Like any nation, the identity of the United States is fabricated from both myth and reality – a collection of supporting stories casting characters, values, and narratives that contradict one another. And, like any set of stories, how they are interpreted relies on the consumer of the story. The landmass between the two borders is not just known as the United States but personified as America, and it’s giving “Her.” What stories dominate about who and what the United States is, what it values and what it aspires to underpin a long-standing core narrative that America is what we make it. In flashpoint moments, the stories, and thus identity, of the nation-state and its inhabitants come under question, raising great risk and great opportunity.
The United States has experienced a series of shocks during the last three years: a devastating, ongoing pandemic; a summer of historic protests for racial justice; aggressive election denialism; and an attack on the nation’s Capitol. Meanwhile, the NFL is aimed to be a $25 billion business by 2027, roller skating and skincare dominate social media feeds, and Bad Bunny rules the Billboard charts. The events of the last few years and our human response to coping with and surviving them challenge the dominant story of who and what America is and who the central characters are within that story. Many are grappling with the story of America for the first time while others are validating, “same shit, different day.” This sentiment is a mainstay for those of us who have never been accepted into the idea or identity of America.
The 2022 narrative landscape pointed toward a nation and its people at a crossroads, and no one knew exactly which way America would go. Indeed, our prediction held true. In 2022, community leaders, organizers, journalists, and elected officials across the political spectrum warned that the year's trajectory, including the midterms, would shape our country’s future. Democrats and progressives moved stories about the need to expand democracy and voting rights to protect our political system, while right wing messaging undermined elections and cast nonconservative political figures and their agendas as a threat to the American way of life.
NARRATIVES AT PLAY
- America is a democracy
- America has never been a democracy
- America’s future is as a transformative multiracial democracy
- America’s future is as a conservative Christian country
- It is up to us to secure our future
- America’s diversity is its strength
- Everyone should be free to be who they are
- Focusing on identity divides us
- Our identities and shared experiences unite us
- Your identity is a threat to my safety
- America is a lost cause.
Mobilize networks around the future while honoring the past. Deploy stories and messages that elevate ancestral ties and legacies to honor previous struggles, which continue to shape the current reality. Connect past freedom struggles to today’s conditions and tailor stories and messages to the communities in which you organize to advance progressive stories that claim a future in which everyone across age, race, class, gender, disability, and immigration status can thrive.
Name explicitly when zero-sum identity politics messaging is being used to divide people. Create and promote stories of inclusion and belonging rather than exclusion, and develop messages and stories that drive home that an expansive intersectional future is one where everyone's lives are improved. Advance the story that no one should be written off from this future based on their identity alone.
We can bridge the generational divide in 2023. The ways that boomers, Gen X, millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha across the ideological spectrum engage in politics and the culture wars vary. Beware of narratives and stories that strive to isolate generations; instead, elevate moments of generational unity. This is the year to challenge the concept of generational monoliths.
Identity can be used to essentialize and divide. The desire to belong or proximity to power can be wielded as a method of self-preservation and survival. It can also be used as a narrative tool to divide and fragment communities along the lines of race, class, sexuality, nationality, immigration status, disability, and gender by those who seek to diminish their power and influence at the individual and collective level. Don’t engage in this divisive frame and call out the tactic and its impacts out when you see it.
Build long-term strategies to combat mis- and disinformation that spread narrow, harmful views of identity. From election stories, stories that undermine any attempts at comprehensive migration policies, and conspiracy theories that go viral during cultural moments, these stories transmit harmful narratives and act as wedges to recruit people into right wing or conspiratorial networks. But mis- and disinformation stories are not new, often repeat themselves, and in many instances, we can anticipate what these stories will look like ahead of time. When strategizing, prepare by mapping probable mis- and disinformation in advance and building rapid response plans to address them as they emerge.
Some conversations around futurity and a return to our roots can foreclose on intersectional organizing and a multi-racial democracy. These stories risk reinforcing what Maurice Mitchell calls neoliberal identity. They undermine our ability to build and sustain narrative power that makes an intersectional, feminist, democratic future possible and places the burden to change the U.S. solely on those who are most marginalized across race, class, and gender.