Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Who Are We?

We always tend to think of the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants.” ~George Borjas The U.S. is even more of a laggard in inflows of foreign nationals as a percentage of population. ~ Will Wilkinson You can almost hear Gen. Buck Turgeson declaring, “Mr. President, we cannot allow an immigrant gap!”  It might be […]

We always tend to think of the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants.” ~George Borjas

The U.S. is even more of a laggard in inflows of foreign nationals as a percentage of population. ~ Will Wilkinson

You can almost hear Gen. Buck Turgeson declaring, “Mr. President, we cannot allow an immigrant gap!”  It might be that we are not “falling behind,” as Mr. Wilkinson puts it, but are instead doing a bit better for ourselves.  If we keep “falling behind” like this, there might cease to be any excuse to continue calling America a “nation of immigrants,” and that sounds like a healthy thing to me. 

That line from Mr. Borjas’ post struck me.  I suppose it is fair to say that a majority of Americans, perhaps a very large one, thinks that America is a “nation of immigrants,” but to say that “we always” think this is odd.  Who is this “we” he’s talking about, and why would “we” have always thought this?  I mention this because not all of “us” agree that it is actually true.


Who Are We?

Samuel Huntington’s new book forces a debate on immigration and American destiny.

Samuel Huntington’s book was notorious even before the page proofs were sent out to magazine editors for the pre-publication of extracts. Rumors had circulated for at least a year beforehand that the author of The Clash of Civilizations and other distinguished works of political theory was about to produce a book on immigration that was not wholly in favor of it. In fact, while Who Are We? deals in detail with current immigration to the U.S., the book as a whole is about the wider and more important topic of national identity. As we shall see, that is making it more controversial rather than less. Still, the first intimations of controversy were inspired by the astounding prospect of an anti-immigration book from one of the nation’s most respected political scientists and a fully paid-up member of the American establishment. If Sam Huntington broke ranks, then elite support for high levels of immigration might fracture at the very moment that the Bush administration was proposing an open-borders policy. And that would be high politics as well as intellectual controversy.

Excitement rose higher when the first extract of Who Are We? was published in Foreign Policy magazine. This turned out, as suspected, to be devoted to immigration—and to a particularly contentious aspect of it.

In his book, Huntington argues that post-1965 immigration is very different from previous waves in two significant ways. In the first place, it consists of continuously high levels of immigration. Previous immigration was either low but continuous (e.g., from the Revolution to the 1840s) or a series of high peaks followed by low troughs (e.g., the second great wave of 1880-1920 followed by 40 years of low immigration under the restrictive quotas of the 1920s). Continuous high immigration tends to retard the assimilation of immigrants into the host community and to foster ethnic ghettoes that then accommodate semi-permanent ethnic diasporas. All of these trends will be maximized if the immigration occurs in conditions of official bilingualism and multiculturalism rather than of Americanization. Immigrants will then be less likely to assimilate and more likely to retain ethnic identities and links with home.

The second difference is that the new immigration intake is much less diverse than the immigrants in earlier periods. In brief, one half of new legal immigrants come from Latin America—and 25 percent of them from a single national source, namely Mexico. Even in the absence of other factors, this would hinder assimilation. If immigrants speak several languages, they have a clear incentive to master the lingua franca that will help them to communicate both with each other and with the native-born. If they speak one language, however, they are more easily able to continue living in a linguistic enclave that is an overseas version of home, such as Miami, where it is the native-born who feel foreign.

That central difficulty in the case of Latinos in general is aggravated in the case of Mexicans by several other characteristics. Again in brief, Mexican Americans are especially numerous—25 percent and rising of the total of legal immigrants. Their numbers are further supplemented because they are the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants. They come from a nation contiguous to the U.S. with a long and porous border. They are regionally concentrated in the Southwest (as were Cubans in Florida) so that they are more likely to concentrate themselves in linguistic enclaves. They seem likely to keep coming indefinitely—i.e., in the absence of strong official discouragement, the supply of Mexican arrivals is for practical purposes infinite. And finally Mexicans have a historical presence in the region—there are even some who cherish irredentist claims on what they call “Aztlan.”

Making these and other points, Huntington concluded that there was a real possibility that the American Southwest might become in time another Quebec —namely, a region of the U.S. where the dominant language and culture would be Hispanic—in a Nuevo United States that would be a bilingual and bicultural society. And as Quebec and Belgium demonstrate in different ways, bilingualism distorts and obstructs democratic governance.

It was, of course, this second “inflammatory” theme that Foreign Policy magazine made its front-page lead article. The editors of Foreign Policy cannot be wholly acquitted of coat-trailing here. They know that controversy sells and set out to have the maximum impact. Still, even they were probably surprised by all the results that followed—namely, an article that everyone talked about, superb advance publicity for the book, and a string of insulting and threatening remarks about Huntington—“racist,” “nativist,” “xenophobe,” and the rest—in newspaper columns and FP’s own letters section.

Three points emerge in retrospect from these early criticisms. First, almost all the replies simply ignored the vast wealth of social science, census, and polling data that the author laid out in support of his thesis. Huntington has been reproved by otherwise respectful critics for the sheer volume of survey evidence he deploys since it inevitably slows down the book’s readability. But these spluttering and indignant responses justify its presence. They show that the weight of prejudice against his argument is such that he would have been destroyed if he had not armored himself in advance against it.

Some of the critics, however, promptly dealt with the difficulty that they could not refute what he had said by refuting things he had not said but would have said if he had been the unreconstructed bigot they desperately wanted to wallop. Several denounced him for relying on the “lazy Mexican stereotype.” In fact, he had pointed out that Mexicans’ propensity for hard work led inter alia to the displacement and reduced incomes of low-paid native-born American workers. True, he had also quoted Mexican and Hispanic writers to the effect that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were less inclined than Americans to believe that hard work was likely to lead to success—and that they were held back by that. Yet this argument is so different from the “lazy Mexican stereotype” that they could be confused only by minds already disabled by ideological fanaticism. It is worth noting, though, that falsely accusing others of relying on stereotypes is fast becoming stereotypical in itself.

Second, when his critics did seek to refute his array of evidence, they mostly got it wrong. Sometimes they got it wrong in respectably complicated ways. Writing in Time magazine, Michael Elliot produced polling data that showed Mexicans expressing admiration for the U.S. and sharply criticized Huntington for not taking this into account. But Huntington had not denied that many Mexicans were grateful for the opportunities given to them by the U.S. In a subtle examination of the full range of evidence, he had merely pointed out that such feelings were likely to be offset by a range of other influences over time—notably, that under multiculturalism they might assimilate not into Americanism but into a subordinate ethnic identity that was ambivalent at best towards the U.S. He also cited evidence to suggest that this was happening—indeed that the longer Mexicans lived in the U.S., the less they identified with America and American values, very unlike earlier generations of immigrants. Above all, as John Fonte has pointed out (both reviewing Huntington and responding to Elliot in National Review), on the key question of patriotic assimilation—i.e., do immigrants identify themselves primarily as Americans or prefer some other identity?—Huntington has the better of the argument. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study taken after Sept. 11—a date and event that had demonstrated the emptiness of Huntington’s nativist anxieties according to Louis Menand in The New Yorker —55 percent of Americans of Mexican descent said that they considered themselves Mexican “first,” 25 percent chose “Latino” or “Hispanic” as their primary identity, and only 18 percent chose “American.” That is not conclusive proof of national disintegration, but it is worrying—not least because reluctance to embrace an American identity is not confined to Hispanic- or Mexican-Americans. Fonte quotes a study of Muslims in Los Angeles showing that only 10 percent of such immigrants felt more allegiance to America than to a Muslim country. Elliot’s citation of more optimistic statistics is not false, but it is partial and complacent.

Other critics got it wrong in simple and straightforward ways. Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute, who seems to have set herself up as a One-Woman Anti-Huntington Truth Squad, sending media organizations an offer to be interviewed in order to correct his errors, declares, “Huntington also mistakes what it means to assimilate. We as a nation have never asked immigrants to buy into the particulars of our culture, Anglo or otherwise.” This confident assertion will astonish (in addition to the world) Norman Podhoretz who, in his autobiographical writings, has written powerfully of “the brutal bargain” whereby immigrants and their children surrendered their cultural identities and transformed themselves into imitation WASPs. It also overlooks the “Americanization” campaigns of both government and private industry, the English language proficiency test in citizenship examinations, and even the Battle of the Bulge, when G.I.s tested each other on such cultural particulars as the name of Betty Grable’s husband in order to separate the Americans out from Otto Skorzeny’s infiltrators.

The final resort of critics when faced with evidence they don’t like—especially statements by irredentists claiming that the American Southwest is destined to return to Mexico—was either “well, they don’t represent anyone” (even when the speaker was the spokesman for an irredentist organization) or “well, they don’t really mean it.” There is no answer to that. Nor is any answer needed.

But the third point is more worrying. An alarming number of critics, some apparently academics, denounced Huntington’s arguments as “poisonous,” “incendiary,” “unabashed racism,” and so forth in a highly intemperate fashion, while misquoting and misunderstanding his actual arguments. Professor Bruce E. Wright of California State at Fullerton remarked that the article was an affront not only to Hispanics and Catholics (a Catholic myself, I had failed to be affronted) but also to “those of us”—such sang froid!—“whose identity is not so shallow as to be threatened by a massive invasion of others.” The Rev. Edward Lopez of New York thought that Huntington was “threatened by diversity” and “frightened by the world around him.” Patricia Seed of Rice University lamented “the arrogance of an East Coast Brahmin.” There was the usual irrelevant blather about how earlier Huntingtons had measured skulls and dismissed the potential of now successful immigrant groups. And there was a theme running through almost all of these critiques—the America of Huntington’s youth was being replaced by a better, more vibrant, and more just America, one of diversity and multiculturalism. To resist this evolution in defense of a past America was a sign of nostalgia at best, of wicked nativist racism at worst.

It is tempting to dismiss these denunciations as a cry for help. But they must be taken more seriously. After all, several letter-writers went to the lengths of arguing that Huntington’s article should not have been published and that Foreign Policy should apologize for printing it. It seems reasonable to infer that people holding such views would not willingly allow such arguments to be expressed in their churches, schools, and colleges or treat fairly any student who submitted an essay advancing them. The later anonymous Economist reviewer, who was not uncritical of the book, was nonetheless upset by these outbursts that sought, in effect, to censor the rational expression of reasonable fears. They reflect a disturbing willingness to enforce an orthodoxy on dissenters and indicate a moral atmosphere that might best be described as “soft totalitarianism”—even when, or particularly when, the orthodoxy is a minority opinion and the majority has invariably rejected any clear expression of it.

The first effect of these attacks—and the controversy they generated—was to make people want to read the book. (At the National Airport bookshop where I bought it, I got their last copy a day after publication.) But the book they bought was very different from the article that had prompted them to buy it. It is about much more than immigration. It is a comprehensive analysis of the threats that are undermining America’s common culture and sense of itself. As such, it analyses virtually every major skirmish in the cultural wars of the last 40 years. And it analyzes them from a distinctly conservative standpoint.

Huntington is, of course, very far from being a “movement conservative,” or even a neoconservative, let alone a paleoconservative. He is a Democrat for starters, and he gave the New York Times interviewer a bad fit of cognitive dissonance by telling her that he opposed the war in Iraq and intended to vote for John Kerry. Yet almost 50 years ago, in an article in the American Political Science Review, he advanced what still remains the single best definition of conservatism: namely, that it is the set of ideas that men adopt in defense of their social and political institutions when they come under fundamental attack. Huntington believes that America’s national identity and the social and political institutions and traditions that sustain it are under fundamental attack. His book is a conservative defense of them.

His starting point is that the American nation, as it developed from the colonial period to the 1960s, was built around certain core institutions, customs, and practices. To oversimplify brutally, these were the English language, dissenting Protestant Christianity, individualism and work ethic, and the political culture of the Founding Fathers with its emphasis on individual rights. Over time, later immigrants groups assimilated to the cultural core of “Anglo-Protestant Christianity” that evolved from these origins and assented to the American Creed that was its self-conscious political expression. They added spicy cultural contributions of their own, of course, but these did not fundamentally alter the national character. And by the late ’50s, “Americans were one nation of individuals with equal political rights, who shared a primarily Anglo-Protestant core culture, and were dedicated to the liberal-democratic principles of the American creed.”

In the course of outlining this national development, Huntington punctures several comforting national myths dear to both liberals and conservatives but false and sometimes destructive in their current implications. He points out, for instance, that the U.S. is not “a nation of immigrants.” It is a nation that was founded by settlers—who are very different from immigrants in that they establish a new polity rather than arrive in an existing one—and that has been occupied since by the descendants of those settlers and of immigrants who came later but who assimilated into the American nation. Americans therefore are under no moral obligation to accept anyone who wishes to immigrate on the spurious grounds that everyone is essentially an immigrant. Americans own America, so to speak, and may admit or refuse entry to outsiders on whatever grounds they think fit.

Huntington similarly demolishes the notion that America is a “proposition nation” and that its national identity consists of adherence to the liberal principles of the American Creed of liberty and individual rights. The American Creed is certainly part of America’s national identity—it is the distilled essence of America’s culture—but it is too abstract and theoretical to provide a fulfilling patriotism on its own. Men sacrifice themselves for home and beauty, for the comradeship of battle, for loyalty to the flag, to ensure that experience of a free life is not lost to their children—they are very unlikely to sacrifice themselves for political ideas unless they also convey this range of loyalties.

Nor does the Creed sufficiently distinguish Americans from people in other countries. If belief in liberty and individual rights were sufficient to make one an American, half the people in the world could claim citizenship. And if the Creed is seriously taken to be the totality of American identity, then the way is open for a multiculturalism that treats the English language, U.S. history, and American cultural practices from baseball to hard work as simply one set of options in a cultural and ethnic smorgasbord—a smorgasbord, moreover, in which preference for traditional American beliefs and customs counts as discrimination. Of course, words and ideas take a goodly portion of their meaning from the surrounding culture—so that our current understanding of such concepts as liberty would be significantly altered if we were to interpret them in the light not of “Anglo-Protestantism” but of Hispanic, Confucian, or Islamic culture or even of continental Roman Law. Are such anxieties alarmist? Judge Robert Bork has recently pointed out that U.S. Supreme Court justices have been advocating that American courts take account of legal precedents from courts as remote as European Court and the Zimbabwe Supreme Court. It would be a curious irony if the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ended up exercising more legal influence in the U.S. than it does in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But if this is alarmism, it may perhaps be early-warning alarmism.

What has aroused most disquiet among otherwise receptive readers, however, is Huntington’s claim that America’s common culture to which later immigrants assimilated is one of “Anglo-Protestant conformity.” Interestingly, this is one of his less controversial arguments among cultural historians, who have long acknowledged the role of dissenting British religious groups in the shaping of America. Recent major social and cultural histories, such as Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer, suggest that, if anything, this influence was even stronger than traditionally understood. It may soothe affronted Catholics to learn that this influence was not, strictly speaking, a matter of religious belief, but rather a set of social practices that encouraged freedom of belief in the first instance, and following on from that other sorts of freedom under a dispersed social and economic leadership. As the Anglo-American religious sociologist David Martin has observed of the modern revival of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America in Tongues of Fire, dissenting sects brought to the fore a hitherto “buried intelligentsia” that in turn took the leadership of their communities in non-religious roles. Plainly this had effects in strictly religious terms—inter alia, the establishment of a still flourishing “marketplace of religions” in the U.S., the conversion of the Catholic Church in America to Protestant notions of liberty, and the gradual adoption by Rome of these “Americanist” heresies. Most devout American Catholics today are Protestants in political theory. But the main effect in the colonial period and the early years of the Republic was to instill in Americans the habits of self-reliance and voluntary co-operation that so impressed Tocqueville on his visit. And the vital, successful political culture built on these foundations—Anglo-Protestantism, the American Creed, and the rest—was still clearly traceable to its early origins in the 1960s.

It was at this point, circa 1965—or just after the Civil Rights Act had finally brought black America fully within the ambit of the American political nation—that influential Americans set about systematically demolishing this impressive structure. Huntington lists the accomplishments of “the deconstructionists” in the following paragraph:

    The deconstructionists promoted programs to enhance the status and influence of subnational, racial, ethnic and cultural groups. They encouraged immigrants to maintain their birth country cultures, granted them legal privileges denied to native-born Americans, and denounced the idea of Americanization as un-American. They pushed the re-writing of history syllabi and textbooks so as to refer to the “peoples” of the United States in place of the single people of the Constitution. They urged supplementing or substituting for national history the history of subnational groups. They downgraded the centrality of English in American life and pushed bilingual education and linguistic diversity. They advocated legal recognition of group rights and racial preferences over the individual rights central to the American Creed. They justified their actions by theories of multiculturalism and the idea that diversity rather than unity or community should be America’s overriding value. The combined effect of these efforts was to promote the deconstruction of the American identity that had been gradually created over three centuries and the ascendance of subnational identities.

On every point listed here, Huntington examines in detail how these changes occurred and what their significance is to America’s future. He pulls not a single punch. To take just one example, he makes clear that the replacement of individual rights by group rights amounts to a “counter-revolution” that reintroduced racial discrimination into American law and practice, implied that individuals are defined by blood, undermined equal justice and equal citizenship, and ultimately denied the existence of a common good. And by the time he has performed the same surgery on the challenge to the English language, the undermining of the common culture, the discrediting of assimilation, the erosion of American citizenship, and much else, he has in effect mounted a comprehensive attack on the main social policies of the last 40 years.

The scale and boldness of Huntington’s assault appears to have unmanned reviewers of his book. It seems at times as if they can hardly believe that one author is taking on so many social pieties simultaneously. Who Are We? is a veritable abattoir of sacred cows. And the reviewers reacted by looking nervously away, by failing to grasp the main point, and by taking refuge in minor and trivial critiques.

Thus, writing in Foreign Affairs, Alan Wolfe disputed Huntington’s historical account thus:

    It is … incorrect to claim that American identity was shaped by dissenting Anglo-Protestantism. Two of the churches prominent at the United States’s founding were established rather than dissenting: the Church of England became the established church of Virginia under the Episcopal name, and Presbyterianism had been established in Scotland.

Really, this is the kind of thing that gives nit-picking a bad name.

Or here is Louis Menand in The New Yorker:

    … it is absurd to say that [multiculturalism] is anti-Western. Its roots, as Charles Taylor and many other writers have shown, are in the classic texts of Western literature and philosophy.

Has Menand never heard of Marx? The German social philosopher is undoubtedly a major figure in the Western tradition of literature and philosophy—few more so. Yet there is no doubt either that his major works are anti-Western. They seek to undermine Western society and to replace it with something fundamentally different—and from all the evidence of experiments in Marxism, something a great deal worse. If it finally succeeds in replacing America’s traditional national identity, multiculturalism seems likely to be a great deal worse too.

Menand is nearer the mark when he observes that Who Are We? is a work of identity politics and that for Huntington “the chief reason—it could even be the only reason—for Americans to embrace their culture is that it is the culture that happens to be theirs.” That is not strictly true. Both Huntington and Americans in general can give other good reasons for thinking their culture admirable—and Huntington does so at intervals throughout the book. Given that American culture, like Western culture in general, is a self-conscious culture of critique, it could hardly be otherwise. But to love something because it is familiar and one’s own is, in fact, a perfectly respectable reason for loving it. Many good daughters love fathers who are thoroughly dislikeable by any objective standard—and the world is a better and more stable place for it. Huntington even quotes the Copenhagen School to the effect that people want “societal security” almost as much as they want “national security.” In other words, they want a society “to persist in its essential character” and to sustain “within acceptable conditions for evolution, of traditional patterns of language, culture, association, and religious and national identity and custom.” If these are all removed or destroyed, then anomie, despair, and disintegration tend to be among the consequences. Why should Americans not be protected against them?

The answer, as it emerges in this controversy, is twofold. The first reason is consequential: there are trade-offs. If some people are contented living in a society made in their own image, then others—namely, minorities of one kind or another—are likely to feel out of place. A sentimental reluctance to make minorities feel like outsiders, even if that means discomfiting the American majority, is one of the major factors driving the critical hostility to Huntington. Huntington himself has the courage to say straightforwardly that if people have minority opinions or minority tastes, then they will to that extent be outsiders—and cannot reasonably expect the majority to conceal or suppress its loyalties in order to make them feel at home. He makes this argument both in relation to atheists who want American Christians to surrender all public expression of their religion and in relation to immigrants who want society to be re-ordered to make the English language and American institutions merely one set of cultural options. And he does so because, in the end, he thinks that solidarity—or “societal security”—is essential to the wellbeing of American society as a whole, including in time the wellbeing of the minorities.

If Huntington’s argument is designed to prefer the interests of the American majority, however, why is it at bay rather than triumphant? Here the second sociological reason comes into play: America’s elites—both the corporate elites of the Right and the academic elites of the Left—do not share the opinions and tastes of the American people. Both elites have been, in effect, “de-nationalized” by the processes of economic and cultural globalization. They are more likely to share the tastes and opinions of their counterparts in other countries than those of their own countrymen in provincial and small-town America. They regard patriotism and national feeling as atavistic emotions that retard both economic rationality (in the case of the Right) and cosmopolitan ideologies of “democratic humanism” (in the case of the Left). And they see America not as a nation like other nations, if more powerful, but as the embryo either of the global market or of a new “universal nation” without boundaries or restrictive citizenship. As a result, on a whole range of policy issues—racial preferences, bilingual education, military intervention abroad, open borders —the American people are firmly on one side and the American elites are on the other. This tends to produce cynicism about government and electoral abstention, punctuated by rebellious referendum initiatives such as Propositions 187 and 209 in which the voters briefly impose their will on the elites. Even then elitists in the courts frequently declare the people’s victories to be unconstitutional.

This is an unstable situation, and the elites are well aware of the fact. Hence their usual reluctance to join debate on the kind of issues raised by Huntington’s book. But the extremes of both elites—libertarians on the Right and multiculturalists on the Left—cannot restrain themselves. Their solution, as illustrated in the early reactions to Huntington’s Foreign Policy piece, is to treat anyone who departs from the official orthodoxies on these matters as a heretic to be shamed, scarred, and effectively silenced. Huntington, fortunately, is too eminent to be crushed in that way.

So Who Are We? is worth ten divisions in the new American culture war about patriotism. It demystifies every radical argument employed to deconstruct the American nation and the customs, habits, and traditions that sustain it. Even more usefully, it demonstrates that some conservatives and neoconservatives are unwitting accomplices in this demolition. They are misled in this direction either because of their attachment to outworn ideological definitions of America—formulae that once served a useful role in smoothing assimilation but that now act as carriers for multiculturalism—or because they have the false patriotic belief that America is not a nation with its own character but the entire world in embryo and so capable of indefinite expansion. Above all, perhaps, by attracting the kind of denunciations that reveal a deep animus towards the United States in the attackers, Huntington’s book has revealed that there is a substantial anti-American intelligentsia (and lumpen-intelligentsia) within the American nation committed to a sort of “counter-tribalism.” These are the patriots of an America that does not exist—the America of multiculturalism, bilingualism, and diversity that, in President Clinton’s words, “can live without a dominant European culture.” They therefore hate the America that does exist as an obstacle to their dreams. And they tend to sympathize with attacks upon it—and to react against anyone who defends it.

In acting as a sort of lure to draw the various tribes of “counter-tribalists” from their academic and corporate lairs into the open, Huntington has performed an important intellectual service. After The Clash of Civilizations and Who Are We? perhaps his next book should be The Anatomy of Counter-Tribalism.


John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of the National Interest.