The Late American Nation

September 1, 2004 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: AcademiaThe Clash Of CivilizationsToryUnilateralism

The Late American Nation

Mini Teaser: America has thrived thanks to its Anglo-Protestant culture. But does that culture carry the seeds of its own demise?

by Author(s): James Kurth

James C. Bennett, Anglosphere: The Future of the English-Speaking Nations in the Internet Era (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), 256 pp., $29.95.

Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003), 180 pp., $18.95.

Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 428 pp., $27.

Jeremy A. Rabkin, The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2004), 255 pp., $25.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 368 pp., $29.95.

During the 1990s there was a widespread recognition that, when it came to the topic of international affairs, the most significant book of the decade was Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, there was an even wider, indeed a worldwide, recognition that Huntington's book, with its analysis of the "Islamic resurgence" and "Islam's bloody borders" could well be the most significant book for this decade as well. Of course, when it was published, Clash of Civilizations produced its own clash between Huntington and a claque of critics, many of whom were hostile or even hysterical. But whatever the strength, or the noise, of the critics' arguments, they were blown into irrelevance by the terrorist attacks, for about these, the critics had nothing meaningful to say, while Huntington manifestly did.

Now Huntington has once again published a most significant book, this time about a clash of cultures within America itself and the remaking of American identity, and once again he has aroused a claque of critics, many of them hostile and even hysterical. They have appeared in venues as diverse as the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New Republic and Foreign Affairs (although it is evident that many of them are published in the same locale, New York). Once again, the clash between Huntington and his critics will not be settled by arguments appearing on the printed page. If his somber vision of America's future is right, it will be settled by the actual events, perhaps great and bloody ones, that will be produced by a clash between the traditional American culture and the cultures that assail it.

Huntington's Three Controversial Theses

Huntington presents a comprehensive, detailed and scholarly analysis of the traditional components and the recent changes in America's national identity. In the course of this, however, he develops three highly controversial arguments or theses. First, he demonstrates that the core of American national identity has always been what he describes as an "Anglo-Protestant" culture. This cultural component of the identity has produced another, ideological, component, which is the "American Creed." Together, the culture and the creed have provided the enduring definition of the American national identity; they survived, even after earlier racial and ethnic components of that identity disappeared after the 1960s. But, Huntington argues, the American Creed alone is not enough to sustain a national identity, and the essential Anglo-Protestant culture is now under systematic and sustained assault.

Second, Huntington argues that the Anglo-Protestant culture and the American Creed, and therefore the American national identity, are threatened by large-scale immigration from Mexico, an immigration that is unprecedented both in its immense and sustained scale and in its resistance to assimilation. This gives rise to the phenomenon of Hispanization and the likelihood of a binational United States, with all the social and political divisions and conflicts that normally characterize binational societies (for example, Canada and Belgium). It is this argument about Mexican immigration that has received the most hostile and hysterical criticism from reviewers in liberal publications. They have not only rejected Huntington's conclusions about the danger posed by Mexican immigration; for the most part, they have also ignored or misrepresented his systematic reasoning and extensive evidence.

Third, Huntington demonstrates that the American elites have ceased to adhere to patriotic values and a national identity; rather, their views are now multicultural, cosmopolitan and transnational, actively opposed to the traditional, patriotic and national views of most of the American public. (Huntington presented this third argument in the Spring 2004 issue of The National Interest.) These elite views provide part of the explanation for their acceptance or even promotion of large-scale Mexican immigration. More generally, however, they explain why it is the American elites themselves who are the major threat to American national identity, and particularly to the Anglo-Protestant culture and the American Creed. (Indeed, from my own experience, Mexican-Americans who are evangelical Protestants or even devout Catholics have values that are a lot more in common with those of the original American Protestants than the values of the American elites, especially those of English descent and secular mentality.) Conversely, Huntington shows, the American public continues to adhere to the traditional American culture, ideology and national identity.

It is easy to see why these three theses of Huntington have been controversial. Most reviewers have never regarded themselves as either Anglo or Protestant, and indeed many of them look with fear and loathing upon anyone who does. Furthermore, most reviewers see themselves as an integral part of the American elite, and many of them happily see themselves as multicultural, cosmopolitan and transnational. There is no mystery why they hate Huntington's arguments. However, for them to directly attack the Anglo-Protestant culture might appear mean-spirited or even bigoted, and to explicitly defend the elite might appear self-promoting or even elitist. This probably explains why the usual rhetorical move of Huntington's critics has been to attack his other argument, the one about Mexican immigration and Hispanization, and to accuse him of being a nativist or even a bigot.

Huntington's Problematic Solutions

Huntington calls for a return to and reassertion of the core components of the American national identity--the Anglo-Protestant culture and the American Creed. Although he is not very explicit and concrete about the solutions to the problems he analyzes, it seems that he would greatly reduce Mexican immigration and greatly enhance programs that would bring about the assimilation of all immigrants into the traditional American identity (culture as well as creed). At one point, he imagines what America would look like if Mexican immigration were abruptly stopped while every other demographic trend, including immigration from elsewhere, were to continue on unchanged. It is clear that he would prefer this outcome. But nothing in his book gives any expectation that this is going to happen. Rather, his analysis leads to the conclusion that Mexican immigration is virtually inevitable and that the transformation of the United States into a binational society is also very likely. He describes all of the powerful economic and political interests in favor of large-scale Mexican immigration; the only opposition to it comes from a widespread, but disorganized and inconstant, opinion within the public.

More fundamentally, it seems that Huntington would have the American elites change their multicultural, cosmopolitan and transnational views and conform their values instead to the traditional, patriotic and national ones of the American public. (It would seem logical for him to argue that the American public should replace the current American elites with new elites more in keeping with the public's values, but he does not actually go this far.) At bottom, Huntington is calling for a revival of the Anglo-Protestant culture, one that would reach even into the hearts and minds of the American elites.

A Revival of Anglo-Protestant Culture?

What are the prospects for a return to and reassertion of America's Anglo-Protestant culture, either on the part of American elites or on the part of the American public, which could then produce new American elites? Unfortunately, the prospects are bleak.

Many years ago, a noted sociologist observed that a principle norm of Anglo-Protestant culture was to "not give offense." Today, virtually anyone in America who is not both English in ancestry and Protestant in religion is likely to take offense when they hear American culture described as "Anglo-Protestant." This is despite the fact that Huntington does carefully distinguish between an Anglo-Protestant people and an Anglo-Protestant culture, and he demonstrates how most Americans who are not English in ancestry or Protestant in religion have still willingly adhered to the Anglo-Protestant culture.

The Anglo-Protestant culture might form the core of American identity, but it is nevertheless a culture that for almost half a century has not dared to speak its name. (How many wasps are willing to call themselves such?) By now, there is almost no one in America who is willing to identify their culture and themselves as "Anglo-Protestant." First, no American of non-English origin (probably 80 percent or more of the U.S. population) is going to adopt an explicitly English or "Anglo" cultural identity. An "American" cultural identity is the most that can be expected, and this will have a tendency to drift downward toward an identity that is merely an ideological one (that is, "the American Creed") or one that is based merely upon American popular culture (which is hardly a culture at all). Further, even those Americans who do have English ancestry have in practice largely abandoned any explicit idea of an English or "Anglo" cultural identity. The "Anglo" component of the national culture may be real enough, but very few Americans know about this reality and the few that do are not willing to assert it. If an identity exists as a fact, but not in the mind, is it a real identity?

Essay Types: Book Review