Any exploration of American nationalism must begin with the National Question: “Is there such a thing as the American people? And if so, what is it?” Most people do not ask such questions. A Frenchman does not wonder if he is French, nor the Pole if he is Polish, nor—notoriously—the Serb if he is Serbian. He knows very well that he is what he is, and he has little or no difficulty in distinguishing himself from somebody else with a different national identity.
Such questions of identity typically signal a conflict—whether a conflict within the individual soul or an actual donnybrook in the streets. When an Ulsterman declares defiantly that he is British, it is probably in response to the assertion of Irish nationalists that to be an Ulsterman signifies not a national identity different from the Irish one but merely a cultural or regional “tradition” within it. Similarly, when a Canadian intellectual describes his national identity as consisting of the landscape and extensive social services—what might be called soil and bloodlessness—it is because he is papering over a conflict between two real national identities, the French Quebecker and the English Canadian. And when someone describes himself as a European, it means either that he is in Asia or Africa at the time, or that he is an employee of the European Commission in Brussels.
These three cases are, of course, very different. The Ulsterman is resisting an identity that is being thrust upon him; the Canadian intellectual has lost an identity and is looking for a replacement, preferably one without any embarrassingly “patriotic” or provincial overtones; and the “European” has invented a new one and is trying to impose it on other people. But all three cases illustrate that a national identity, however real and deeply rooted, can suddenly find itself up against a question mark. It can go from the realm of necessity into that of freedom—in everyday language, it can cease to seem natural and taken for granted and come to seem artificial and a matter of choice.
When it does so, the result will be inner doubt and unhappiness and social, political, legal, and constitutional conflict. Existing institutions that were props of the old national identity will be criticized as the ancien regime, and new institutions will be brought into being to express the new identities that are being shaped and perhaps pressed upon people. Something very like this is now happening in the United Kingdom with the proposals for a Scottish parliament, for judicial review on the American model, and for the subordination of Parliament to a European legal system being introduced by Mr, Blair’s Labour government. Indeed, Britain’s serviceable unwritten constitution is now routinely dismissed as the ancien regime, and Mr. Blair boasts that Britain is being “re-branded” internationally as “Cool Britannia.” All of which suggests that the British are being transformed from a nation of shopkeepers into one of advertising copywriters.
The national question in the United States is now very evidently on the political agenda—though no politician will admit it openly. We can tell this easily enough by reading the newspapers or watching television. Let me take a few examples, chosen at random:
1) A rally in Los Angeles opposing Proposition 187 four years ago featured thousands of people waving Mexican flags. Proposition 187 nonetheless passed by a large majority. It was then held up until last December by a federal judge who first refused to rule upon it at all—which meant that her ruling could not be reversed on appeal—and then declared it unconstitutional. In March of this year, she not only confirmed but extended her ruling; she mandated the governor of California to send letters to the managers of public services instructing them that the law was invalid. This scarcely seems necessary. Proposition 187 has not yet been enforced anywhere, and the likelihood is that it never will be.
2) Legislation has been introduced to outlaw the African practice of female genital mutilation, unknown in America until a few years ago. A correspondence in the New York Times pitted feminist critics of this practice against multiculturalists who defended it on the familiar grounds of cultural relativism. Of course, clitorectomy is entirely inconsistent with traditional American cultural norms. But the multiculturalists reply that American culture is merely one participant in a national conversation now marked by cultural diversity. It can no longer expect a privileged position. Their argument failed on this occasion because it was opposed by the even more powerful cultural force of feminism.
3) A federal appeals court on the West Coast declared unconstitutional an Arizona law (passed by popular referendum) that English should be the sole language used in official state business. Judge Stephen Reinhardt ruled absurdly that a civil servant had a right under the First Amendment to deal with her colleagues and members of the public in her own language, namely Spanish. The Supreme Court later overturned this decision, but the law is still under challenge in the state courts. And we can take little comfort from the fact that manifest cultural absurdities go all the way to the Supreme Court before being slapped down.
4) The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed in March supporting the concept of dual citizenship—and pointing to the fact that millions of Americans now claim it. “Beginning this Saturday, a new Mexican law will enable Americans of Mexican ancestry to regain or retain Mexican citizenship. The law will shortly create an estimated five million dual nationals, mainly in California.” This example is spawning imitators. Large immigrant communities, the article goes on to tell us, from Asian nations like South Korea and India are pressing their home governments to do the same.
5) The U.S. soccer team, defeated in its gold cup match against Mexico in Los Angeles, was showered with water bombs, beer, bottles, and garbage by a crowd of 90,000 people. Whistles, horns, hooting, and booing drowned out the national anthem. People rooting for the U.S. team or waving the Stars and Stripes received angry stares and had garbage thrown at them. One team-player remarked: “We were treated better when we played down there [in Mexico City].”
What these examples suggest is that the American nation is being replaced by a plethora of little nations, with their own cultures and identities and—most significant of all—languages. The common culture and common sense of nationhood which once served to unite Americans are now beginning to decay. And the law and politics are limping along behind these new social realities.
Immigration, Americanism, and the New Class
How has this come about? The first cause is the high and continuing level of immigration that began in the late 60’s following the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Since I have written at length elsewhere on the effects of immigration on national identity (see in particular “Why Kemp and Bennett are Wrong on Immigration,” National Review, November 21, 1994), I will not dwell extensively on the same points here. Briefly, however, continuing high levels of immigration undermine America’s identity in three ways.
First, immigration strengthens and reinforces ethnic subcultures in American society. The arrival of more people who speak languages other than English, for instance, means that non-English-speakers already here will have less incentive to learn the language of Americans. Cultural ghettoes that might otherwise be absorbed into the surrounding American culture survive and even expand.
Second, the arrival of more people from different cultures sharpens the sense of ethnic difference among native-born Americans. Historically, high levels of immigration have stimulated the rise of movements and ideologies that emphasize differences among non-immigrant ethnics, notably Horace Kallen’s cultural pluralism and today’s “diversity.” And these tend to be hostile to the concept of a distinctive but encompassing American identity.
Third, by juxtaposing American culture to immigrant cultures, immigration can make it seem arbitrary, irrational, and even oppressive. It becomes mereU’ the “Anglo” culture whose rules and conventions arc thought to be alien to immigrants and cannot be imposed upon them. Nor is this argument wholly fanciful: some immigrants have been harshly treated for following the rules of their traditional societies, such as the hvo Pakistani husbands whose arranged marriages with under-age brides led to their imprisonment. But placing immigrant cultures on the same level as American culture produces still worse results. We gradually drift in the direction of a society in which only a few abstract legal rules unite a variety of peoples who, culturally speaking, live in different worlds.
These problems highlight the second underlying cause of the erosion of America’s national unity—foolish and unhistorical concepts of American nationhood. I am not referring to multiculturalism—the theory that America is a legal and constitutional umbrella which shelters not individual Americans but different ethnic groups and nationalities. On this theory, the American people as such does not exist; in its place are the American peoples—the ethnic identities which properly attract the primary allegiance of U.S. citizens. This doctrine is now taught in American schools under the new (and only slightly amended) history standards, and its consequences are now clear. For instance, Lani Guinier argues for a constitution which vests rights not in individuals but in ethnic groups, and which therefore requires the assent of a majority of each group for major legislation. The constitutional implication of such a theory would be, as our Vice President has wittily put it, that e pluribus unum means “out of one—many.”
But multiculturalism —though undoubtedly foolish and unhistorical—is not the cause of America’s Balkanization. It would be more accurate to say that multiculturalism is part of the process of Balkanization—one aspect of the deconstruction of the country, even perhaps an epiphenomenal response to a dissolution that was already occurring. The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk, and multiculturalism is, if anything, a lagging indicator of the country’s plight.
The theory of American nationhood responsible for this collapse is the idea that America is an idea. On this view, Americans are not Americans by virtue of being born into the community of Americans and thereafter shaped by American upbringing and culture. Indeed, it is commonly said that there is no common American culture, still less an American ethnicity, to shape and unite them. Rather, Americans are defined by their allegiance to a set of liberal political principles, notably liberty and equality, outlined in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Constitution.
Thus Edward Luttwak writes in The Endangered American Dream:
Americans have no shared national culture to unite them as the French or Italians have—there are many different cultures in our pluralist society. Nor can Americans rely on ethnic solidarity alone, as the Japanese say they can— we have many different ethnic origins. What Americans have in common are their shared beliefs, above all in equality of opportunity in the pursuit of affluence.
Robert Bartley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote in National Review that “America is a nation-state united not by ethnicity but by truths we assert to be self-evident.” And Mark Falcoff summed up this view in Commentary as follows: “Uniquely among nations, America is a ‘proposition country’; it has no history and identity apart from certain eighteenth-century political notions embodied in its Constitution and Common Law.”
But if your identity is defined by a constitution, what happens when the constitution changes? A famous Punch cartoon shows an Englishman in a public library asking for a copy of the French constitution. “I am sorry, sir,” the librarian replies, “but we do not stock periodicals.” Now, the French have resolved any dilemma here with characteristic Gallic logic: their constitution has no influence on how France is governed. But in America, the Constitution is held in reverence—which has enabled the courts in particular, and the political system in general, to embark upon a re-shaping of American society and American nationhood. Thus, as Michael Lind reports in The Next American Nation, the Office of Management and Budget in 1973 promulgated Statistical Directive Number 13, which divided Americans into five ethnic groups for the purpose of allocating benefits and disadvantages under affirmative action. Over time, these have become the basis for everything from racial preferences in college admissions to FBI statistics on “Hate Crimes” to the drawing of election districts under the Voting Rights Act. And in multiculturalist theory, they are the first faltering steps toward a vision of America as a federation of ethnic and national groups.
In short, the theory of America-as-an-idea is a Trojan horse concealing the concept of a multiculturalist America. If Americans are united not by a sense of common nationhood and a common culture but merely by liberal political ideas, then there is no reason why American culture should be privileged as the culture of the entire people. It would merely be the cultiire, language, customs, etc., of one ethnic group—one ethnic group among many competing for attention and respect in the public square. And all that would be required of another ethnic culture seeking equal recognition in schools, the voting booth, and the workplace would be that it conform broadly to the liberal political ideas of the Declaration.
But what would happen to American ideas in the process? You cannot sever philosophy from its surrounding culture and expect it to develop along the lines of that culture. The ideas of liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence were the distilled essence of a much broader and richer culture including songs, stories, poems, customs, folkways, shared historical experience, and the mystic chords of memory. Americans who had no interest in political ideas as such were nonetheless shaped by that culture—by the lived experience of a free life — into a different sort of people from the inhabitants of closed, traditional, or despotic societies. As Paul Johnson points out in his recent history of the American people, in the century up to 1776, a man might earn enough by his labor to buy a family farm and establish his independence. In these circumstances, Lockean liberty and the words of the Declaration were simply an eloquent statement of the common sense of ordinary Americans, and the U.S. Constitution constituted their standing orders.
All this would change in a political environment of multiculturalism. Liberal ideas would be increasingly deprived of the cultural soil in which they grew and which gave them meaning in political debate, court decisions, and local customs. They would develop new meanings, sometimes radically at odds with their old ones. They would be increasingly defined by the courts so as to reconcile them with new versions of common sense—namely, that all cultures have equal status except when one clashes with feminism, or that separation of church and state means separation of religion and society, or that political equality means different rights for different classes of people.
In the end, the ideas of the Declaration and the clauses of the Constitution would conform to the tenets of multiculturalism rather than the other way around. The task of redefining America’s ideas would place enormous power in the hands of those whose business is words and ideas. And here we come to the third underlying cause of America’s identity crisis: multiculturalism is more than merely a lagging response to a Balkanized America; it is also a political strategy employed by the New-Class of liberal social regulators to divide and rule other Americans.
The New Class is a term that was invented by Yugoslav writer (and former apparatchik) Milovan Djilas. It described the bureaucratic class which ruled and prospered under communism by taking state and “public” property for its own private use. This concept—also known later as the nomenklatura— was capable of more general application, and Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, and other (generally neoconservative) social critics in the 1970’s applied it to the United States and to the conditions of late capitalism to describe the non-technical “intelligentsia” which controls the bureaucracy, the courts, federal agencies, the media, and cultural institutions. This class is united not only by common interests but also—and more importantly —by a common concept of those interests. In everyday life, these are the imperatives of liberal politics.
One of the most prominent analysts of this class and its politics, to whom I must pay tribute, is Samuel Francis. In Chronicles and in his most recent book. Revolution from the Middle, Dr. Francis describes his theories as being based on those of Donald Warren, but one can also detect the strong influence of James Burnham, in particular his once-famous book, The Managerial Revolution. The managerial class which Burnham identified has changed its politics in numerous ways since the early 40’s, when he first sketched out his thesis, but it has steadily increased its power and influence. Burnham correctly analyzed this trend at the time, but he was mistaken about its short-term direction, and he exaggerated the degree to which it had already succeeded in conquering society. Overall, however, the Burnhamite analysis, especially in the hands of Dr. Francis, has proved extremely prescient and fruitful.
Recently, this New Class has seen that the way to extend its power is to divide Americans into different tribes so that it can then step forward as the mediator of their disputes, keeping the peace by transferring resources from one tribe to another as necessity dictates. This policy of divide-and-rule is perhaps most explicit and most entrenched in the structures of affirmative action. But it achieved a reductio ad absurdum in the reactions of the Democrats when the Democratic National Committee was caught soliciting funds illegally from Asian donors and laundering them through Asian-Americans. The Democrats sought to avoid responsibility for their own crimes by accusing their critics of hostility to Asians. To an extent, they succeeded—but at the heavy cost of adding to the ethnic tensions of American society.
America’s distinctive nationhood, therefore, is being subverted by three factors in combination: a widely accepted theory of American nationality, which leaves it vulnerable to multiculturalist attacks; continuing high levels of immigration, which inter alia make multiculturalism plausible to ordinary people; and the existence of a class with a political interest in dividing America along ethnic and other lines. If these are the problems, then the answer seems reasonably clear: we must restore a traditional understanding of the American people as a distinct nation—with its own history, language, culture, and institutions—as the basis for a new nationalist politics.
My Nationalism—Right and Wrong
Any attempt to forge a new nationalist politics will naturally reveal our differences. After all, nationalist postures have been struck at various times by people as strikingly different as Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Edward Luttwak, Dick Cephardt, and Norman Podhoretz. But none of these has devised a package of nationalist policies that could be convincingly presented to voters as the solution to America’s identity crisis. Only Patrick Buchanan has done this, with his “America First” agenda. It consists of three basic appeals: protectionism; the restriction of immigration (and opposition to multiculturalism and bilingualism); and a foreign policy restricting America’s participation in international organizations such as NATO and the United Nations in order to preserve American sovereignty.
This package of measures has already shown considerable (if minority) appeal in the Buchanan campaigns of 1992 and 1996. It was originally bolstered by the rise of Ross Perot, who echoed some of Buchanan’s themes (if somewhat timidly and incoherently). It has recently been given fresh energy by the arrival of a new labor union leadership which is more aggressive, more prepared to spend money, and more willing to back protectionist policies than was the George Meany/Lane Kirkland leadership of the AFL-CIO. Above all, Buchananite nationalism has been given a major boost by the defeat of fast-hack legislation in the closing months of 1997. So it seems likely that nationalist politics—at least on the right—will go down the Buchanan route. And because much of what follows will be critical of Buchananism, I should acknowledge that (in his National Interest article, “America First—and Second, and Third”) Pat Buchanan was the first major figure to see that post-Cold War politics would be radically different from what went before, that nationalism would revive almost everywhere following the collapse of the last great secular religion, and that it would have to be accommodated by Western governments and political parties, especially those on the right.
The main problem, unfortunately, is that Buchananism has got its priorities wrong. It has consistently emphasized its weakest policy (protectionism) over its strongest (restricting immigration). It has ignored the likely consequences of protectionism, pointing instead to its popularity—even though a popular policy that cannot deliver the goods will soon become unpopular and ruin the larger politics of which it is an expression. It is building a political coalition which is not only riven by more serious disputes than both the existing parties but which has elements that are hostile to the revival of American nationhood on every issue outside the narrow and secondary realm of economics. And its foreign policy of “America First” is a response to a temporary situation of American predominance in world affairs and does not take into account the dangers posed by a future of five or six competing superpowers. These are serious flaws. Do they look so disabling in detail?
Take immigration. Together with the related issues of multiculturalism and bilingualism, immigration is potentially the strongest card in nationalist politics. Its great advantage as a political issue is that it is directly and visibly linked to America’s crisis of nationhood. That link is a matter of common observation and common sense, and it does not have to be established by a long chain of reasoning—except, of course, to intellectuals. Moreover, it is an issue where the cure is plainly the opposite of the cause. Restricting immigration would rapidly begin to cure America’s crisis of identity, as it did in the inter-war years, by shrinking linguistic and cultural enclaves and giving their inhabitants a strong practical incentive to assimilate. Above all, restricting immigration is a policy which imposes no serious costs on the American people. The recent report of the National Academy of Sciences found that the net economic benefit of immigration to native-born Americans was extremely low—between one to ten billion dollars annually in an almost eight-trillion dollar economy. But the fiscal loss to Americans from immigration ranges from about 5250 per family annually in New Jersey to well over $1,200 per average Californian family. And poor Americans are more likely to be economically hurt by immigration than are the rich.
It is not surprising, therefore, that mass immigration is an unpopular policy. Going back well over 40 years in opinion polls, two-thirds of the American people have been consistently in favor of less immigration, with one-tenth favoring more, and one-fifth happy with the existing level. More significantly, however, the better informed people are about the level of immigration, the less likely they are to support it and the more likely they are to favor a reduction. And finally—the mark of a very strong political issue—there is no competition lurking in the wings ready to swoop in and seize the issue once it has been shown to be a vote-winner. As with racial preferences, the Democrats are deterred by the nature of their coalition from embracing immigration reform.
Even better from a Buchananite standpoint, the GOP—which seemed likely a few years ago to take up the cause of immigration restriction—has now reversed positions completely. In recent months, it has legalized the status of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, and Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) now proposes to increase the immigration quota for skilled workers without reducing other quotas. As a recent article in the New Republic conceded, if high levels of legal immigration are now politically entrenched, the GOP must be given the credit. So Mr. Buchanan has monopolistic control of the powerful immigration issue if he cares to raise it.
Yet he and his supporters have placed much less stress on immigration than on protection. So how well does that play as an issue?
Let me concede at once that a conservative in good conscience can still be a protectionist. Indeed, in the hundred years up to 1945, protectionism was almost the defining characteristic of conservatism, since a conservative was someone who disliked the social upheavals caused by liberal economics and who sought tariff protection as one defense against them. But even classical liberals were prepared to allow some tariff protection; many regarded it as simply another tax—undesirable like all taxes but not to be sharply distinguished from them; and Adam Smith accepted that some industries might have to be protected for strategic reasons. So I sympathize with those conservatives who resent being told by establishment conservatives that they are illegitimate because they favor protectionism. They may indeed be mistaken—as I think they are—but they have every right to call themselves conservatives. After all, conservatives believe that most of us are mistaken most of the time.
But what kind of political allies will protectionist conservatives attract? The main candidates are John Sweeney and the left wing of the labor movement. But examine the kind of labor movement Mr. Sweeney represents. Far from rebuilding American nationhood, he is rebuilding the labor movement along multicultural lines by recruiting immigrant workers into the public sector. In these circumstances, the success of protectionism would strengthen not the American worker but the left wing of the Democratic Party, which is actively hostile to the idea of a united American people and to any serious kind of nationalist politics. At the same time, protectionism divides the American right—and not just the grassroots from the establishment, as the comforting myth has it. Many good conservatives—notably Peter Brimelow—are free traders as well as nationalists. They believe that protectionism will weaken the American economy in the long run; that other measures, notably immigration reform, would better strengthen the social fabric; and that a protectionist campaign would be politically quixotic. It makes neither political nor economic sense for nationalist conservatives to divide the right in order to become the junior partner in an unpopular coalition.
It’s the Civilization, Stupid
There is an alternative approach which should commend itself to nationalists who have studied the real history of protectionism. This is for the United States to forge a transatlantic free trade agreement with the European Community and Eastern Europe (the so-called TAFTA), perhaps leading eventually to a full-scale Atlantic Economic Community. Like the expanding continental economy of 19th-century America, such a bloc would in effect combine the benefits of free trade and protectionism (at least insofar as the member-states maintained their existing levels of protection). Since the levels of income, regulation, and welfare are broadly comparable on both sides of the Atlantic, free trade between them would not cause significant job loss, factory closings, or other economic upheavals (though, by the same token, the gains in economic efficiency would be lower). And the trading bloc thus created would represent such a large percentage of world trade —more than half—that it could virtually dictate trading practices to China, Japan, and the rest of the world in return for easier access to its market.
Almost the only economic objection to such a deal—though Mr. Buchanan might not see it as one—is that it would obstruct progress to genuinely global free trade achieved through the World Trade Organization. But the idea that global free trade is likely to be achieved in the next quarter-century was wildly optimistic even before the recent Asian crashes. It is now Utopian and therefore no longer a serious objection to Atlantic free trade in the medium-term. Of course, if and when an Atlantic Economic Community is created, the argument between free traders and protectionists will presumably re-emerge around such questions as whether it should have a common external tariff and, if so, at what level. My own sympathies will be with the free traders. But no conservative should feel himself obliged to solve the hypothetical problems of future generations. We have to leave our children something to do.
Nor is the case for an Atlantic Community limited to trade and economics. It would have healthy effects in at least three other areas of policy. First, it would strengthen the defense and diplomatic links with our European allies in NATO, links which in recent years have been undermined by frequent trade disputes across the Atlantic. Second, by strengthening those links, it would re-affirm America’s identity as the second great branch of European civilization and weaken as well the fissiparous pressures of multiculturalism described above. And, third, although an Atlantic Community would not mandate free movement of labor on the European model, its provisions would probably include some kind of immigration preference for the citizens of member-states. This, in turn, would increase the percentage of immigrants with good education and valuable work-skills. It should not be (but is) necessary to add that none of this has any racial implications since neither cultures nor skills are genetically transmitted, and since most Atlantic countries already have substantial ethnic minorities which are culturally assimilated and whose members would be eligible for any immigration preference equally with other citizens.
But nationalist conservatives, especially those attracted by Mr. Buchanan’s “America First” foreign policy, will be suspicious that a combination of NATO and TAFTA would be a potentially entangling alliance. They will want to know if such a long-term strategic commitment is in America’s interest—especially since the United States faces no serious threats with the end of the Cold War. Would it not encourage America to embark on a policy of global intervention in a crusade for democracy, and inevitably infringe on American sovereignty already under threat from Clinton’s multilateralism and such U.N. ventures as the Kyoto treaty on carbon emissions?
These are reasonable questions. But the answers point in some surprising directions. To begin with, the belief that—with the end of the Cold War—the United States should retreat from its former alliances is itself a variant of the “lonely superpower” hubris which nationalist conservatives rightly criticize in neoconservatives. America’s current predominance is artificial and temporary. New superpowers such as China, a resurgent Russia, a federal Europe, and possibly an Islamic bloc will emerge in the c
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