‘Ethnic America ,’ Prospect, July 2004, pp. 34-39

Ethnic America

July 2004

Samuel Huntington worries too much about Hispanics. But he is right about the core values of the US

Eric Kaufmann

Events since 9/11 have heightened both foreign-policy and cultural divisions between Europe and the US. One view, often expressed by Europeans and liberal Americans, is that the US is becoming far more nationalistic and culturally conservative than Europe. Samuel Huntington’s new book, Who Are We? America’s Great Debate, is likely to reinforce this view. Huntington, the Harvard politics professor who wrote The Clash of Civilizations, has written an equally provocative book about the threats to American identity posed by regionally concentrated immigration from Mexico. The book has raised an enormous stir in intellectual and media circles and has been widely criticised in the US for “nativism” and anti-Hispanic scaremongering.

The nativist charge made by Alan Wolfe and other American reviewers is unjustified. Notwithstanding a few ambiguous passages, Huntington’s celebration of the American racial melting pot is a far cry from the white nationalism of Peter Brimelow or Pat Buchanan. The main argument of the book is a very European one: that national identity is rooted in an ethno-cultural core rather than in abstract, universal principles. This premise, developed by the British theorist of nationalism Anthony Smith, holds that modern nations emerge from a pre-existing ethnic core, and that many of the myths, symbols and memories of nations have ethnic antecedents. Ethnicity is based on the idea of shared myths of descent. Most Europeans (the French and Swiss are partial exceptions) accept this idea for their own countries, but also believe the very different claim of American exceptionalism: that the US has always defined its national identity in ideological and political rather than ethnic terms. Huntington spends much of the early part of his book debunking this idea, and sketches the lineaments of America’s Anglo-Protestant core. He correctly notes that the free population in 1776 was around 98 per cent Protestant and 80 per cent British in ancestry. However, he stresses that the nation evolved away from its Anglo-Protestant ethnic roots with the inclusion of the Irish Catholics and Germans after 1865 and southern and eastern Europeans after 1945, and left its white racial unity behind when African-Americans in the south gained civil and voting rights in the mid-1960s. He speaks of the nation as Anglo-Protestant in a cultural, rather than a strictly ethnic sense – an argument which writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Peter Salins and Francis Fukuyama also advanced in the early and mid-1990s.

The idea that Anglo-Protestant Americanism has a cultural core which can assimilate ethnic and racial outsiders reflects recent currents in liberal nationalist political theory – particularly the writings of David Miller and Yael Tamir – that espouse a “deep” civic nationalism. These writers contend that liberalism can coexist with a national identity based on myths and symbols that runs deeper than the contractual ties between state and rational citizen that form the hallmark of Jürgen Habermas’s thin “constitutional patriotism.” Huntington defines America’s Anglo-Protestant cultural core as consisting of the English language, American political history and a number of characteristics derived from a low-church Protestant heritage, namely its evangelical and congregational religiosity, moralistic politics, individualism and work ethic. He cites a vast array of contemporary survey evidence which shows that Americans are on average more religious, individualistic and hard-working than people in other developed countries. This cultural core, he claims, has altered little over two centuries despite the absorption of millions of immigrants from around the world. He notes with approval rising rates of intermarriage among Americans of all ethnic and racial groups and a sharp rise in the proportion of Americans who are ethnically or racially mixed. This, he claims, is evidence of the power of America’s Anglo-Protestant based melting pot to dissolve ethnic boundaries.

Indeed, the ethno-cultural core itself remains far more demographically significant than is often supposed. It is true that Anglo-Protestants now make up slightly less than a quarter of the US population (whites as a whole are about 70 per cent). But the foreign-born population has averaged no more than 10 per cent of the total throughout American history. And the 4m (largely Wasp) whites, American Indians and African-Americans of 1776 have had the same demographic impact on today’s population of 293m as the 66m immigrants who arrived after them. Had the US been settled by the French (as in Quebec) or the Spanish (as in Latin America), adds Huntington, the country would bear a completely different national identity. The corollary, of course, is that the idea of the US as a nation of immigrants united only by the liberal principles and constitutional patriotism of the American creed is “at best, a half truth.”

Huntington’s faith in the assimilative power of America’s cultural core is not boundless, however. He argues that the Anglo-Protestant core succeeded in assimilating immigrants in the past not only because of its intrinsic appeal, but also because of concerted “Americanising” on the part of educators, intellectuals, government officials and business leaders. Business leaders like Henry Ford held civics and language classes and even staged pageants in which minority groups entered a symbolic pot in native dress later to emerge as flag-waving Americans. Legislators also played their part by entrenching English as the official language of all states despite resistance from ethnic blocs like the Germans. Americanisers were aided in their task by the nature of pre-1965 immigration. The mainly European immigrants dispersed broadly across the continent which helped to dissipate centrifugal pressures that might have fragmented America’s Anglo-Protestant cultural unity. Meanwhile, world war and the 1925-65 period of immigration restriction helped to head off rising nativist sentiment.

But alas, all is not well in the land. Huntington charts a new set of conditions which, he warns, threaten the “societal security” of the US. Chief among these are the “denationalisation” of American intellectual and business leaders and the new character of post-1965 immigration. Cosmopolitan elites emphasise globalisation, diversity, multiculturalism and open borders. New immigrants use global communications to maintain dual political loyalties and long-distance diasporan identities, and are encouraged to do so by the white elite. Furthermore, persistently high levels of immigration from neighbouring Mexico to the American southwest, is an unprecedented – and threatening – development. The fact that the US won this territory from Mexico as recently as the 1840s means that Americans may face an ethnic separatist movement for the first time in their history. As evidence, Huntington cites the public statements of Mexican politicians like Vicente Fox and the reconquista discourse of the Aztlan movement in California. Above all, Hispanics (Latin-American immigrants and their descendants) in contrast to other immigrant groups, seem to want to co-determine the national culture in the present as opposed to merely retrospectively.

Bilingualism is a key weapon in this co-determination that threatens to strike at the heart of America’s Anglo-Protestant core. In Miami, “Anglos” (non-Hispanic whites) are now outsiders and must adapt to its Hispanic culture if they wish to succeed in the job market or politics. The Anglo response has been white flight or cultural surrender, says Huntington. He predicts that the same dilemma will confront other parts of the nation, leading to a country that is part Anglo, part Hispanic.

Finally, Huntington considers the possibility of a white nationalist response to the changes taking place. He says that white nativism is a “plausible” response to white demographic decline, the cosmopolitan defection of the white elite and the fading power of the Anglo-Protestant core. The only way to head off these challenges, claims Huntington, is for the nation to reaffirm its Anglo-Protestant cultural identity through a new Americanisation effort and to roll back the gains made by advocates of multiculturalism. While little is mentioned about immigration control, Huntington is clear that both legal and illegal immigration must be restricted if assimilation with Anglo-Protestant culture is to take place. He leaves us in no doubt that the universalist creed cannot hold together a nation battered by fundamental cultural divisions.

Taken as a whole, the book provides a powerful statement of American nationalism. It is well written, meticulously researched and passionately argued. It draws on many of the insights of historians and social scientists in the 1990s, maintains a comparative perspective, and will add to the growing civic nationalist chorus of writers like Michael Lind, Arthur Schlesinger, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer and Francis Fukuyama. But this is not an original statement of American cultural nationalism such as Lind’s The Next American Nation. Like Huntington, Lind criticises the cosmopolitanism of American cultural elites and the belief, at least on the left, that it is possible to sustain a welfare state devoid of national identity. But Lind argues that the individualism of conservatives sits uncomfortably with a liberal nationalist orientation. Huntington, by contrast, shows little awareness of how individualism and the minimal state can blunt the bonds of nationhood.

Huntington correctly identifies the American elite as cosmopolitan, but overstates the novelty of this development. It is a long time since Wasp intellectuals defended Anglo-Protestant nationalism. The break came in the early 20th century with John Dewey and New York radicals like Randolph Bourne, who refined hazy pronouncements about American universalism into a cosmopolitan vision of the nation. Picked up by the main Protestant denominations by the 1910s, the cosmopolitan message gathered force in the 1920s (despite the upsurge of nativism and eugenics) and emerged as the dominant elite discourse as early as the 1930s and 1940s. Spreading more widely among the middle class thanks to the rise of higher education and television in the 1960s, cultural cosmopolitanism gradually gained pre-eminence, though it never assumed political form.

This combination of nationalism and cultural cosmopolitanism emerged when the measure of Americanism was partly redefined from “Waspness” to anti-communism. The imperatives of the cold war helped to provide an overarching bond of transethnic unity and a focus for civic nationalism. This allowed cultural cosmopolitans to claim that the idea of the US as a nation of immigrants (symbolised by the reinvention of the Statue of Liberty as a beacon to immigrants) was a patriotic notion, while Wasp hegemony caused division in the face of the enemy. But this cosmopolitanism was accompanied by a hardening of America’s political nationalism. The rapidly growing American federal state, its burgeoning multiethnic armed forces and the anti-communist crusade helped in this “ethnic to civic” shift. McCarthyism epitomises the shift: Senator Joe McCarthy, whose Catholic faith would formerly have cast a shadow of “un-Americanism” upon him, attacked internationalist Wasps like Alger Hiss, and was backed by both Catholic Democrats like John F Kennedy and southern Protestants. This helps to explain why today’s American elites seem more willing to relax their ethno-cultural boundaries than their European counterparts, but are less willing to pool national political sovereignty.

Huntington warns that he writes as both a “patriot” and a “scholar” and that these two aims may conflict. This is indeed a difficult balancing act. As a scholar, his zeal for the truth leads him to speculate on sensitive issues like racial differences in patriotic feeling and economic performance which can only alienate African-Americans – who might otherwise sympathise with his message. As a patriot, he overstates the threat to American political unity posed by both Mexican immigration and dual citizenship. For instance, New Mexico, unlike California, has always had a near-majority of Hispanics, but there has been little talk of secession in Santa Fe. Likewise, the territorial claims of Mexican-Americans are undermined by their propensity for intermarriage and geographic mobility, and by the hazy quality of their pre-American collective memory.

The chapter on the Hispanic threat is nevertheless an original one, though some of its themes have been echoed by others like the late John Higham. But Huntington finds it hard to make up his mind about Mexican-Americans. Are they patriots who oppose bilingualism and high levels of immigration, convert to evangelical Protestantism, and also join the US armed forces in large numbers? Or are they defined by the alienated high-school dropouts who have turned their back on the American dream to congregate in a separatist enclave owing allegiance to another civilisation? One can find support for both conclusions in this book. Intermarriage and the rise of mixed-heritage individuals point towards a post-ethnic future, yet Huntington also contends that ethnic diasporas are increasing in importance in the US.

The thorniest tension in this book is between Huntington’s political identity with the American nation state and his ethnic identity as a white American. His book largely sticks to the civic-nationalist script, but there is an undertow of concern over the future of the white majority in America. As a result, we find two visions which do not easily fit together: on the one hand, there is the futuristic and confident vision of a transracial melting pot “new man” that writers have celebrated since Hector St John de Crèvecoeur. On the other hand, Huntington portrays an insecure white dominant ethnic group in flight from an ever-growing minority population.

Huntington’s dilemma follows a well-worn groove of nationalist thought. Both Crèvecoeur (1782) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1835), for instance, considered Americans as the “British race in America,” yet this did not prevent these writers from heralding the emergence of a cosmopolitan “new man.” Likewise, Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaimed in 1846 that the US was “the asylum of all nations… the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles and Cossacks, and all the European tribes, of the Africans and Polynesians, will construct a new race.” Yet he also ventured that: “It cannot be maintained by any candid person that the African race have ever occupied… a very high place in the human family… The Irish cannot; the American Indian cannot; the Chinese cannot. Before the energy of the Caucasian race all other races have quailed and done obeisance.”

Emerson labelled his dualism “double-consciousness” and nearly all elite American historians, politicians and writers before 1910 viewed their nation in the same schizophrenic manner, switching between the lenses of their dominant ethnic group and that of a futuristic utopian America. None of these writers adequately explained his state of “double-consciousness” though many had ideas about assimilation. Some thought that a northern climate would “whiten” racial minorities while others were convinced that Catholics could be educated to the Protestant faith. Emerson assumed that assimilation turned immigrants into English descendants. Fifty years later, future president Theodore Roosevelt thought that the German and Irish immigrants would produce an Anglo-Saxon mix akin to that of Saxon and Briton in England leaving the Wasp majority securely in place.

The 19th-century elite believed that Anglo-Protestant assimilation would allow America to remain largely ethnically unchanged, yet the boldness of their cosmopolitan rhe-toric suggests that they simultaneously sought to transcend their own Wasp identities. Samuel Huntington reflects these old tensions, and raises some of the more recent issues which political theorists of nationalism and multiculturalism are grappling with.

Much of the argument revolves around a basic dilemma for ethnic majorities: how do you construct a national identity that will satisfy your need for belonging and meaning but won’t alienate minorities? Huntington is right to point to the English language, Protestant religiosity, individualism and the work ethic as defining characteristics of America. But American Catholics will not identify themselves with a Protestant nation, atheists will cringe at the thought of celebrating American religiosity, communitarians will reject the emphasis on individualism and work, Hispanics will not identify with the English language, and so on.

In short, trying to squeeze cultural depth into a nation like the US is bound to be divisive. A thin set of universal principles based on a constitution, some uncontentious pieces of state history, values like honesty and fair play, or platitudes like “toleration” and “unity in diversity” may be the only choice on offer in a liberal society. On the other hand, for many people the abstract quality of the American creed will be psychologically inadequate as a source of meaning and identity. By contrast, thicker ethnic identities, according to the French writer Régis Debray, tell people that “they belong to ancient associations of ‘their kind’ with definite boundaries in time and space, and this gives their otherwise ambiguous and precarious lives a degree of certainty and purpose.”

This suggests that ethnicity, rather than the state, is the best vehicle for maintaining a deep Anglo-Protestant culture in the US. Following this logic Americanisers should focus on developing a rich “American” ethnic option whose boundaries are open to like-minded non-Wasps, but whose mytho-symbolic core can only be altered by insiders. The problem with defining all 293m Americans as an Anglo-Protestant nation is that too many citizens do not identify with Anglo-Protestantism. An “American” ethnic option avoids this conflict with liberalism since no one is obliged to join and coexisting Americanisms are possible.

Most of the literature on nationalism and ethnicity fails to recognise that groups like the Jews in Israel, the English in England or English-speaking whites in America are as “ethnic” as minorities and have similar cultural needs. A neutral, managerial state based on constitutional patriotism cannot satisfy the existential needs of majorities any better than it can the aspirations of minorities. The recognition of majority cultural needs is urgent if the dominant-ethnic impulse is to discharge itself along liberal lines. This is one area in which Huntington is correct: US elites, like their counterparts in Europe, must accept that majority “native” cultures need to be recognised and that it is both wrong and dangerous to suppose that all majority ethnics can become cosmopolites. Writing in 1917, the pluralist Randolph Bourne urged his fellow Wasp Americans to transcend their Anglo-Saxon upbringing and “breathe a larger air” of cosmopolitanism, yet he simultaneously lauded the “proud Jew who sticks to his faith.” This contradiction places the Wasp at the moral centre of the multicultural project, at once the “bland” Other to be transcended and the backdrop against which exotic ethnics can identify themselves.

The notion that the majority should be cosmopolitan while minorities should retain their culture is a patronising elite Wasp fallacy. Some form of multiculturalism is an appropriate policy for the 95 per cent of the world’s states that are multiethnic, but in the US the policy must abandon its anti-majoritarian bias. State unity will emerge largely as the by-product of a self-confident majority group and need not be imposed on reluctant minorities. In this context, dual citizenship or even divided loyalties pose little threat to the state. Indeed, multinational and federal states with an electorally and demographically dominant ethnic group are generally more stable than those with no hegemonic group.

If Americanisers focus on creating a national sect, rather than a national church, they can replicate the success of American religion. Liberated from the constraints of equal symbolic treatment, they can construct an ethnic option that draws on the full richness of the American experience. The English language and Protestantism will certainly be core symbols, but Huntington’s emphasis on the work ethic, mobility and individualism are less inspiring. More relevant are the icons and folkways which spring from the main Anglo-Protestant traditions of New England, the middle Atlantic, the west and the south. The pioneer and yeoman farmer are American lifestyle icons, akin to the habitant and coureur de bois in Quebec or the nomad among the Arabs. The place names, myths, vernacular architecture, dialects, traditional crafts and music of the cultural heartlands formed the basis of the regionalist cultural revival movement of the 1930s and 1940s and are a sturdier basis on which to build American particularity.

Black Anglo-Protestant Americans have been integral to American history since the beginning and their vernacular culture (music, migratory myths, southern rural traditions, religion) is ineluctably American. Similarly, the legends, landscapes and place names of American Indians are important material if one is to define an authentic American culture. They are both touchstones for a more settled Americanism of the future in which the American ethnic core fuses the myths and symbols of the main groups whose collective memory is based on the American landscape and is thus indigenous to the US experience. If ethnicity is based on myths of shared ancestry, then this new American ethnic group would trace its heritage back to these indigenous groups. This is where Huntington might borrow a page from his Mexican adversary’s notebook. The blend of Anglo, Afro and Indian influences is the key to creating a new American type that is as powerful as the mestizo (a myth which weaves together Spanish and Aztec lineages) is for Mexico. This is surely a better formula for national unity than a racial caste alliance of whites and light-skinned Asians.

It is true that American cultural elites have become excessively cosmopolitan but Huntington is wrong to counter this with individualism, fundamentalist religion and flag-waving patriotism. All three have played their part in forestalling a more settled and culturally secure Americanism which can allay the anxieties of the majority. Indeed it may be no exaggeration to claim that when that majority has a serious ethnic option, we may see a reversal of the cold war shift towards a strident political nationalism. A secure sense of cultural belonging will remove the pressing need for unifying political ideologies and projects. The country will then be able to re-invest in international institutions without fear of losing its soul, and can once again become a team player in resolving so many of our most pressing global issues.


Eric Kaufmann is author of “The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America: the Decline of Dominant Ethnicity in the US” (Harvard, 2004) and editor of “Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities” (Routledge)

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