A Nation in Identity Crisis?

Just for kicks, I thought it might be interesting, on the day after the 2012 election, to think of the US as a nation undergoing an adolescent identity crisis. I do this in response to some post-election commentary that seems to suggest the demographic shift in the US has engendered one, forcing political parties across the land to respond before their next loss in a national election.

What do we know about identity crises? Well, here are some thoughts from Erik Erikson, who coined the phrase. They sound  especially interesting when the ‘youth’ in question is a nation, and in this case, one with a very particular opinion of itself and its history:

I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis; it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be. This sounds dangerously like common sense; like all health, however, it is a matter of course only to those who possess it, and appears as a most complex achievement to those who have tasted its absence. Only in ill health does one realize the intricacy of the body; and only in a crisis, individual or historical, does it become obvious what a sensitive combination of interrelated factors the human personality is a combination of capacities created in the distant past and of opportunities divined in the present; a combination of totally unconscious preconditions developed in individual growth and of social conditions created and recreated in the precarious interplay of generations. In some young people, in some classes, at some periods in history, this crisis will be minimal; in other people, classes, and periods, the crisis will be clearly marked off as a critical period, a kind of “second birth,” apt to be aggravated either by widespread neuroticisms or by pervasive ideological unrest. Some young individuals will succumb to this crisis in all manner of neurotic, psychotic, or delinquent behavior; others will resolve it through participation in ideological movements passionately concerned with religion or politics, nature or art. Still others, although suffering and deviating dangerously through what appears to be a prolonged adolescence, eventually come to contribute an original bit to an emerging style of life: the very danger which they have sensed has forced them to mobilize capacities to see and say, to dream and plan, to design and construct, in new ways.

For what it’s worth, I do not think this election, or even the one before it, have triggered anything like an identity crisis. This is not because the US cannot be termed ‘adolescent’; rather, it is because these elections do not seem have induced as fundamental a rupture as indicated above.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962

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