The Return of the Nativist

by Paul Starr

The New Republic, June 21, 2004

Who Are We?
The Challenges to America's National Identity

By Samuel P. Huntington
(Simon and Schuster, 428 pp., $27)

If Samuel P. Huntington's new book is right, the United States is at grave risk of cracking apart. The growing numbers and geographic concentration of Hispanics, Huntington worries, may divide America between two linguistic groups and two cultures; Mexican immigration in particular is leading to the "demographic reconquista" of the Southwest, and recent immigrants are generally less willing than their predecessors to become American citizens and patriots. Advocates of multiculturalism and diversity, moreover, are undercutting national identity and loyalty. Both cosmopolitan-minded liberal intellectuals and globally oriented business leaders fail to put our national interests first and instead want to "merge" America with the world.

But, unlike America's "denationalized" elites, the American public is patriotic. The people want to preserve English as America's single language. They oppose high levels of immigration and special privileges for minorities. They prefer protectionist trade policies. As in the past, they are deeply religious, and the more religious people are, the more patriotic they tend to be. The United States confronts a choice, and in Huntington's view the right course is a renewed recognition of America as a Christian society, the repudiation of cosmopolitan and transnational tendencies, and a reassertion of unabashedly Anglo-Protestant culture as the "core" of American national identity.

Sentiments of this sort would be unsurprising on talk radio. It is startling, however, to find them in an erudite book by one of America's leading political scientists. This book is not an intemperate rant. As an analysis of the problem of national identity and contemporary social and political trends, Who Are We? is always interesting and often insightful. But it is also distorted in its judgments, exaggerated in its fears, and disingenuous about its intentions. It is the work of a serious man gone seriously wrong.

Huntington's central theme is that Anglo-Protestant culture is the "core" of American national identity. The rhetorical strategy here is ingenious. He prepares the ground by attacking as "half-truths" the ideas that the United States is a "nation of immigrants" and that American identity is "defined solely by a set of political principles, the American Creed." Huntington's objection to the first is that the original colonists were not immigrants but settlers--a quibble, you might suppose, but Huntington wants to argue that the settlers, not the later immigrants, defined what America has always been and remains today. And against the civic or "creedal" conception of American identity, Huntington invokes critics who point to the long history of exclusion of racial minorities from full citizenship. Then, as if he had proved immigration and civic ideals to be of secondary importance, he claims that Anglo-Protestant culture is the "paramount defining element of American identity."

How do we know that Anglo-Protestant culture is the essence of what it means to be American? "One has only to ask: Would America be the America it is today if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics?" Huntington writes. "The answer is no." And Huntington is right: early settlers were unquestionably critical in shaping American culture and institutions. But, of course, neither would "America be the America it is today" if no one but British Protestants had ever come to our shores.

The difficulty here is fundamental. It begins with Huntington's portrayal of colonial settlement as almost entirely homogeneous. Although he cites the late John Higham on the emergence of the term "immigrant" (an American coinage of the 1780s), Huntington misses Higham's larger argument about the early formation of American nationality. As a result of a parliamentary decision in 1740, Britain had allowed foreigners not only to enter but also to naturalize in the American colonies, whereas the French and the Spanish permitted no other settlers in their dominions but native-born Catholics. America's "charter group," Higham writes, did not consist only of English settlers: "the First Immigration engendered a universalistic and eclectic ideal of nationality" that "set the United States on a course leading away from the English presumption that all groups should retain their own cultural distinctiveness." From the very start, in other words, the United States opened itself to diverse influences.

But all this is lost in Huntington's one-sided emphasis on the Anglo-Protestant role in defining America. In his telling, Protestantism has been the source of American values and the motor of American history. We get the old version of colonial history that puts the Puritans at the foundation, even though (as Jack Greene has shown) the colonies were predominantly commercial in orientation, and Massachusetts, with its religious leadership, was more the exception than the rule. Huntington similarly puts religion at the center of the impulse behind the American Revolution and the nation's founding, minimizing the influence of Enlightenment ideas and explaining away the absence of any reference to a deity in what Christian critics called our "Godless" Constitution. Huntington's account of religious influence in the early republic is particularly distorted. As Gaines Foster's recent book Moral Reconstruction demonstrates, Christian groups were unable in the early nineteenth century even to get post offices closed on Sundays. The Founders, Foster observes, "created a thoroughly secular national government, which left the regulation of morals to the states." You would never know this from Huntington's account.

Those who are familiar with Huntington's older work will be struck by his new view of America's founding principles. He quotes one scholar, unidentified in the text, as writing mistakenly that "the political ideas of the American Creed have been the basis of national identity." Most readers will have to check the endnotes to learn that these words come from Huntington himself, in a book that he published in 1981. He now believes that "America with only the Creed as a basis for unity could soon evolve into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups, with little or nothing in common apart from their location in the territory of what had been the United States of America." Or, as he puts it at another point, "A creed alone does not a nation make."

I am not persuaded that America's civic ideals are too weak a basis to sustain American identity and patriotism, but Americans in any event do share a national culture. That culture, though, is not the inert tradition, fixed at America's birth, that Huntington sees as the sole possibility for the basis of national identity. The national culture has continually evolved, incorporating new elements from the country's changing experience, new waves of immigrants, and groups previously excluded from full participation, notably African Americans. It is striking that Huntington's book, despite its concern with culture, has virtually nothing to say about music, literature, television, film--nothing about the living culture that expresses and defines much of our experience and provides so many of the symbols, stories, models of character, and other understandings that Americans hold in common.

This obliviousness to the contemporary active life of our culture fits Huntington's effort to show that America's cultural "core" is its Anglo-Protestant heritage. It is not merely that he wants a renewed dedication to values such as individualism and the work ethic that he attributes entirely to Protestantism. He wants Christianity itself recognized as central to American identity. He writes that "America was created as a Protestant society just as and for some of the same reasons Pakistan and Israel were created as Muslim and Jewish societies in the twentieth century." This is not just a historical argument, for he later says (after admitting Catholics to the core) that "non-Christians may legitimately see themselves as strangers [in the United States] because they or their ancestors moved to this 'strange land' founded and peopled by Christians, even as Christians become strangers by moving to Israel, India, Thailand, or Morocco." And again: "non-Christian faiths have little alternative but to recognize and accept America as a Christian society."

The idea that Christianity is to the United States as Judaism is to Israel ignores, of course, that ours is not a Christian state, while Israel is officially a Jewish one. But to Huntington the distinction is evidently of such negligible importance that the analogy stands; he quotes Irving Kristol to the effect that although Christianity is not officially established, "it is established informally, nevertheless." And non-Christians had better accept it, lest they fracture the national unity that a shared religion supposedly gives a country. Witness Israel. Witness Pakistan.

This is not the only instance in which Huntington mistakenly sees national unity as rooted in a kind of cultural homogeneity. His attack on the whole panoply of policies aimed at encouraging greater social inclusiveness--such as affirmative action and changes in school curricula to reflect the contributions of African Americans and other minorities--is based on the premise that these policies undermine national identity and loyalty. But social and cultural exclusion is far more likely to have that effect. In the recent University of Michigan affirmative-action case, the Supreme Court received amici briefs from a variety of groups, including military officers, saying that affirmative action was necessary to make their institutions work because without it their leadership would not enjoy legitimacy. Diversity, these officers were saying, strengthens patriotism.

More inclusive definitions of what it means to be American are part of that same effort to maintain national unity, although Huntington doesn't get it. Multiculturalism, he writes, is "basically an anti-Western ideology" promoted by liberals, who are no doubt the same people who foolishly believe that the American Creed of liberty and equality is a sufficient basis of American identity.

Huntington sees the greatest peril to the republic from the rise of Hispanics, particularly Mexican-Americans. No previous immigrant group, he warns, has had a historic claim to part of the United States. No other immigrants have been concentrated in areas contiguous to their homeland. The Mexicans, he argues, are poorly educated, fail to become citizens, develop ethnic enclaves apart from the rest of society, and try to maintain their own culture through bilingual education rather than assimilate.

At the end of his chapter on Mexican-Americans, Huntington quotes a Hispanic writer who tells aspiring Hispanic entrepreneurs that the "Americano dream ... is there for all of us to share." But Huntington is emphatic: "There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English." Huntington doesn't say exactly what he would do about all this, but he observes that "the most powerful stimulus to white nativism ... is likely to be the threat to their language, culture, and power that whites see coming from the expanding demographic, social, economic, and political roles of Hispanics in American society."

Huntington is very concerned about the reputation of nativism. He wishes to rescue it from misunderstanding. "The term 'nativism,'" he writes, "has acquired pejorative connotations among denationalized elites on the assumption that it is wrong vigorously to defend one's 'native' culture and identity and to maintain their purity against foreign influences." Of course, where American culture is concerned, "purity" is an exceedingly odd concept. Exactly who and what are pure?

Huntington claims that he is using "nativism" in only a "neutral" sense, to mean "intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e., 'un-American') connections" (here he is quoting Higham). He insists that "white nativism of this sort should not be confused with extremist fringe groups" such as the Ku Klux Klan. And he asks: "If blacks and Hispanics organize and lobby for special government-sponsored privileges, why not whites? If the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and La Raza are legitimate organizations, why not a national organization to promote white interests?"

Although much of this discussion seems clearly to welcome a nativist movement as legitimate, it is phrased to preserve deniability, and it perfectly epitomizes Huntington's disingenuousness. While doing his best to make nativism appear legitimate, he does not endorse it. He merely conjures it up as a possibility, as if to warn our "denationalized" elites about the dangers of continuing to support "special privileges" for minorities. Huntington's populist posturing about global business has the same disingenuous feel. If he genuinely believes that global companies are guilty of betraying America, what does he propose to do about it? He doesn't say.

None of these conjured perils is terribly persuasive. White nativism is a dog that has hardly barked in recent American politics, and at present it has no political home. The major political parties are too interested in competing for the Latino vote to give vent to nativist sentiment. Similarly, the specter of a Hispanic secession is a phantom of Huntington's imagining; there is no evidence of any such movement. Neither do Hispanics pose any genuine threat to the English language. The economic incentives in the United States to learn English are overwhelming--and they work. Even the data Huntington cites don't support his fears: 90 percent of Hispanics born in the United States are fluent in English. They are following the same pattern of linguistic assimilation that earlier immigrants followed.

Is America in danger of falling apart? I don't see the signs. The response to September 11 suggests that American nationalism is alive and kicking. And America's cultural integrity is scarcely in jeopardy. From one end of the country to the other, Americans shop at the same stores, listen to the same music, follow the same sports, read about and watch the same celebrities--and largely honor the same ideals. The efforts to bolster group identity that Huntington fears will wreck the country have been only weak countercurrents against the overwhelming tidal force of cultural integration.

There is a legitimate case to be made, however, for a deepened sense of common citizenship in America. If we want Americans to vote and to participate in civic life, citizenship has to matter for them. Huntington is entirely right when he observes that "those who deny meaning to American citizenship also deny meaning to the cultural and political community that has been America." But he is wrong, repugnantly wrong, about how to strengthen that community, and wrong also to suggest that those who disagree with him about the means of doing so are betraying the country.

In the book's foreword, Huntington remarks that Who Are We? has been shaped by his identities as a scholar and a patriot. But he has put distorted scholarship at the service of a misconceived patriotism. The idea of building American identity around an Anglo-Protestant revival would be entirely self-defeating. Far from unifying Americans, Huntington's vision of America as a re-energized Christian society would be deeply divisive. Samuel Huntington's nightmare of an American crackup could come true, but only if more people think as he does.

Paul Starr is professor of sociology at Princeton University and co-editor of The American Prospect. He is the author most recently of The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication (Basic Books).