In today's America, a major gap exists between the nation's elites and the general public over the salience of national identity compared to other identities and over the appropriate role for America in the world. Substantial elite elements are increasingly divorced from their country, and the American public, in turn, is increasingly disillusioned with its government.
America in the World
HOW BOTH America's elites and the rank-and-file define their country determines its role in the world, but how the world views that role also shapes American identity. Three broad concepts exist of America in relation to the rest of the world. Americans can embrace the world--that is, open their country to other peoples and cultures. They can try to reshape other societies in terms of American values and culture. They can strive to maintain their society and culture distinct from those of other peoples.
The first, or cosmopolitan, alternative involves a renewal of the trends dominating pre-September 11 America. America welcomes the world, its ideas, its goods and, most importantly, its people. The ideal would be an open society with open borders, encouraging subnational ethnic, racial and cultural identities, dual citizenship, diasporas, and would be led by elites who increasingly identified with global institutions, norms and rules rather than national ones. America should be multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural. Diversity is a prime value, if not the prime value. The more people who bring to America different languages, religions and customs, the more American America becomes. Middle-class Americans would identify increasingly with the global corporations for which they work rather than with the local communities in which they live. The activities of Americans would more and more be governed not by the federal and state governments, but by rules set by international authorities, such as the UN, the WTO, customary international law, and global treaties. National identity loses salience compared to other identities. In this cosmopolitan alternative, the world reshapes America.
In the imperial alternative, America reshapes the world. The end of the Cold War eliminated communism as the overriding factor shaping America's role in the world. It thus enabled liberals to pursue their foreign policy goals without having to confront the charge that those goals compromised national security and hence to promote "nation building", "humanitarian intervention" and "foreign policy as social work." The emergence of the United States as the world's only superpower had a parallel impact on American conservatives. During the Cold War America's enemies denounced it as an imperial power. At the start of the new millennium conservatives accepted and endorsed the idea of an American empire--whether they embraced the term or not--and the use of American power to reshape the world according to American values.
The imperial impulse was thus fueled by beliefs in the supremacy of American power and the universality of American values. Because America's power far exceeds that of other nations, America has the responsibility to create order and confront evil throughout the world. According to the universalist belief, the people of other societies have basically the same values as Americans, or if they do not have them, they want to have them, or if they do not want to have them, they misjudge what is good for their society, and Americans have the responsibility to persuade them or to induce them to embrace the universal values that America espouses. In such a world America loses its identity as a nation and becomes the dominant component of a supranational empire.
Neither the supremacy assumption nor the universalist assumption, however, accurately reflects the state of the early 21st-century world. America is the only superpower, but there are other major powers: Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China, India and Japan at a global level, and Brazil, Nigeria, Iran, South Africa and Indonesia within their regions. America cannot achieve any significant goal in the world without the cooperation of at least some of these countries. The culture, values, traditions and institutions of the other societies are often not compatible with reconfiguring those societies in terms of American values. Their peoples generally also feel deeply committed to their indigenous ways of life and beliefs and hence fiercely resist efforts to change them by outsiders from alien cultures. In addition, whatever the goals of their elites, the American public has consistently ranked the promotion of democracy abroad as a low-priority goal. The introduction of democracy in other societies also often stimulates anti-American forces, such as populist movements in Latin American states and violent, extremist movements in Muslim countries.
Cosmopolitanism and imperialism attempt to reduce or to eliminate the social, political and cultural differences between America and other societies. A national approach would recognize and accept what distinguishes America from those societies. America cannot become the world and still be America. Other peoples cannot become American and still be themselves. America is different, and that difference is defined in large part by its religious commitment and Anglo-Protestant culture. The alternative to cosmopolitanism and imperialism is nationalism devoted to the preservation and enhancement of those qualities that have defined America from its inception.
FOR ALMOST four centuries, the Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers has been the central and the lasting component of American identity. One has only to ask: Would America be the America it is today if in the 17th and 18th centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.
America's Anglo-Protestant culture has combined political and social institutions and practices inherited from England, including most notably the English language, together with the concepts and values of dissenting Protestantism, which faded in England but which the settlers brought with them and which took on new life on the new continent. At the beginning, as Alden T. Vaughan has said,
almost everything was fundamentally English: the forms of land ownership and cultivation, the system of government and the basic format of laws and legal procedures, the choices of entertainment and leisure-time pursuits, and innumerable other aspects of colonial life.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., concurs: "the language of the new nation, its laws, its institutions, its political ideas, its literature, its customs, its precepts, its prayers, primarily derived from Britain."
With adaptations and modifications, this original culture persisted for three hundred years. Two hundred years after John Jay in 1789 identified six central elements Americans had in common, one of these, common ancestry, no longer existed. Several of the five others--language, religion, principles of government, manners and customs, war experience--had been modified or diluted. Yet in their fundamentals Jay's components of American identity, although challenged, still defined American culture in the 20th century. Protestantism has been of primary and continuing importance. With respect to language, the efforts of 18-century German settlers in Pennsylvania to make German the equal of English infuriated Benjamin Franklin, among others, and did not succeed. At least until the appearance of bilingualism and large concentrations of Spanish-speaking immigrants in Miami and the Southwest, America was unique as a huge country of more than 200 million people virtually all speaking the same language.
During the 19th century and until the late 20th century, immigrants were in various ways compelled, induced, and persuaded to adhere to the central elements of the Anglo-Protestant culture. Contemporary cultural pluralists, multi-culturalists, and spokesmen for ethnic and racial minorities testify to the success of these efforts. Southern and Eastern European immigrants, Michael Novak poignantly commented in 1977, were pressured to become "American" by adapting to Anglo-American culture: Americanization "was a process of vast psychic repression." In similar language, Will Kymlicka in 1995 argued that prior to the 1960s, immigrants "were expected to shed their distinctive heritage and assimilate entirely to existing cultural norms", which he labeled the "Anglo-conformity model."
These critics are right. Throughout American history, people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become Americans by adopting its Anglo-Protestant culture and political values. This benefited them and the country.
Millions of immigrants and their children achieved wealth, power and status in American society precisely because they assimilated themselves into the prevailing American culture. Hence there is no validity to the claim that Americans have to choose between a white, racist, WASPish ethnic identity, on the one hand, and an abstract, shallow civic identity dependent on commitment to certain political principles, on the other. The core of their identity is the culture that the settlers created, which generations of immigrants have absorbed, and which gave birth to the American Creed. At the heart of that culture has been Protestantism.
Religiosity distinguishes America from most other Western societies. Americans are also overwhelmingly Christian, which distinguishes them from many non-Western peoples. Their religiosity leads Americans to see the world in terms of good and evil to a much greater extent than most other peoples. The leaders of other societies often find this religiosity not only extraordinary but also exasperating for the deep moralism it engenders in the consideration of political, economic and social issues.
Religion and nationalism have gone hand in hand in the history of the West. As the historian Adrian Hastings has shown, the former often defined the content of the latter: "Every ethnicity is shaped significantly by religion just as it is by language.... [In Europe,] Christianity has shaped national formation." The connection between religion and nationalism was alive and well at the end of the 20th century. Those countries that are more religious tend to be more nationalist. A survey of 41 countries found that those societies in which more people gave a "high" rating to the importance of God in their life were also those in which more people were "very proud" of their country.Essay Types: Essay