It’s time to start taking E pluribus unum seriously again.
President Donald Trump’s feeble and vacillating response to the violent confrontation that white nationalists provoked in Charlottesville has emboldened those on both the alt-right and the radical left who claim that racism and American nationalism are the same thing. Most Americans of all races think otherwise. Unfortunately, the ability to promote or even discuss a common American identity that transcends race and religion is weakened by confusion about four terms: “nation,” “culture,” “race,” and “ethnicity.”
“Nation” can refer to a state, a purely political entity, whose citizens may belong to various ethnicities (Switzerland). It can also refer to the exact opposite — a stateless ethnic group (the Kurds). “Culture” in American parlance can refer either to actual culture (English as the primary language) or to the categories of the U.S. Census, such as “non-Hispanic white,” which refer to race or biological descent. To compound the confusion, “ethnicity” can refer both to acquired culture (Amish culture) and to inherited DNA (white or Caucasian).
This confusion is natural and persistent, because the identities of most people everywhere in the world come as part of an inherited package that unites race or biological descent with culture (and also creed, that is, a religious or secular way of life) — what I’ll refer to as “ethnicity” here. Ethnicity is a permanent feature of human life because of the family. The question is how inherited ethnic identity should relate to political identity.
As Azar Gat, Anthony Smith, and other scholars of nationalism have shown, the claim of the postmodernist Left that all ethnonational identities are recent and “socially constructed” is false. Even the modern nation-state, with rough congruence between a nation and a state, has precursors in kingdoms with a common ethnicity, such as ancient China and Egypt, when they were ruled by native dynasties, as well as in smaller ethnic states such as ancient Israel and Judah.
Even so, until recently much of the world’s population lived either in multi-state nations or in multinational states. A multi-state nation is one, such as ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy or premodern Germany, in which a single ethnic nation is divided among many political units such as city-states. In contrast, a multinational empire, such as the Roman empire or the Hapsburg empire, is an arbitrary collection of many ethnic nations, cobbled together by force by a ruling nation, aristocracy, or royal family.
The modern nation-state has two parents. One is Enlightenment republicanism, which requires a sovereign people as the source of the state’s legitimacy and usually has found it in a preexisting ethnic nation with a shared identity. The other is industrialization, which, by lowering the cost of communications and policing, allowed populations much larger than cities or cantons to be governed by constitutional and representative government, not just by local satraps answering to remote despots.
Almost all contemporary states are fragments, created by secession or partition from a larger and more diverse multinational empire. The United States, born as a fragment of the 18th-century British empire, is no exception. Whether they have been built on the ruins of dynastic empires in Central Europe or of European colonial empires in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, few if any modern states have been completely homogeneous in ethnicity.
In the first wave of nationalism, the new state is usually captured by one of its ethnic groups, often a majority (Anglo-American Protestants in the post-colonial United States) but sometimes a minority (Afrikaners in South Africa, Alawites in post-colonial Syria, Sunni Arabs in post-colonial Iraq). Where an ethnonational state has democratic institutions, it is what sociologist Pierre van den Berghe has called a Herrenvolk (“master people”) democracy, with government of the dominant ethnic nation, by the dominant ethnic nation, and for the dominant ethnic nation.
Until the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, the United States was a Herrenvolk democracy, with the informal definition of the Herrenvolk broadening gradually from British-American Protestant to white Christian or white Judeo-Christian. Law and custom — from legal racial segregation to the recitation of Christian prayers in public schools — signaled that “real” Americans were white Christians. Non-whites and non-Christians were considered by most of the white Christian majority to be resident aliens in the U.S., whether they possessed American citizenship or not. From the 1790s, when the first Congress limited naturalization to “free white persons,” through late-19th-century bans on Asian immigration, to the quota system of the 1920s, which favored northwestern Europeans, U.S. immigration policy sought to reinforce the white and Christian aspects of American national identity.
America’s white-Christian ethnonationalism was always at odds with republican ideals of equal treatment under law and the separation of church and state. In addition, it defied the reality of lived experience.
Remember, ethnicity is a compound of race, creed, and culture. But in the United States, black Americans in the South largely shared the culture, dialect, and Protestant religion of fellow southerners who were white. The result was an American caste system defined by the racial or descent component of ethnicity alone. A European immigrant who could not speak a word of English was granted more privileges than an American with “one drop” of African “blood” whose ancestors had lived in U.S. territory for centuries and whose native language was a dialect of American English.
America’s version of Herrenvolk democracy was dismantled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. In the half century since the civil-rights revolution, the question of what it is to be American has been contested by four schools: racial nationalism, creedal nationalism, multi-ethnonationalism, and cultural nationalism. Each school tries to create an alternative to the older white-Christian ethnonationalism by rooting American identity in one of the three unbundled components of ethnicity: race, creed, and culture.
So-called white nationalism — the racial nationalism of alt-right neo-Nazis, Klan members, and others — is distinct from old-fashioned American ethnonationalism because it emphasizes the racial strand in the white-Christian American bundle. Like German National Socialism, it views humanity through a zoological lens, indifferent to national cultural differences within gene pools and frequently hostile to Abrahamic religions (which Odin- and Thor-worshiping neopagans on the “white Right” deride because of their Semitic origins).
Pan-white identity can hardly be the basis for an inclusive American national identity, because a growing number of Americans are not white as conventionally defined, while most whites on earth live outside American borders. Logically, white nationalists should call for the unification of all Caucasians in a single empire or federation, echoing Hitler’s hope that a racially purified, German-led Europe would be allied in the future with a pro-Nazi, racist British empire against supposed race enemies — mongrelized, Jew-controlled America and the non-whites of the world.
Recognizing that a Caucasian caliphate is not in the cards, the racist Right has long speculated about dividing the U.S. into racial homelands — the United Bantustans of America. While white nationalists might, in public, justify this lunacy using the rhetoric of progressive multiculturalism, not even the most ardent multiculturalist on the left endorses racially pure white, black, and Latino states.
Another possible successor to moribund white-Christian American Herrenvolk nationalism is what is sometimes called “creedal nationalism” (in my 1995 book The Next American Nation, I called it “democratic universalism”). This is the familiar argument that Americans are defined as Americans solely on the basis of their shared commitment to the creed of the American Founding, with articles of faith including belief in liberty, democracy, equality, and natural rights.
A shared commitment by the citizens to republican values is to be desired in a republic. But creedal nationalism, like racial nationalism, succumbs to the objection that most of the people who share the liberal-democratic creed live outside U.S. borders, while not all Americans believe in liberalism and democracy. A Norwegian who reveres the Declaration of Independence is not for that reason an American, and an American who decides that the Founders were wrong and that the ideal form of government is a Tibetan-style Buddhist religious polity is still an American, if an eccentric one.
Further, creedal nationalists who try to distinguish “patriotism” (good) from “nationalism” (bad) are confused — and not just because their preferred universalistic term, “patriotism,” is based on a Latin word meaning “fatherland.” Patriotism is loyalty to the state as a political entity, while nationalism is fraternal (and sororal) solidarity with the sovereign nation or people (however defined) whom the state exists solely to serve.
Nationalism is more fundamental than patriotism. This is not some illiberal Central European doctrine: It is the basic Lockean republican theory that underlies the Declaration of Independence and the very existence of the United States, as well as other modern democratic nation-states.
Think of the nation as a condo association and the state as the condo management. The members of the condo association/nation owe their chief loyalty not to the state (their collective servant) but rather to one another, on the basis of their mutual contract. The condo owners cannot unilaterally break condo rules, but as a group they can fire the manager and rewrite the rules as they see fit at any time. The implication of creedal nationalism — that believing in American ideals is what makes you a member of the American nation — is as unworkable as saying that approval of a particular condo building’s management automatically makes you a member of that particular condo association.
If we reject racist white nationalism and abstract creedal nationalism, what remains are American multiculturalism, or, to be more precise, “multi-ethnonationalism,” and post-ethnic American cultural nationalism.
The adherents of each of these two schools agree that the U.S. should be a liberal constitutional democracy. They disagree on whether the U.S. should be thought of as a nation-state with a predominant majority nation and rights for minority groups or as a single government shared by several identifiable and permanently distinct nationalities.
Modern democratic nation-states are based on a majority language or culture (not necessarily a common ethnicity or race). But a democratic state can also be organized to formally reflect the existence of two or more constituent ethnic or cultural nations within its borders. Examples of multinational democracies, in which multiple ethnic nations are formally recognized and represented, include Canada (Anglophones and Francophones), Belgium (Flemings and Walloons), and Switzerland (ethnic Germans, French, Italians, and Romansch).
In theory, America could be organized along multi-ethnonational lines like Canada or Belgium or Switzerland. But there are two big problems with a liberal-democratic version of multi-ethnonationalism in America.
First, conventional multiculturalism in the U.S. confuses race or genetic descent with culture, equating American “cultures” with our arbitrary and somewhat absurd U.S. Census categories. In bi-national Belgium, the Flemish and the Walloons are genuine ethnic groups combining descent and culture. Likewise, the Québécois in Canada are a genuine ethnic nation.
But there is no common “non-Hispanic white” ethnicity that recent immigrants from Ireland share with old-stock German Americans and Italian Americans, any more than there is a common “Asian and Pacific islander” ethnicity shared by Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, and Filipino Americans. Meanwhile, successive generations of Latino immigrants are adopting American English as their native language at about the same rate as previous generations of European immigrant groups. And rates of out-marriage among immigrant groups rise with each generation. You can’t have a formal Swiss, Belgian, or Canadian group-based system if ethnic differences are either arbitrary, like Census racial categories, or quickly erased by assimilation or blurred by intermarriage.
The black–white divide, the deepest divide in American society, is a caste divide, not a cultural divide. It is impossible to separate white and black cultures. African-American vernacular English, with African trace elements, is classified by most linguists as a variant dialect of American English originating in the South. For its part, the culture of the American South has always been hybrid and transracial, even when southern states outlawed racial intermarriage. Think of an all-white bluegrass band, playing the banjo, an African instrument, using a style influenced by black guitarist Arnold Shultz, while dressed in cowboy clothes borrowed from north-Mexican culture. The idea of separating out the elements of America’s national culture and assigning them to different descent groups is almost as mad as the white-racist vision of American Bantustans.
What remains as a plausible basis for a widely shared American identity, after we reject racial nationalism as stupid and repulsive and creedal nationalism and multi-ethnonationalism as unworkable, is American cultural nationalism — the idea that there is an American national majority defined by a common culture, but not by common racial descent or common secular or religious beliefs.
How big is the American cultural majority? Americans of all races who speak a dialect of American English as their first language are, as a rough approximation, about 80 percent of American citizens. The remainder are divided between recent immigrants and some of their children, and self-segregated linguistic minorities such as the German-speaking Amish.
The U.S., like Brazil and Mexico, is a multiracial and mixed-race nation with a predominant national language and national vernacular culture. Racial diversity does not necessarily lead to linguistic or cultural diversity. Indeed, as the descendants of recent immigrants grow up speaking American English and losing touch with ancestral traditions, the linguistic and cultural majority in the U.S. might increase as a share of a population that is more diverse in ancestry.
The purpose of defining and defending American national identity in this way, as a matter of common culture but not common race or creed, is not to promote a new version of Herrenvolk democracy, privileging some Americans above others on the basis of language or customs. It is simply to point out the obvious. There is and long has been an American cultural majority that is much larger than the shrinking, descent-defined “non-Hispanic white” majority.
Twenty-first-century conservatives, progressives, and centrists have many subjects for legitimate debate. But one area that should be the basis of consensus is the recognition of the American majority not as an ethnonational tribe but as a cultural nation whose members have diverse ancestries and creeds. It is time to take our national motto seriously: E pluribus unum.
– Mr. Lind is the author of The Next American Nation.