A Reflection on Race, National Identity, Old Glory, and the GOP
My fellow Republicans-
I’m increasingly thinking that the biggest question for the GOP and right-leaning people in general to address, after November 9, 2016, and especially after the inauguration of President Hillary Clinton, is the racial-identity/national identity question.
Yes, we need to figure out a lot of stuff about economic policy/social policy/foreign policy/constitutional law, too, and all of that is going to be a lot harder given that after the Clinton sweep we’ll have maybe a couple dozen states to experiment with our ideas in, and a bare majority in the House. But the answers to economic and social and foreign policy seem to generally already have been answered- either in the past, by Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon (and we could really use some young scholars who are working on reinterpreting those guys’ works from the expansion of the New Deal to the reinvention of welfare to the Grand Design in strength-and-restraint-based foreign policy, and updating them for present circumstances in 2016;) or in the present, by forward-thinking intellectuals in the GOP like David Brooks and David Frum.
There really is no precedent or past model for answering the race identity/national identity question, though, unless you take the short-lived “100% Americanism” rhetoric of Theodore Roosevelt (which had no concomitant policy program) or the experience of racial integration in the military (which has always been a smaller pot with very different values from the nation as a whole, and hence racial integration was much easier there.) The later New Deal Democrats and even the Rockefeller Republicans did good work with the Civil Rights Movement, but that primarily accomplished advances in legal protections- the national identity question and other cultural concerns were immediately conquered by the multiculturalists starting in the late 60s.
The problem with the “colorblindness” approach is basically the fact that race is real- with biological and anthropological precedents and, more importantly, social constructions that result in sociological and economic and cultural, and thus political, implications. For too long elite Republicans have just swept those implications under the rug and said “I’m not racist personally so racial issues aren’t real.” That was me for a while, actually (only in the last couple of years of studying American history in greater detail and living in urban Los Angeles have I shed those scales from my eyes.) Moreover, a big enough segment of the Republican Party is actively racist that the left- very correctly- can make the argument that all colorblind Republicans do is ignore and enable the racists in their own party.
So we have a GOP that, nationally, cedes all legitimacy on the race question to the cultural Left, which for the most part has ignored the concomitant national identity question and exploited an ideologized version of identity politics for political gain and smug cultural self-satisfiedness. Identity politics is natural to the human condition, even human nature, but the grossly-distorted and racially-based neo-determinism practiced by the cultural Left and institutionalized by race-based affirmative action, the five-races system of ethnic classification, politically-driven “ethnic studies” departments in academia, etc., sets up artificial divisions and impedes large-scale reconciliation and racial-cultural-ethnic fusion (which results in bastard mixed-race brats who question those divisions, like me. That was a joke.)
That’s a fine equation for a racially-balkanized electorate, such as the one we have. And where you have racially-balkanized electorates, there will always be the specter of racial violence looming overhead, whether by underprivileged against privileged or privileged against underprivileged, and usually both. There are already enough natural racial and ethnic divisions that need to be dealt with; enflaming them artificially doesn’t help anybody and certainly doesn’t help society at large. The right, by ignoring it, worsens the problem; the left, by stressing division and retribution over anything like reconciliation, does the same.
So how do we move forward, after Trump’s version of white identity politics is delegitimated in his crushing defeat?
There are a few thinkers working on a “one-nation conservatism” based on a pro-working class, pan-ethnic conservatism designed to serve both inner cities and low-scale suburbs, where poorer working people regardless of race tend to live. (Such would also include action on racially sensitive topics like police reform and immigration issues.) I’m thinking Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, David Brooks, and to some extent the apostate Democrats Michael Lind and Joel Kotkin. I hope they succeed, and I hope I can be in on that conversation and the conversations on one-nation conservatism’s implementation.
Short of that, I think reopening the question of national identity, explicitly in the context of racial divisions and with an eye towards racial reconciliation, is in order; and it is something that only formerly colorblind establishment Republicans seem to have the capacity to do. Rick Perry and Marco Rubio, despite their idiocy in other areas, have made steps in this direction, and Northeastern Republicans like Ayotte and Collins and Kirk and Portman and Baker could stand to win a lot on that front.
But you can’t have a productive conversation on moving forward with national identity, without accepting and defending the notion that American national identity 1) exists, 2) is good enough that it is worthy of defense rather than shame, and 3) is a potential healing factor in racial divisions, if we can agree upon a broad enough yet deep enough definition that can include all our diverse citizens within a meaningful national story everyone has a stake in. And 4) that it is a potentially divisive factor in race relations, if it is defined so narrowly- by its proponents or its opponents- as to exclude large masses of the population.
This is why I make a point of defending the flag and other symbols of American national identity so fiercely (and flag-burner defenders, I’ll have a response to your arguments eventually.) Some things are sacred not because there’s any legal or formal binding on them, but because they reveal higher truths and paths towards redemption that, used properly, can have benign social and political effects. That’s why Old Glory’s important- not because it’s something we shouldn’t touch just because we shouldn’t touch it, but because of the principles and heritage it represents, and the possibilities it portends for the future- “a more perfect Union,” as was once put. As my own Boy Scout training taught me, “ours was a great country in the past and is a great country now. You are here to make the future greater.”
I’m as concerned as anyone is, and probably more concerned than a lot of people are, that there are fundamental inequalities and injustices latent in our political practice that discriminate against some, exclude others, privilege certain groups, and dispossess the rest- because aside from the large-scale human costs of these inequities, there may someday even be geopolitical consequences for inaction in the form of national division leading to political paralysis, large-scale violence, defection, civil war even. Any good patriot, then, would support reform not only for humane reasons, but for reasons of national survival. I think solutions, sometimes radical solutions, are necessary for attaining that reform. But we must not forget the end to which we should direct those reform efforts- a more just and more perfect Union, a more harmonious and united nation, a more equitable and nobler society.
My fellow Republicans, we can’t get anywhere near that dream if we continue on the current path in race relations- we need better ideas and better plans, and as long as we don’t conjure up a plot to build a more inclusive vision of national identity, we’ll deserve the returns we’ll get.
So let’s get thinking and doing, and build a better future. We can’t leave the race question to the left. We have to admit some uncomfortable truths and live up to their consequences if we’re going to find real solutions.
If we don’t, our solutions to other problems in foreign policy, social policy, and economic policy will be for naught, because they won’t serve a united nation.