-made identity boosters, raising and solidifying anti-democratic sentiments.

Like other authoritarian movements worldwide, our home-grown MAGA movement holds sway over many Americans in democracy’s name, by labeling authoritarian policies and practices as democratic. To combat this linguistic sleight-of-hand, we must focus on what a bona-fide democratic government should and should not strive for, by clarifying the differences between democratic and autocratic systems.

Consider Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recently dismissive response to Biden’s so-called “democracy vs. autocracy talk,” in saying that the “Chinese Communist Party” constantly pursues “freedom, democracy and human rights.” In his view, “the United States has American-style democracy. China has Chinese-style democracy.” Really?

China’s government is rightly called a dictatorship, given its lack of an “independent judiciary, free media, or universal suffrage for national office.” As if that weren’t autocratic enough, Xi’s critics face detention.


This sounds like MAGA America, as Trump plots to devote his second presidential term to revenge, for starters, by eliminating an independent judiciary, which would enable him to prosecute his enemies.

There are many ways to challenge an autocracy promoted in the name of democracy. One way that might gain traction in MAGA world is to ask voters this question: Do you want an American democracy or a Chinese “democracy”? It would be interesting to see how MAGA leaders differentiate the two, and with whose definition of democracy voters identify.

Then again, given Trump’s boastful admiration of autocrats, we shouldn’t be surprised if his followers choose authoritarian “democracy,” thinking its democracy.

Barbara S. Held is the Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

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