Luke’s Log- What is Americanism?
Here at Luke’s Log, we occasionally write about questions of national identity. A mentor of mine, Dan Schnur, told me that every aspiring politico should have three issues upon which to base their political character; and that from these issues they should never deviate, while being willing to compromise pragmatically on everything else.
Well, for me, the biggest issue that defines me politically is the unity of American national identity. Middle-class economics and equality of opportunity, good governance, a renewed American system, and democratic political reform against the plutocrats vie for the other two slots on my trinity; but by and large, a unified American nation bound together by common culture and language and way of life and, most importantly, by a shared civic ethos, is what I intend to devote my political career to forging.
What exactly is this ‘Americanism,’ one might ask. Well, in short, it is the inclusive and unified ticket to membership in the American body politick espoused so eloquently by Theodore Roosevelt, in his various speeches concerning the assimilation of immigrants. It is the character that binds every American to every other- the North American English language, dotted as it is by the words of other tongues; the culture of bounded individualism and familial duty; the availability of innumerable opportunities in every facet of life, the ability for the individual to rise from obscurity to greatness through the power of smarts and hard work; and the eternal conviction that participation in all levels of government- and the willingness to die for it- makes a citizen a citizen. That mishmash of complementary ideals, in my opinion, constitutes Americanism. It is crucial to note that it is open to every individual, regardless of race, religion, origin, ideology, or profession, who so chooses to live upon our shores. It is the most important identity of all.
From the get-go, it sounds so nice that it would seem that all Americans would want it. But there are, in fact, forces working against it from either side. The white supremacists are a thing of the past, and the global humanists have never been a threat. But within this country, Americanism is attacked on the one side by multiculturalism, and on the other by the white backlash.
The white backlash, in essence, is the tendency for the broad middle-class white majority of Americans to view themselves as a coherent group and to dismiss the concerns of various minority communities as meaningless, as the majority of Republican voters tend to view the mass incarceration of black Americans for petty crimes, the continued impoverishment of the black and latino communities, and the continued de facto separation of Asian-Americans from the broader American society. Individuals within the white backlash ask “Why can’t the minorities just stop complaining and assimilate?” and generally turn a blind eye to the legitimate concerns of other communities, while failing to appreciate in full the contributions these communities bring to the broader body politick.
Meanwhile the multiculturalists insist that individuals remain hyphenated Americans, that ethnic and racial identity is as important or more important than broader national identity. They demand the effective segregation of the population through such means as ethnic power movements and race-based affirmative action, operating on the assumption that ethnic identity is so important as to trump- they say complement, but they mean trump- national loyalty and unity. They insist upon seeing every ethnic group that can point to white discrimination in the past as effectively its own separate community, entitled to its own rights and privileges and deserving of political, economic, and social representation proportional to its numbers. They divide Americans by race, and create a host of communities within the broader community, insisting that such an arrangement can do no harm.
Both tendencies- white backlash and multiculturalism- tend to divide the broader American people by asserting the importance of lesser loyalties. They divide Americans along racial lines, and contribute to the notion that race- race, race, race- defines a significant part of who you are, something more traditionally-minded thinkers would call character.
As though there weren’t enough divisions within the body politick already. Multiculturalism and white backlash can and do further divide the American people into identity-based voting blocs, and voting blocs are capable of doing much more than voting- witness the dissolution of Yugoslavia and see what happens to a nation with multiple nations present within it.
The solution Americanism offers, then, is one of both economic advancement and cultural cohesion. Various scholars have pointed out that cultural fusion cannot be forced; while identity might be forceable, the development of unified new identities happens in a more local, organic process, typically accompanying broad-based economic growth. Others have argued that in order for new identities to be forged by natural processes, it is imperative that the artificial barriers to unity which were once propped up by slavery, Jim Crow discrimination, and anti-immigrant legislation (and which are now largely propped up by multiculturalism in policy and the instincts of the white backlash) be removed so far as is possible. For the unity of the American nation which has historically grown more and more inclusive with time to continue, we must tend the garden, clear the weeds, and let the hybrid flowers grow.
But that is not enough. The fact of the matter is that at the moment, there ARE distinct racial communities, each with their own problems and their own challenges. Bringing all groups to parity can and will help speed the process of cultural unification, and to that end it is important that public policy deal with challenges like black incarceration, Asian alienation, and latino poverty. Colorblindness is the goal; but to get there we have to deal with the problems of each of the communities as they currently exist.
What would this new, colorblind nation look like, and what would happen to the assimilated groups (including white people?)
I think the best example to use would be the Irish Catholics- for decades, over a century even, they were despised as the lowest of the low in the northern cities, and turned to ethnic voting, political organizing, and occasionally frenzied violence to let their frustrations be voiced- all this should look familiar, for this same scenario has happened with other minority groups. But as barriers to their success were lifted and they were integrated more deeply into the national unified culture, so as it existed by the 1950s and 1960s, to be ‘Irish’ became no longer a stain in the eyes of non-Irish, and no longer became a point of political identification amongst American Irish themselves. The first American Irish President, John F. Kennedy, is routinely forgotten to have been Irish at all; and moreover, most Irish-Americans today pride themselves on their Irishness only symbolically, without seriously thinking themselves part of a broader Irish-American political community. They maintain some of their traditions, of course, for the sake of legacy; but they are fully Americans in a way that they couldn’t be if they chose to be both Irish-American and American.
The same story has been true of nearly every white ethnic group, from the Germans to the Italians to the Poles, and for a while there it seemed that most non-white ethnic groups were headed that direction too- until the multiculturalist movements of the 1960s arose. It is impossible to determine how many members of the Asian, Latino, Black, and other nonwhite communities view themselves as Americans first versus viewing themselves as hyphenated Americans first; and indeed a lot of the blame falls upon the elitist white supremacists for setting the conditions for a legacy of racial division in the first place. All we can hope for is a tearing down of the barriers to unity that exist at the moment, in hopes that a broader identity will take the place of the divided identities we know today.
In the future, I hope Americanism again pervades the whole of this great country, and that our descendants look upon white backlash and multiculturalism with as much disgust as we now look upon slavery, formal discrimination, and social darwinism. I hope our descendants inhabit an America united in identity, where every child born upon these shores knows that they are an American first, a valuable contribution to the national story. That will take the sacrifice of pride by some groups, and the willingness to help alleviate social conditions of others by other groups. But most critically it will require the willingness to assimilate into the broader melting pot on the part of everyone, coupled with the acknowledgement that symbolic identities of background will and should be maintained by individuals and communities. It will be a long, tough slog, and I do not expect that it will be done without hardship and toil. But I am confident it will be done. May our descendants know a colorblind land of opportunity, and may that land well serve them and their posterity.