This essay is part of our collection on nationalism. See the full collection here.
As conservatives seek a new consensus, populistic and nationalistic themes emerge in most reform endeavors. Who composes the “we” of this nation, and how can we protect ourselves from outsiders who threaten us? How do elites, often existing above and apart from the “the rest of us,” frustrate or fracture community for their gain? How do we preserve and fortify our culture, aspirations, and policy by emphasizing our nation’s distinctive identity and greatness?
These questions reflect anxieties with a strong philosophical basis. Political philosopher Pierre Manent argues that the nation-state represents the limitation of our human bodily powers, because nation-states understand themselves as contained “representative” bodies. Because modern people aspire to transcend our limits, especially our bodies, we aspire beyond the nation-state. Yet globalism often leaves us unmoored and isolated.
The growing narrative on the American right—which calls for the strict enforcement of national borders, the deportation of illegal Latino immigrants (even those compliant with the previous administration’s policies), the refusal of Latino refugees, and the preservation of American culture—can be seen as an attempt to accept the limitations of the nation-state as politically appropriate. In a recent statement in First Things, a group of influential conservatives declare that “as Americans we owe each other a distinct allegiance and must put each other first.” There is nothing wrong with the desire to stand with Americans. But a great deal hinges on what we identify as American culture, and who we identify as “real” Americans.
Political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the American dream is “created by an Anglo-Protestant society.” Mexican-Americans will share in that dream “only if they dream in English,” meaning not merely the language, but the mores and values of WASPs. Representative Steve King defines true Americans more vulgarly, equating Western civilization with alt-right racism: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?”
Immigrant as Existential Threat
Such thoughts are echoed in Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s increasingly influential words. Latino immigrants, Carlson says, will only leave America “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” He unfavorably compares Latino immigrants—whom he calls “lettuce pickers”—to immigrants he considers “smarter” or “hotter,” not acknowledging that such laboring, industrious immigrants built our nation. When called on to apologize, he declined to do so, commenting instead on the media’s “outrage cycle.” Rod Dreher applauded his refusal, minimizing Carlson’s commentary as “stupid” while simultaneously urging Carlson to “give ’em hell” and not apologize. Yet, confusingly, Dreher says he “would not fault [Carlson] if he expressed regret.”
A similarly conflicted Dreher once defended the president’s use of the term “sh*thole countries” to describe the origins of many non-white immigrants by presenting the following scenario about government housing. Dreher writes: “If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? . . . Nobody would consider this good news. . . . Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood into a sh*thole to bring the sh*thole to your street?” Considering that many who live in such housing are as much citizens as Dreher, and that the new consensus emphasizes citizen solidarity, perhaps our primary response to countrymen living in poverty should not be “protect me from their sh*thole.”
Fleshing out the portrait of immigrant-as-threat, Pat Buchanan writes of the recent Christchurch shooting: “All peoples to some degree resent and resist the movement of outsiders into their space. Some migrants are more difficult than others to assimilate into Western societies. European nations that had not known mass migrations for centuries were especially susceptible to a virulent reaction, a backlash.”
Buchanan, remember, has openly questioned whether all men are really created equal. If the new consensus emphasizes putting real Americans first, who are these real Americans? Are some Americans more equal than others? Who among us should worry about falling victim to the “backlash” Buchanan describes?
The American “We”
In an interview with Ben Shapiro, Carlson claimed “It is never true that diversity is your strength.” R.R. Reno, with more erudition, remarked:
We need to renew solidarity, rather than encourage the dissolving trends of globalization. This means taking populist, anti-immigrant trends seriously, not denouncing them. It also means thinking hard about how to strengthen what Abraham Lincoln called our “mystic chords of memory.” We need a Christian nationalism, one that encourages the unity of mankind while recognizing that human beings thrive best as members of a particular people and as proud recipients of a distinctive cultural inheritance.
Certainly, any nation has a heritage and must place limits on citizenship. However, though borders and community are conventional, there are universal norms in nature—such as distributive justice—that should also guide us. Moreover, when properly understood, that “mystic chord of memory” complicates the idea that diversity is not who we are or our strength. Any attempt to define what makes America distinctive must deal with fact and origins. As Tocqueville observes, to understand the America of his time was “to examine the child even in the arms of his mother . . . listen to the first words that awaken his slumbering powers of thought; [and] finally, witness the first struggles that he has to sustain.” These childhood struggles shaped us as a nation. Our national memory shows us that diversity is not an outside imposition upon a once coherent culture that is now under threat. On the contrary, it is an essential part of America’s identity.
During the founding era, blacks formed 20 percent of the population. In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), he estimates that millions of Native Americans live within the United States. In 1790, the Census noted 20,000 people of Latino origin, and that count resulted not from self-identification but surnames. When we annexed Southwestern lands, 80,000 Mexicans lived in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Do we really think these ethnicities lived beside, conducted business and engaged with white Americans without contributing anything notable to American culture or institutions? What does “white” even mean in light of the past distinction between American whites and Italians, Germans, Irish, and Poles?
Attempts to expel or oppress non-whites should also be heard in our mystic chords of memory. Listen for the lingering echoes of slavery, the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Mexican repatriation, the dispossessing of landowning citizen Latinos following the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and the numerous unprosecuted, racially motivated lynchings against those not included in the “we.” We should remember our troubling Supreme Court legacy of decisions like Korematsu, Dred Scott, Cherokee Nation, and U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind. We should also pay attention to current inequalities in the application of law or force on nonwhite citizens. Such aberrations include citizen deportations and detentions, policy attempts empowering law-enforcement officials to ask Latinos for papers based on racial profiling, an increase in hate crimes, police brutality against people of color, and the deliberate disenfranchisement of blacks or attempted disenfranchisement of Latinos in some states. Additionally, we must consider what justice owes to workers who have been here for decades building up our communities through their labor, to citizen-children whose parents are deported after decades, or to children who leave for a nation not their own rather than be parted from their non-citizen parents.
“White” culture is often considered the American standard, but African-American, Native-American, and Latino art forms have been present, influential, and natively grown since the founding. In a recent lawsuit against Harvard, for example, the social behavior of white applicants was considered more normative than that of Asian-American applicants, who were viewed as less socially skilled. This assessment of social behavior is based on cultural preferences unrelated to merit. Similar presumptions about white mores’ normativity are seen in examples of black people who are fined for being “too loud,” or in the focus on potential political manipulation in Irish-American Beto O’Rourke’s choice of name, but not on potential political manipulation in Ted Cruz’s decision not to run under his first name, Rafael. Both men are Texans linked to historically common names since annexation. Even though Latino culture is indigenous to the American Southwest, and Latinos have an “economic mobility rate” rivaling that of white Americans (predominantly speaking English by the third generation), the non-assimilation myth continues and can be seen in the struggle over politicians’ names.
Who Is “Like Us?”
Humans respond more favorably to those they think are similar to themselves. Absent much information, superficial likeness determines how receptive we are to others. This is borne out by psychological and sociological research. But who is really “like us”?
Much of conservatism’s new consensus narrative centers around the idea of the forgotten white person, a worthy concern. But we must also consciously remember and care about the struggles of other kinds of citizens. Evidence of unequal concern can be found in differences in the reporting of missing white women or the comparatively sympathetic portrayal of white mass shooters. Another example is found in the opioid crisis. Though non-Hispanic white persons are still most likely to overdose, since 2011 African-Americans endured a 140-percent increase in the number of overdoses per year, and Latinos experienced a 118-percent increase. But the narrative surrounding opioid overdoses—and the compassion for the plight of those affected—centers mostly on the white addict. Another example is found in white citizens’ reaction to welfare programs, which becomes less supportive when the programs are depicted as benefiting minority citizens and more favorable when they are presented as benefiting white citizens.
This dynamic carries over into historical narratives influencing policy. For an example of this, consider the work of political philosopher Thomas West. West believes that we view the founders’ focus on the European citizen as racist because “our rulers (but not public opinion) have come to believe that non-Europeans should have the same right to immigration and citizenship as Europeans. Policies that seek to preserve the existing ethnic and cultural balance are vilified in the most hateful terms.”
For West, the founders believed that if Americans were to secure equal rights, “future citizens would primarily be European” because the securing of rights requires a composition “of nations and cultures that will become and remain one people.” West grants both great historical and philosophical merit to this conception, saying in defense of his argument that the issue of race is a distraction from the important work of the Founding. He writes: “The founders, quite understandably, were not primarily concerned with noncitizens—blacks and Indians. They devoted their intellectual and moral energies to what they considered their biggest challenge: Could a republic based on the consent of the governed adequately protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens?”
Here, West puts a philosophically incoherent question in the founders’ mouths. American government is based on natural right. How could the founders consistently enact republican protections of natural right when they refused to acknowledge the role of the community’s non-white bearers of natural rights? Insofar as minorities were excluded from political deliberations, they were blocked from access to self-rule. Should people who blocked others from access to self-rule serve as the sole model of American civilization? Do we not consider American women a part of our cultural and political heritage because they were excluded from self-rule until the 1900s?
As Carson Holloway recently observed here at Public Discourse, “Politics is . . . an affair of the heart. It necessarily involves the effort to take care of a particular political community and therefore of the specific human beings it includes.” The role of affection is essential to politics. But if our affections tend only toward those we think similar, what we think “like us” means matters for nationalism.
However we move forward, any framing of the “we” needs to attend to the history and present reality of America. Rather than pitting liberal institutions against the wisdom of the people or our cultural heritage, let us ask how culture and institutions interact to destroy or uplift citizens. Historically, institutions have often been a bulwark for minorities against a vicious culture. If the American people cannot recognize the contours of the body politic, culture alone will not be able to protect many of our citizens. Culture alone has not conquered racism, and if we frame Americanness as “whiteness,” it can never do so.