By Eugène E.
If you search for a book to explain the present state of affairs in the United States, Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? will be unlikely to make it to the top of your search results. That is most unjust. An eminent political scientist in his day, Huntington is better known for The Clash of Civilizations, of course, but many consider Who Are We? to be his seminal work – and with good reason. One can hardly ask for a better study of how America got to where it is now, not least because the book came out at a time when Donald Trump was a colourful real estate mogul just getting ready to gain further notoriety for firing people on a television show, and when no one – including Trump himself – could have imagined that he would one day be the principal occupant of the White House. Anyone who has read the book will find today’s top stories, as far as US politics is concerned, perfectly comprehensible and perhaps even logical.
Who Are We? is unsettlingly prophetic. As an astute analyst, Huntington took the temperature of his times and anticipated the future. As a great mind, he diagnosed the problem when few realized that a problem existed. As a man who considered himself to be a patriot, he took the trouble to share his findings with the public. What makes this most American of books so strikingly relevant – and the reason many consider this work as Huntington’s most significant – is its applicability not just to America, but to the entire Western world. Although the problems outlined in Who Are We? are germane to the US and to its recent history, he was writing as much about the West as a whole as he was about his own country. The story line is the same; only the actors driving it are somewhat different.
The tone is gentlemanly, but the thesis is trenchantly clear: America is suffering from the erosion of its national identity, which, rooted in the Anglo-Protestant-European ethos, has been brought about by a host of forces inimical to the traditional concept of American national identity and even of national identity, insofar as America may need one, as such. With a somewhat aloof meticulousness, Huntington charts the enfeeblement of America’s “salience”, the term Huntington uses to denote the importance that an individual attaches to his sense of national identity relative to his other identities. In the process, Huntington debunks one very important myth: the notion that all Americans (with the exception of Amerindians, that is) are descendants of immigrants.
This is, Huntington, stresses, a partially valid truth. Partially valid truths are half-truths; and those are problematic. As the historian John Lukacs has written, a half-truth is worse than a lie because, rather than being something that contains a 50 percent truth, it is in fact a 100 percent truth and a 100 percent untruth; and this admixture produces something else altogether. While the US can rightly be called a country of immigrants, it was founded not by immigrants but by settlers. Immigrants are people who leave one society for another. Settlers are those who leave one society to found another. The USA was founded by settlers who mostly came from Anglo-Protestant society; the society they created enticed others to leave their societies for the society founded by the settlers. This glaring fact is often lost on those who claim that, with the exception of Amerindian tribes, everyone else in the US and Canada is an immigrant or a descendant of one.
Why did immigration work in the US, and why did it stop working at one point? Huntington elucidates the immigration process in the US that made it possible for immigrants to be assimilated into US society. This process was characterized by diversity and dispersion, discontinuity, and wars.
With diversity and dispersion, immigrants were accepted from diverse societies so that not a single group would predominate and become an “active minority”. There was also geographic dispersion at work, which means that different groups were encouraged to settle all over the place and not form ethnic enclaves.
With discontinuity, the fluctuations in America’s immigration policy allowed the country to absorb its immigrants. The country’s immigration laws were not always immigrant-friendly, and legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1924 was used to limit the number of people entering the country. This turned out to be a useful tool – even if it wasn’t consciously used as such – to allow the most recent wave of arrivals to get integrated into society; by the time the next wave hit the US shores, the previous wave had become part of US society, and so the next wave had to follow suit.
Finally, Huntington mentions the wars in which the US engaged in the 20th century (certainly in the first half of the 20th century) and which involved the participation of immigrants who now found their salience strengthened.
This traditional immigration process was interrupted with the arrival of what can be called ultraliberal thinking (Huntington does not use this term, but this does not alter the gist of things in any way). The bien-pensants hijacked the agenda, and everything changed. Huntington emphasizes the massive influx of Hispanic migrants as the primary cause of weakening national salience. Although the US continued to take in immigrants from all parts of the world, Hispanics began to constitute a growing – and vocal – minority group. An active minority group, in a word. Furthermore, due to border contiguity, dispersion patterns had changed as well, as many migrants settled in the states adjacent to the border the US shares with Mexico (and which had once belonged to Mexico before the US seized the territory in the middle of the 19th century).
The kind of discontinuity that had characterized America’s approach to immigration had also come to an end. Immigration into the US became constant; in the case of migrants from Mexico, it was further facilitated by geographic proximity and fuelled by millions of migrants crossing the border illegally. Lastly, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there was no more enemy, no external “other” that, however uncomfortable this may sound, every nation needs in order to tauten its national identity. There were no major wars to spur patriotic fervour or boost the sense of belonging to a national project. America’s national identity had come to face an existential threat.
One of the problems with American national identity is that of substance, which is, in simple terms, that fluid, inexplicable notion of what makes an American an American. The diversity of the American people makes it impossible to frame American identity among ethnic or racial lines. American identity, therefore, needs to be buttressed by something else. In the America of yesteryear, national identity was built on Anglo-Protestant culture with a distinctly European orientation. Since the dawn of ultraliberal thought, this has no longer been the case. Huntington correctly identifies the culprits.
First, there’s multiculturalism. Huntington sees multiculturalism for what it is: not as some kind of all-encompassing, all-embracing tolerance of those who are different, but as an ideology that is inherently hostile towards European civilization, which in the eyes of ultraliberal proselytizers has been responsible for all sorts of oppression throughout history and has, for that reason and scores of others, outlived its right to set the national agenda. Making no bones about it, Huntington writes: “Multiculturalism is in its essence anti-European civilization . . . It is basically an anti-Western ideology.” Just so.
Then there is America Inc. Although Huntington makes no explicit mention of the incestuous relationship between movements championing ultraliberal causes and the corporate world, the responsibility of the private sector in the effacement of national identity is spelled out. In pre-multicultural America, businesses made a concerted effort to absorb and Americanize immigrants. This was not out of mere altruism or patriotic duty: Huntington explains that American companies feared that unassimilated European immigrants might start forming labor unions. The Americanization of immigrants brought that risk down. By the end of the 20th century, however, the interests of the corporate world were at odds with a strong national identity. Businesses had embraced multiculturalism. No company wants to be seen as or perceived to be hidebound when it comes to diversity, not least due to fear of boycotts. Also, there’s the compartmentalized nature of the US economy, which makes servicing different markets (including ethnic ones) more profitable than having one standardized market. National identity does not have a listing on the stock market – no ways to pad the income statement there.
Then there’s the question of the elites. The yawning gap between the worldview of the governed and those who govern gets enough press nowadays, but Huntington wrote about it more than a decade before the developed world realized that populism, as a political force, had not yet been fully spent. In Who Are We? Huntington describes the denationalization of the elites, who feel greater kinship with elites from other countries and civilizations than with their own countrymen, and the falling salience of the said elites that is fading at a time when the salience of many among the masses is blossoming. The aspirations of the public are overlooked to accommodate the private interests of the privileged few who, despite their small numbers, drive public discourse, shape legislation, and influence, to the extent that they are able to, the direction of broader society.
A serious scholar, Huntington does not talk in the language of predictions, but in one of scenarios and plausibilities. He enumerates the possible outcomes of the erosion of American national identity in a manner that is never alarmist and is at times nearly detached, yet the urgency of his arguments and conclusions is never compromised. Huntington’s discussion of “white nativism” as a possible reaction on the part of white Americans to the continuous incursions of multiculturalism is delightfully vatic, given that white nativism is considered to have been a factor in the presidential victory of Donald Trump in 2016. Viewed from that angle, Trump’s success appears nothing short of inevitable.
The key thing is that Who Are We? – despite its Americentric bent, from the US flag on the cover page of my edition to its laser focus on the US and its history – is a book for any reader who lives in the West and cares about the future of European civilization. It is as relevant to, say, France or the Netherlands as it is to the US. While America was founded by European settlers, Europe is the land whose peculiar circumstances made these very settlers – and hence, the founding of the US – possible. And, unlike the US, Europe is still largely populated by people autochthonous to the European continent. While the US is facing the rising influence of its Hispanic minority, European countries must contend with a growing Muslim polity – a most active minority. Low fertility rates are as much a problem for indigenous Europeans as they are for Americans of European ancestry. Where America has a border problem with Mexico, Europe has a border problem along its Mediterranean littoral. Huntington writes: “One index foretells the future: in 1998 José replaced Michael as the most popular name for newborn boys in both California and Texas.” Replace the name “José” with “Mohammed”, and California and Texas with European metropolises, and you might as well be reading about Europe. And it is hardly necessary to adumbrate the triumph of ultraliberalism in Europe, which has been wreaking havoc with European societies for decades (multiculturalism, the breakdown of the traditional family, the growing power of the LGBT movement, etc.).
The recrudescence of populism in response to the dissatisfaction of the European public with the elites has been a major theme in recent years and mirrors a similar trend in the US. More disquietingly still, unlike the Hispanic minority in the US, which is Catholic, Europe’s Muslims represent a religion that is at civilizational loggerheads with the West. The situation in Europe, therefore, is gloomier – the prospects of conflict are greater. Huntington discusses America’s identity crisis, which relates to the difficulty of Americans to frame their identity along national lines. While Europeans, whose native inhabitants are white and Christian, should have no problem in that respect, European identity has been besieged by multiculturalism, a falling population, decreasing political capital on the international stage, and the inability of the EU to offer a viable pan-European identity to appeal to the nations united under the aegis of a great European union.
Huntington seems to believe that the traditional form of American national identity might be preserved if only every immigrant were to be Americanized to the hilt. In other words, as long as the core Anglo-Protestant values (with a European accent) are adopted by all, traditional America will live on even if white America becomes a minority in demographic terms. The obvious question is whether an Anglo-Protestant America can exist if WASPs are a minority, and whether the Europeanness of Europe can continue to exist if native Europeans cease to be the majority in Europe. Huntington scarcely answers that question; in the entire book only one passage points to the possibility that the preservation of values might, after all, be contingent on the demographic dominance of the group that espouses the values in question. Perhaps Huntington found the answer too uncomfortable to be dwelled upon.
The spectre of war haunts the pages. Who Are We? refers to warfare as an instrument to bolster national identity. Quoting the German historian von Treitschke, Huntington reminds the reader that it is war that turns a people into a nation. As far as inconvenient truths go, this one is quite up there. “Sociological theory and historical evidence,” writes Huntington, “suggest that the absence of an external enemy or other encourages internal disunity”. My last blog post was dedicated to the present risk of a major war. It is a sobering thought that a leader somewhere might reach conclusions similar to those of Treitschke and seek to reinforce his country’s national identity by resorting to one of the oldest activities known to man.
It’s not all doomsday talk. There is room for optimism. Huntington admits that, however laudable the ideological values of American society (e.g., the Creed) may be, ideology is not a glue that can hold a nation together. This is valid. Huntington, for his part, attempts to make a bet on the surge of evangelical Christianity in the US, which can underwrite the interests of American national identity. America’s Protestants can rally around it; non-Protestants, gravitate towards it. Since the US was founded by Protestants, Protestantism might just be that adhesive agent that will keep the salience of the American people in place.
This is certainly a possibility. Rather, it is only a possibility. Things can go in any direction, a reality freely acknowledged by Huntington. And if evangelical Christianity can prop up salience in the US, what hope is there for Europe? Given the entrenched secular nature of most of the European continent, a return to Judeo-Christian values might not be in the cards. As Huntington writes, “In the long run, however, numbers are power, particularly in a multicultural society, a political democracy, and a consumer economy.” Given that Muslim immigrants in Europe are more adept at playing the numbers game than the host societies, this fails to inspire much confidence in a European future for Europe.