Mr. Kotkin offers a powerful warning for US politics. In a world where the nation-state and national sovereignty are the organizing principles of global politics, a national identity is the necessary glue that holds democracies together and strengthens them against chaotic change. Multiculturalism and identity group tribalism only weaken democratic societies.
America’s Future Depends on Believing in a Shared National Identity.
By Joel Kotkin
City Journal, August 7, 2019
This week, the troubled state of American democracy was on display in the reactions to the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. To the establishment Left, led by the New York Times, the El Paso shooter operated as if he were a white nationalist acting on orders from Donald Trump. Some on the right, meantime, linked the Dayton shooter’s actions to Antifa. In a healthy political environment, Americans, regardless of political views, would consider these tragedies the heinous actions of disturbed people, motivated mostly by a dangerous combination of madness and ideology. But in our warped political climate, everyone assumes that their enemies want to kill them.
Our political polarization reflects a decline in the notion of American identity. Tribalism on the left has supplanted foundational ideals of citizenship. Representative Ayanna Pressley recently insisted that blacks, Hispanics, gays, and members of other minority groups must promote identity-first politics over any notion of the common good; failure to do so, she suggested, is a betrayal of the group. In addition, progressive Democrats have effectively championed open borders, advocating the removal of criminal penalties for border-crossers, who also would get free health care not readily available to most American citizens. Such views represent the triumph of identity politics over the civic ideal of E Pluribus Unum.
The Left’s positions, according to Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security secretary under Barack Obama, are “unworkable, unwise,” and lack support of “a majority of American people or the Congress.” And yet our press, cultural institutions, and universities—all controlled by progressives—amplify those views each day, shaping an angry younger generation with little use for citizenship, free speech, open dialogue, democracy, or capitalism. Some 40 percent of millennials, for example, favor limiting speech deemed offensive to minorities—well above the 27 percent that prevails among Gen Xers, 24 percent among baby boomers, and just 12 percent among the oldest cohorts. Many millennials also dismiss basic constitutional civil rightsand support socialism over free markets.
While progressives seek to impose their agenda, some populist conservatives are understandably resentful at being told by 1 percenters like Beto O’Rourke that they are beneficiaries of “white privilege” and are members of the “male patriarchy.” Most Republicans, according to Pew, worry that foreigners are remaking and undermining the country’s identity. Considering the country’s demographic trajectory, this politics has a limited shelf life. A return to 1950s America is no more likely than the mass expulsion of Trump’s white “deplorables.”
Fighting for a robust and inclusive American identity won’t be popular with our corporate elite. “Transnational class formation”—long linked by various parts of the industrial and financial aristocracy—is becoming more pronounced. The late Peter Drucker, considered the father of management thinking, suggested that national citizenship may no longer be “meaningful” in a world connected by digital technology and global markets. Many top firms including Amazon, Apple, Chevron, and General Electric refuse even to identify as American companies. Like feudal lords loyal to the European Christianitas, not their locale, this corporate elite increasingly identifies with global markets and a cosmopolitan, post-national worldview. Since Trump’s election, many companies, including Google, have grown reluctant to work with the U.S. military, immigration agencies, and police departments, while assisting the surveillance agenda of authoritarian China.
Given their post-nationalist inclinations, it’s not surprising that many corporate powers—notably in tech—prefer unlimited immigration. This partly reflects the non-native share of the tech workforce, which has reached 24 percent nationwide, compared with 16 percent for the rest of labor force. In Silicon Valley, it’s roughly 40 percent. Though they defend open borders, tech leaders express little concern for the native-born, largely white middle class. Immigrants, suggests Steve Case, former CEO of AOL, should replace our troubled, indigenous working class.
Such positions invite backlash from those who live outside the charmed circle. After all, if uneducated migrants want to enter the country, they won’t settle in Malibu, posh parts of San Francisco, or the Upper East Side, but instead in working- and middle-class neighborhoods. They’ll compete for housing and jobs in hardscrabble neighborhoods, but they won’t bid up the price of houses in exclusive enclaves or threaten well-paid jobs in the executive suite or at universities.
Our present trajectory is ruinous; it will exacerbate political antagonism and likely produce even more politicized violence. The only solution to greater polarization lies in reestablishing the norms of a civic nationalism that transcends identity politics of all kinds.
Developing a renewed sense of American identity won’t be easy. As a lifelong Democrat, I saw nothing remotely unpatriotic in the rhetoric of George McGovern—a World War II hero—and certainly not from Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Yet today, according to Gallup, only 22 percent of Democrats today say that they are “proud to be Americans,” down from 65 percent in 2003, when the widely disliked George W. Bush was in the White House. Modern progressives generally reject any thought of American exceptionalism, maintaining, in the words of Pete Buttigieg, that America was “never as great as advertised.”
It’s hard to build a positive agenda without some sense of national pride and shared culture. Fortunately, America’s founding principles—rule of law, protection of minority rights, market-based capitalism—are not dependent on race and heritage. Unlike Europe, we don’t have one great historic tradition that we must embrace or lose. By contrast, America, based on ideas that transcend race, boasts a remarkable record of incorporating newcomers, first from Ireland and Germany, then Italy and Eastern Europe, and more recently from Latin America and Asia. These generations of new Americans constitute the secret sauce that makes this country work and could sustain it in the future.
This expansive civic nationalism also represents an economic imperative. Due to sharply lower birthrates, most of our prime competitors—the EU, Japan, and even China—are on the verge of demographic collapse. Europeans may need immigrants, but their welfare states, slow growth, and lack of cultural cohesion will make absorbing these newcomers problematic at best. Most Asian countries have little interest in large-scale immigration.
America’s future will depend on believing in a shared mission. Calling progressives “Communists” or conservatives “fascists” gets us nowhere. Convincing young people, particularly young men, that they have no future won’t dissuade them from authoritarian views—or even violence. The road to sanity starts with a renewed embrace of a shared American identity that transcends all others.