Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity, by Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster, 448 pp., $27)
June 15, 2004
by John Fonte
In the 1990s, his detailed analysis of the new global fault lines in The Clash of Civilizations alerted a complaisant pre-9/11 world to the dangers ahead. Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity is Huntington doing what he does best. It is a classic¾perhaps the definitive¾overview of the future of the American nation-state.
Huntington argues that American identity today is based on both ideology and a common culture. The ideology¾the "American Creed," a belief in liberty, democracy, individual rights, and the like¾is a "product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture" brought to North America by the mostly British settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Universalist Enlightenment concepts also played a part. These ideas proved especially fruitful because they found "receptive ground in the Anglo-Protestant culture that had already existed in America for over a century." This culture includes the English language; British traditions of law, rights, and limited government; the values of dissenting Protestantism (especially its moralism and anti-hierarchical spirit, which made it different from European Protestantism); the work ethic, economic opportunity, individualism, and Christianity.
Huntington contends that two widely accepted propositions about American identity¾that we are a "nation of immigrants" and that our identity is defined solely by the values of the American Creed¾are half-truths that are ultimately misleading. First, he says, we are a classic "settler" nation, in which the ideas and institutions of the original settlers established the core culture that (with modifications) "still primarily" endures. It is this "Anglo" culture in the first place that attracted immigrants, who then, in large measure, did not simply replicate the old country but assimilated into the new¾into the American mainstream. Thus, as a people, we are descendants of settlers and assimilated immigrants, not simply a "nation of immigrants."
Second, although the Creed is a crucial element of American identity, our nation is not solely based on ideas. Huntington notes that a strong believer in the American Creed of liberty, democracy, and individual rights, who lives in Russia or India, is not an American, but a Russian or Indian. That person would be an American only if he immigrated, learned America's language and customs, took the oath of allegiance, and became a loyal citizen of the United States. Moreover, a truly multicultural America (not what exists today, a country with many subcultures within a common civic core) would ultimately become multi-creedal. If ethnic and religious groups had distinct cultures in opposition to the mainstream culture, they would eventually advocate different political creeds and ideologies.
Huntington makes it very clear that America's Anglo-Protestant culture is not dependent upon British ethnicity or Protestantism. He heralds our "multiethnic, multiracial society in which individuals are judged on their merits" as "the America I know and love." He declares that "America will still be America long after the WASPish descendants of its founders have become a small and uninfluential minority." The chief weakness of the book, however, is Huntington's failure to articulate the extent to which the principles and politics of America's 18th-century Founders both influenced the pre-existing settler culture and established the moral and intellectual foundation for repudiating all racial and ethnic hierarchies. Some attention to the work of scholars like Thomas West and Charles Kesler could have strengthened the section on the Founders.
That flaw, it must be admitted, is a minor one; Huntington's account is otherwise irreproachable. He describes how, since the 1960s, powerful forces among American elites have launched a sustained effort¾one that is, "quite possibly, without precedent in human history"¾to "deconstruct" American national identity. This "deconstruction coalition" operates like the "imperial and colonial" regimes of old, which promoted subnational identities in order to "enhance the government's ability to divide and conquer." Besides support for the subnational, the "denationalized elites" embrace the transnational¾and denigrate affection for and loyalty to the American nation. He quotes the declaration of Amy Gutmann, the new president of the University of Pennsylvania, that it is "repugnant" for American students to learn that they are "above all citizens of the United States" (as opposed to having "primary allegiance" to "democratic humanism").
Huntington, the grand strategist par excellence, explains that the issues of transnationalism, "racial preferences, bilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration, assimilation, national history standards, English as the official language, Eurocentrism," and so on are "all battles in a single war over the nature of American national identity": the attempt by elites to dismantle America's Creed and common culture. For example, Huntington argues that "it would be hard to overestimate the importance" of the effort by elites to promote racial and ethnic group preferences. This is a major assault on a core principle of the American Creed: the concept of equal rights for individuals regardless of race. Significantly, almost all of the deconstructionist measures are strongly opposed by substantial majorities of the American people, leading Huntington to ponder the emergence of "unrepresentative democracy."
Huntington declares that the "central issue" concerning immigration after 1965 is not whether it should happen, but whether the new immigrants should be assimilated. Historically, that's what immigration has meant: Americanization. Immigration with assimilation, Huntington states, has been a "great success story" that has brought to America "millions of dedicated, energetic, ambitious, and talented people who became overwhelmingly committed to America's Anglo-Protestant culture and the values of the American Creed."
One chapter of this book recently appeared as an article in Foreign Policy, and touched off some controversy. Huntington argues that Mexican immigration today differs from that of the past (and from today's Asian immigration) in a number of important ways, all of which impede assimilation. Mexico shares a 2,000-mile border with the U.S., which makes it easier for immigrants to retain and reinforce old loyalties. Mexican immigrants are highly concentrated in regions that were once part of Mexico, which fosters resentment. And Mexicans are the single largest group of immigrants (and overwhelmingly the largest percentage of illegal immigrants), as a result of which a large number of today's newcomers speak one language, Spanish¾which, in turn, makes English acquisition less important than it was when immigrants spoke a greater variety of languages.
Moreover, Huntington tells us, the U.S. "appears to face something new in its history: persistent high levels of immigration." Previously, he notes, immigration reductions greatly facilitated the Americanization of immigrants. Still other cultural factors militate against the assimilation of the Latino immigrants: the emergence of denationalized elites (often corporate leaders); the availability of inexpensive travel and communications; the expansion of dual citizenship; the promotion of multicultural ideology and ethnic identity in schools; and continuing government policies fostering group preferences and bilingualism. We are simply no longer living in the world represented by Ellis Island. It is possible, Huntington surmises, that over the course of the century the U.S. could develop into a bicultural, bilingual nation with two very different peoples¾similar to Canada's bifurcated English and French populations, speaking two different languages and adhering to two different cultures.
A preemptive strike against Huntington's thesis has already been launched. Some have made hysterical accusations of "xenophobia" and "racism"; others contend that his evidence does not hold up. The crucial issue is this: To what extent is "patriotic assimilation"¾primary attachment to American identity and sole loyalty to the American nation¾occurring? Huntington points to studies citing loyalty problems among Muslim immigrants. An empirical study of Los Angeles Muslims found that only 10 percent of the immigrants surveyed felt more allegiance to America than to a Muslim country. He also argues that the available evidence suggests that Mexican immigrants' identification with America is "weak." The most comprehensive longitudinal study of the children of immigrants found that Mexican American students (age 13 and 14), whether born in Mexico or in the U.S., "overwhelmingly did not choose 'American' as their primary identification." Among the American-born students in the study only 3.9 percent considered themselves primarily American.
Huntington did not cite a Pew Hispanic Center study published in December 2002 that strengthens his case. Taken eight to ten months after the patriotic high point of 9/11, the study revealed that among American citizens of Mexican descent, 55 percent considered themselves Mexican "first," 25 percent chose their primary identification as Latinos or Hispanics, and only 18 percent considered themselves Americans "first." So far, Huntington's critics (such as Michael Elliott in Time Magazine) have pointed only to studies that ask soft, generalized questions (do you feel pride in America?) but not questions that ask for choices between the U.S. and immigrants' birth nations¾which is, after all, what the oath of citizenship is all about. To date Huntington has presented stronger evidence than his critics and it is clear that elites are nervous.
Thus, Alan Wolfe writing in Foreign Affairs, finds Huntington “incendiary,” “nativist,” and “exaggerated,” while ignoring the empirical evidence that Huntington presents on, for example, the attitudes of immigrant children concerning American identity. Wolfe charges Huntington with “fatalism,” and then paradoxically implies that there is little that America can do about immigration. According to Wolfe the trouble with Huntington is that instead of providing “leadership,” i.e., supporting elite opinion, the professor “turns himself into a populist” (in other words, stands with the American people).
Academics who have been loudly proclaiming¾almost gloating¾that Latino (and Muslim) immigrants are resisting Americanization and choosing instead "selective” or “segmented acculturation" (economic, but not patriotic, assimilation) are now dishonestly attacking Huntington for quoting them accurately. For years, elites on the left and right have suppressed any serious debate over the interplay of immigration, assimilation, and loyalty. Thanks to the strong and courageous voice of Samuel Huntington¾Harvard scholar and American patriot¾they just might not be able to get away with it any longer.
This article originally appeared in National Review on May 24, 2004.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.
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