A review of Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, by Samuel P. Huntington

Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington is an academic anomaly. In an arena dominated by specialized monographs, Huntington produces big thematic books, like the influential The Clash of Civilizations. In an age when many academics cling to race, class, or gender as their standard, Huntington embraces explanations based on political culture. Most tellingly, perhaps, he refers to himself without any trace of irony as a "patriot and a scholar." 

Huntington's newest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, combines many threads from his previous writings. It is an important yet frustratingly inconsistent book, alternately insightful and vague, perceptive and simplistic. With a sweeping, broad brush, Huntington asks the fundamental question: What is an American? Are we a collection of disparate individuals who share a common geographical space, or is there an actual "American identity" that binds together our nearly 300 million citizens? 

What drives Huntington to ask such questions? First, America has witnessed a massive wave of immigration, mostly from Latin America and Asia, since Congress liberalized immigration laws in 1965. As a percentage of the population, this immigration is not yet as huge as the immigration boom from 1890 to 1924, yet its effects are already apparent. Americans are often told that by the middle of this century, we will become a "majority-minority" nation where "non-Hispanic whites" will be less than 50% of the population. In just the past year, Hispanics surpassed African-Americans as a percentage of the population.

Huntington's second concern is that this wave of immigration is accompanied by trends at home that already weaken American national identity and patriotism. He sees affirmative action, legal theories of group rights, dual citizenship, bilingualism, and multiculturalism as eroding the fundamental meaning of citizenship, weakening the process of assimilation, and threatening the very core of America's identity. These trends are homegrown, the products of elite opinion and ideology.

The strongest part of Huntington's book is his discussion of the divide between what he calls the "patriotic public" and the "denationalized elite." This goes beyond the issue of immigration. It is visible in the classic "red state/ blue state" dichotomy, as well as in the clash between "unilateralism" and multilateralism in our foreign policy. Huntington even tips his hat to Ralph Nader and John Kerry on the issue of corporate "Benedict Arnolds," noting that liberal elites are not the only ones to have forsaken national identity. 

Huntington's welcome defense of nationalism comes at a time when that term has become a dirty word. During the last half-century, nationalism was slandered by being equated with fascism and Nazism in Europe and xenophobia and jingoism in America. "Flag-waver" became an insult. Discussions of nationalism raised the specter of one of the cardinal sins of modern liberalism: exclusion. To define a nation was to define away others who existed outside the nation. The nation-state was thought to have been eclipsed by the global economy, multi-ethnic populations, and multilateral organizations like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

Huntington is witheringly dismissive of those academics, like Martha Nussbaum and Amy Gutmann, who not only value cosmopolitanism over nationalism, but also find patriotism "morally dangerous" and "repugnant." While elites wax hostile or indifferent to national identity, the average American has, if anything, grown more patriotic. "In a variety of ways, the American establishment, governmental and private, has become increasingly divorced from the American people," concludes Huntington. "Overall, American elites are not only less nationalistic but are also more liberal than the American public."

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Nothing has better defined elite liberal opinion in recent years than multiculturalism or cultural pluralism of the kind first expressed by Horace Kallen in the early 20th century. According to the theory, assimilation is wrong because it presumes that American culture is superior to the culture of immigrant peoples. "Americanization" implies coercion. Instead, we must accept not only new immigrants but their cultures as well. The right to a cultural identity becomes a fundamental human right. We are not a melting pot, but rather, as former New York Mayor David Dinkins famously put it, a "gorgeous mosaic."

There is irony aplenty here. What is multiculturalism, at bottom, but the celebration of native nationalisms? Immigrants who hang miniature flags of their native lands from their rearview mirrors, or who cheer on soccer teams from their homelands against American teams, are simply expressing a basic form of patriotism—to the country of their birth.

After all, even the most beautiful mosaic must have something to shape and bind it together; otherwise, it is nothing but a random collection of tiles. If American national identity is as important as Huntington thinks it is (and I think he is correct)—then who are we?

The central theme of this book is that America is the product of a distinct Anglo-Protestant culture whose elements include the English language, religious commitment based largely on the tenets of dissenting Protestantism, English concepts of the rule of law, the Protestant work ethic, and radical individualism.

In short, Huntington is not merely firing a broadside against the cult of multiculturalism and diversity. He is also picking a fight with those Americans who claim that we are bound together by the tenets of the "American Creed," who agree with the late historian Richard Hofstadter that it "has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one." Huntington replies that this Creed is itself derived from Anglo-Protestant culture. Taken to its logical extreme, the creedal view would imply that anyone in the world who believes in the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and liberal democracy is automatically an "American." Citizenship would therefore become meaningless. Warns Huntington, "America cannot become the world and still be America."

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The danger in writing broad, thematic books is that it is all too easy to poke holes or find inconsistencies in them (which is why most academics write narrow monographs). Alas, this is the case with Who Are We?

Consider Huntington's notion of Anglo-Protestant culture. He takes issue with the claim that we are a "nation of immigrants." Such claims "are valid partial truths, but false total truths." Distinguishing between settlers and immigrants, he argues that migrants from the British Isles in the 17th and 18th centuries were not mere immigrants, but settlers who created an entirely new society.

Had the original 13 colonies been French or Spanish territories, and not British, the United States of America would certainly have become a very different country. Yet sometimes, in Huntington's hands, the idea of a culture takes on a static presence, unbending through the years, a kind of zero-sum game where one cultural gain (new immigrants) must be offset by an equivalent cultural loss (a weakened Anglo-Protestant culture). In fact, what has marked those nations descended from the Anglo-Protestant tradition is a great degree of cultural flexibility. The United States, Canada (with the exception of Quebec), Australia, and England (to a degree) have all proven to be extraordinarily accepting of immigrants.

Or take the idea of dissenting Protestantism, which Huntington rightly sees as a foundation of American exceptionalism. Yes, the Puritans gave America a cultural inheritance (and we are not talking about prudishness). But what happened to the dissenters' descendants? Many morphed into liberal Protestants or Unitarians. That conservative evangelicals and Unitarian-Universalists both are bred from the dissenting Protestant tradition tells us that this Anglo-American culture is not as univocal as Huntington suggests.

To put it differently, America's Anglo-Protestant forebears bequeathed to us a creed that made it possible to dissent from, even renounce, many aspects of Anglo-American culture. In fact, it is precisely where WASPs once ruled that liberal elites now flourish.

In 1889, Harper's Magazine worried that large numbers of Irish immigrants and their descendants were causing a decline of Anglophilia in America: 


To cherish the traditions of Magna Charta and of the great Puritan triumph over kingcraft and ecclesiastical politics, to respect the father-land of trial by jury and the habeas corpus and constitutional freedom…the home of our literature and of our distinctive origin, is to be a poor, weak, effeminate, affected, un-American, British dude. But to defer respectfully to the Irish name, to whatsoever applied, is to demonstrate our true Americanism.

One need only substitute "Mexican" for "Irish" to hear an echo of Huntington's argument. For it is not just any immigrants who concern Huntington; it is Hispanic immigrants, and more specifically Mexicans. He fears that large numbers of Mexican immigrants could "change America into a culturally bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages." 

Huntington suggests not too subtly that Hispanic immigrants either do not want to, or cannot, assimilate into the American cultural mainstream. He correctly notes that Mexican immigration is complicated by America's awkward and sometimes adversarial relationship with Mexico; by the transnational, free-flow of immigrants across borders, which lessens assimilation; and by the push towards bilingualism. In addition, the last wave of immigration from 1890-1924 was followed by a nearly 40-year lull that speeded up the assimilation of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. No such pause appears on the horizon for our era.

But all too often Huntington merely presents a selective version of immigration, sometimes contradicted by his own words. He discusses the contribution that military service, especially during wartime, made in forming our national identity. Yet anyone paying attention to the war in Iraq will notice the number of Hispanic names, many of them immigrants, listed among the casualties. In terms of religion, which Huntington rightly views as important to American identity, not only are Hispanics and Mexicans actively Catholic, but the recent trend is the evangelization of Hispanics. He mentions this, but seems unpersuaded that it is a positive development for assimilation.

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What do scholars of immigration say about the prospects of assimilation today? One of the most well-reasoned books on the topic, Richard Alba and Victor Nee's Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration, takes a cautiously optimistic tone, adducing much data that "there is still a vital core to the concept" of assimilation "which has not lost its utility for illuminating many of the experiences of contemporary immigrants and the new second generation." Though not every indicator is rosy, Alba and Nee see a definite movement over two and three generations among new immigrants toward assimilation, much as was seen among earlier immigrant groups. By making only selective use of the data from Alba and Nee and other sources, Huntington puts a much more pessimistic spin on the question.

He also misunderstands earlier immigration control, as when he declares that the "control of immigrants coming by ship was fairly easy" during the heyday of Ellis Island; that illegal immigration was minimal during that era; and that 15% of immigrants were turned away. In fact, only 2% of immigrants were eventually excluded at the gates of Ellis Island. Smuggling of immigrants was a constant problem, especially for Chinese immigrants banned by law in 1882 and for Southern and Eastern European immigrants restricted by quotas after 1921. As for the relative ease of immigration control at Ellis Island, few at the time would have agreed with that interpretation. Anti-immigrant writers and politicians complained that enforcement was too lax, while immigration supporters complained that the enforcement was too harsh and arbitrary. 

Huntington sees only the now-proven positive consequences of the last wave of immigration, but only the negative consequences of modern immigration. History's dustbin is littered with the now-discredited warnings of anti-immigrant writers. The New York Times warned Americans in 1891 of "Lunatics and Idiots Shipped from Europe" and leading intellectuals called these new immigrants "beaten men from beaten races." Former labor leader and U.S. Immigration Commissioner Terence Powderly feared that if diseased immigrants were allowed into the country, they could render future generations of Americans "hairless and sightless." Scientists debated whether waves of swarthy Eastern and Southern European immigrants would make blondes an endangered species in America. 

Will Huntington join this long list of false prognosticators? That remains uncertain, but to call him a "nativist," as some reviewers already have, is unfair. He has done the nation a service by asking tough questions about what makes us American. If his answers are occasionally controversial, sometimes vague and misguided, his belief in the importance of American national identity even in the midst of globalization and increasing ethnic diversity is spot-on. 

But there is one element of American identity that Huntington barely discusses. Americans are an optimistic people, perhaps sometimes naïvely so. That optimism sets us apart from much of the world, fuels our entrepreneurial spirit, encourages immigrants seeking a better life, and inspires us to encourage democracy around the globe. Who Are We?would have been greatly strengthened as cultural criticism had Huntington himself exhibited a little more of that classic American trait, and a little more faith in the strength of American ideas and culture.