More than 50 years ago I heard a white woman say of blacks “They’re not Americans.” I was appalled by that statement, for it contradicted what I had been taught to believe about America, namely, this:
“America is not just a country,” said the rock singer Bono, in Pennsylvania in 2004: “It’s an idea.”
That’s the opening of John O’Sullivan’s essay, “A People, Not Just an Idea” (National Review, November 19, 2015).
Bono is a decent, thoughtful, and public-spirited man. I didn’t choose his quotation to suggest that this view of America is a kind of pop opinion. It just happened that in my Google search his name came ahead of many others, from George Will to Irving Kristol to almost every recent presidential candidate, all of whom had described America either as an idea or as a “proposition nation,” to distinguish it from dynastic realms or “blood and soil” ethnicities. This philosophical definition of America is now the conventional wisdom of Left and Right, at least among people who write and talk of such things.
Indeed, we have heard variations on Bono’s formulation so many times that we probably fail to notice how paradoxical it is. But listen to how it sounds when reversed: “America is not just an idea; it is a nation.” Surely that version has much more of the ring of common sense. For a nation is plainly something larger, more complex, and richer than an idea. A nation may include ideas. It may have evolved under the influence of a particular set of ideas. But because it encompasses so many other things — notably the laws, institutions, language of the nation; the loyalties, stories, and songs of the people; and above all Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” — the nation becomes more than an idea with every election, every battle, every hero, every heroic tale, every historical moment that millions share.
That is not to deny that the United States was founded on some very explicit political ideas, notably liberty and equality, which Jefferson helpfully wrote down in the Declaration of Independence. To be founded on an idea, however, is not the same thing as to be an idea. A political idea is not a destination or a conclusion but the starting point of an evolution — and, in the case of the U.S., not really a starting point, either. The ideas in the Declaration on which the U.S. was founded were not original to this country but drawn from the Anglo-Scottish tradition of Whiggish liberalism. Not only were these ideas circulating well before the Revolution, but when the revolutionaries won, they succeeded not to a legal and political wasteland but to the institutions, traditions, and practices of colonial America — which they then reformed rather than abolished….
As John Jay pointed out, Americans were fortunate in having the same religion (Protestantism), the same language, and the same institutions from the first. Given the spread of newspapers, railways, and democratic debate, that broad common culture would intensify the sense of a common American identity over time. It was a cultural identity more than an ethnic one, and one heavily qualified by regional loyalties… And the American identity might have become an ethnic one in time if it had not been for successive waves of immigration that brought other ethnicities into the nation.
That early American identity was robust enough to absorb these new arrivals and to transform them into Americans. But it wasn’t an easy or an uncomplicated matter. America’s emerging cultural identity was inevitably stretched by the arrivals of millions of people from different cultures. The U.S. government, private industry, and charitable organizations all set out to “Americanize” them. It was a great historical achievement and helped to create a new America that was nonetheless the old America in all essential respects….
By World War II, … all but the most recent migrants had become culturally American. So when German commandos were wandering behind American lines in U.S. uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge, the G.I.s testing their identity asked not about … the First Amendment but questions designed to expose their knowledge (or ignorance) of American life and popular culture….
Quite a lot flows from this history. Anyone can learn philosophical Americanism in a civics class; for a deeper knowledge and commitment, living in America is a far surer recipe…. Americans are a distinct and recognizable people with their own history, culture, customs, loyalties, and other qualities that are wider and more various than the most virtuous summary of liberal values….
… If Americans are a distinct people, with their own history, traditions, institutions, and common culture, then they can reasonably claim that immigrants should adapt to them and to their society rather than the reverse. For most of the republic’s history, that is what happened. And in current circumstances, it would imply that Muslim immigrants should adapt to American liberty as Catholic immigrants once did.
If America is an idea, however, then Americans are not a particular people but simply individuals or several different peoples living under a liberal constitution.
For a long time the “particular people” were not just Protestants but white Protestants of European descent. As O’Sullivan points out, Catholics (of European descent) eventually joined the ranks of “particular people”. But there are others — mostly blacks and Hispanics — who never did and never will join those ranks. Whatever the law may say about equality, access to housing, access to public accommodations, and so on, membership in the ranks of “particular people” is up to those who are already members.
The woman who claimed that blacks weren’t Americans was a member. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, but her attitude wasn’t untypical of the attitudes of many white Americans — Northern and Southern, past and present. Like it or not, the attitude remains prevalent in the country. (Don’t believe polls that purport to demonstrate racial comity; there’s a well-known aversion to giving a “wrong” answer to a pollster.)
The revealed preference of most whites (a preference shared by most blacks) is for racial segregation. Aggregate statistics hide the real story, which is the gentrification of some parts of inner cities (i.e., the creation of white enclaves) and “white flight” from suburbs to which inner-city blacks are fleeing. (See this article, for instance.)
The taste for segregation shows up in statistics about public-school enrollment. (See this article, for instance.) White parents (and affluent blacks) are more often keeping their children out of local public schools with large “minority” enrollments by choosing one of the alternatives legally available to them (e.g., home schooling). (Presidents with school-age children — including Barack Obama — have done the same thing to avoid sending their children to the public schools of the District of Columbia, whose students are predominantly black and Hispanic.)
I have focused on voluntary racial segregation because it underscores the fact — not lost on the white, Southern woman of my acquaintance — that the United States was once built upon the “blood and soil” ethnicity of whites whose origins lay in Europe. Blacks can never be part of that nation. Neither can Hispanics, who now outnumber blacks in America. Blacks and Hispanics belong to the “proposition” nation.
They have been joined by the large numbers of Americans who no longer claim allegiance to the “blood and soil” nation, regardless of their race or ethnicity — leftists, in other words. Since the 1960s leftists have played an ever-larger, often dominant, role in the governance of America. They have rejected the “history, culture, customs, [and] loyalties” which once bound most Americans. In fact they are working daily — through the academy, the media, and the courts — to transform America fundamentally by erasing the “history, culture, customs, [and] loyalties” of Americans from the people’s consciousness and the nation’s laws.
Pat Buchanan, who is usually too strident for my taste, hits it on the head:
In Federalist No. 2, John Jay writes of them as “one united people . . . descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs . . .”
If such are the elements of nationhood and peoplehood, can we still speak of Americans as one nation and one people?
We no longer have the same ancestors. They are of every color and from every country. We do not speak one language, but rather English, Spanish and a host of others. We long ago ceased to profess the same religion. We are Evangelical Christians, mainstream Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, agnostics and atheists.
Federalist No. 2 celebrated our unity. Today’s elites proclaim that our diversity is our strength. But is this true or a tenet of trendy ideology?
After the attempted massacre of Republican Congressmen at that ball field in Alexandria, Fareed Zakaria wrote: “The political polarization that is ripping this country apart” is about “identity . . . gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation (and) social class.” He might have added — religion, morality, culture and history.
Zakaria seems to be tracing the disintegration of our society to that very diversity that its elites proclaim to be its greatest attribute: “If the core issues are about identity, culture and religion … then compromise seems immoral. American politics is becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is no middle ground between being Sunni or Shiite.”
Among the issues on which we Americans are at war with one another — abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, white cops, black crime, Confederate monuments, LGBT rights, affirmative action.
America is no longer a nation whose inhabitants are bound mainly by “blood and soil”. Worse than that, it was — until the election of 2016 — fast becoming a nation governed by the proposition that liberty is only what leftists say it is: the liberty not to contradict the left’s positions on climate, race, intelligence, economics, religion, marriage, the right to life, and government’s intrusive role in all of those things and more. The resistance to Donald Trump is fierce and unforgiving because his ascendancy threatens what leftists have worked so hard to achieve in the last 50 years: the de-Americanization of America.
Is all of this just the grumbling of white men of European descent? I think not. Measures of national unity are hard to come by. Opinion polls, aside from their relatively brief history (compared with the age of the Union), are notoriously unreliable. Presidential elections are more meaningful because (some degree of chicanery aside) they reflect voters’ feelings about the state of the Union. Regardless of the party affiliation of the winning candidate, a strong showing usually reflects broad satisfaction with the nation’s direction; a weak showing usually reflects the opposite.
Popular votes were first recorded in the election of 1824. Here is a graphical history of the winning candidate’s percentages of the vote in each election from 1824 through 2016 (with the exclusion of 1864, when the South wasn’t in the Union):
Election-to-election variations reflect the personal popularity of some candidates, the strength of third-party movements, and various other transitory factors. The 5-election average smooths those effects and reveals what is (to me) an obvious story: national disunity in the years before and after the Civil War; growing unity during the first half of the 20th century, peaking during the Great Depression and World War II; modest post-war decline followed by stability through the 1980s; and rapid decline since then because of the left’s growing power and the rapid rise of the Hispanic population.
The graph underscores what I already knew: The America in which I was born and raised — the America of the 1940s and 1950s — has been beaten down. It is more likely to die than it is to revive. And even if it revives to some degree, it will never be the same.
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The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Euphemism Conquers All
Defending the Offensive
A Dose of Reality
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
The Left and Violence
Four Kinds of “Liberals”
Class in America
A Word of Warning to Leftists (and Everyone Else)
Another Thought or Two about Class
The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
The Left and Evergreen State: Reaping What Was Sown