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Can the Declaration of Independence’s Ideals Hold America Together?

At Washington Monthly, director Colin Woodard shared the results of Nationhood Lab’s first major poll on U.S. national identity, which showed Americans prefer to define their country by its commitment to civic ideals rather than by shared ancestry, history, traditions or culture by wide margins.

The online piece published May 15 described the findings of the national survey of 1567 American voters, which was completed in early April and released April 23. Among the results: 63 percent of Americans prefer the statement that we are united “not by a shared religion or ancestry or history, but by our shared commitment to a set of American founding ideals: that we all have inherent and equal rights to live, to not be tyrannized, and to pursue happiness as we each understand it” over one embraced by 33 percent of respondents that says we are united “by shared history, traditions, and values and by our fortitude and character as Americans, a people who value hard work, individual responsibility, and national loyalty.”

In multiple questions, civic, ideals-based definitions of the U.S. were preferred by nearly every demographic category, including men, women, whites, Blacks, Latinos, people with and without college educations, and across all generations. The major exceptions were Republicans and those who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

“We offered statement pairs about our national purpose, American identity, and the meaning of our past; in each case, one was keyed off the ideals in the Declaration, the other rooted in more intrinsic characteristics like ancestry, heritage, character, and values,” Woodard wrote. “We wrote each to sound as attractive as possible, and I actually expected the heritage/character versions to win, if only because they seemed more concrete than pledging loyalty to abstract ideals. But the civic ones proved far more attractive regardless of gender, age, race, education, or region.”

The Monthly piece was cross-posted by Real Clear Politics the following morning and on May 17 was picked as a highlight of the week by the Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston on The Bulwark‘s Beg to Differ Podcast. “I have long believed that if we were ever to get back together again it would have to be on the basis of our founding principles and now Woodard has developed some pretty compelling evidence that that may just be true,” Glaston said. “So I’m really bummed out in the short term but I am not without hope for the recovery of the nation’s comity in the long term if somebody suddenly figures out how to turn the Declaration of Independence’s message into something that actually makes sense to the American people right now.”

Nationhood Lab, a project of Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, focuses on counteracting the authoritarian threat to American democracy and the centrifugal forces threatening the federation’s stability. One pillar of the project seeks to develop, rigorously test, and disseminate articulate a renewed civic national narrative for the United States.

[This post cross-posted from Nationhood Lab.]