The American identity is on the line. The country must decide who and what it is going to be. What makes this cycle unique is that, for the first time in over a century, the nation will make this choice in the absence of an external threat to its existence. The 2012 presidential election is for the right to define our national identity for the twenty-first century.

National identity is a curious thing. While it is often considered to be how a nation perceives itself, it is usually solidified when contrasted against what it is not. For centuries, we were not the British or the Spanish, not the Central Powers of World War I, not the Axis of World War II, nor the communist Soviet Union. By fighting against who we were not, we learned more about who we were.

Not since the Civil War has the United States faced what we do today: internal competing visions of what our country should be, decided in an environment where we are the only superpower. That war was about more than slavery and state’s rights; it was about whether or not we truly believed our founding principle that every man and woman is created equal. It was a battle for our identity.

The outcome of the Civil War did not create a country of equal opportunity overnight. But what it did do was create a new American environment that made women’s suffrage and the 1960’s civil rights movement possible.

Likewise, this election will remake the American identity for decades to come, and it has been two decades in the making. Now that we can no longer kick the can down the road – we are out of timeouts, so to speak – it is time to declare who we are.

Are we a nation that believes in passing on enormous debt to our children, or one that believes in cutting social programs for our elders and downtrodden? Do we entrust our energy needs to other sovereign states or pursue energy independence that foregoes the interdependence our diplomacy leverages? Do we think it is the government’s responsibility to ensure universal healthcare or is it up to personal responsibility and the insurance marketplace? Do we believe in a national standard of education or a system tailored to our children’s personalities and locales? Are we caretakers of the Earth or do we exert dominion over it?

The solutions to these extremes, and more, are the fundamental questions of our time that will determine our identity in the twenty-first century.

Consider immigration. America is a nation that came to prominence through, among other things, countless contributions of its immigrant populations. The Statue of Liberty, symbolic of the idea that founded our nation, has inscribed on it base, “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Various congressional acts since our founding restricted adherence to this proclamation, from allowing only “free white persons” in 1790 to restricting particular European and Asian immigrants well into the 1950s. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 moved away from the ethnicity requirement and towards the value-based conditions of acumen and family cohesiveness. This occurrence was a restatement of our national identity: America is a place that values talent, family, and hard work over being born into the right family, means, or land.

This brings to light the democratic salience of our national identity. We formulate it de facto and de jure – in culture and in Congress, both taking cues from the other. Today, immigration is again a prominent issue. What the country decides next will be the foundation for this century, and will speak volumes about the American identity.

Certainly, the country has confronted identifying crises throughout its history not tied to war; the choices we face today are not new. The late 1970’s energy crisis and the mid-90’s healthcare debates are precursors to the decisions we must make today. The confluence, however, of these decisions in this time and space is unique.

And so the parties will compete. But much like gladiators in the Roman coliseum games where it was a contest of survival, winning is not a trivial matter. It is a matter of the life or death of the American identity as we know it.

Johnson, a 2011-2012 White House Fellow, is an active duty commander in the United States Navy.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.