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Samuel Huntington claims that American national identity is under attack

By Don DeBats
Posted Thursday, 26 August 2004

Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity is the book to read before that next debate about what the United States is, and is not. Huntington’s study of cultural clashes is translated here from the world of international politics to the American domestic scene. It provides a context for understanding two aspects of American culture which often give rise to Australian commentary (usually negative): American religiosity, and a history of denying equal treatment to some members of its society.

In his most famous book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Huntington argued that the clash of cultures, rather than conflict between ideologies, would shape post-Cold War global conflict. In this new book Huntington shows that cultural conflict is no less important to charting the course of the United States in its post-Cold War incarnation. The focus is the salience and substance of American national identity. National identity here means what others have termed political culture. Huntington argues that political culture is not an "optional extra". It is more than the values and beliefs Americans share and that both defines America and distinguishes Americans from Australians (and any other peoples). Rather it is, Huntington says, the indispensable base of the American nation.

The salience of Americans’ sense of themselves as a nation was in decline for many years but rose to new heights after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Huntington is not sure that this new coalescence will persist in the face of its old adversaries and the new divisiveness. Huntington clearly hopes it will, but he sees major obstacles.

Few would disagree with Huntington’s treatment of the saliency of America’s national identity. He states that a sense of national identity exists amongst Americans and that the strength of that identity rises and falls. But three key Huntington arguments following on from this will evoke real disagreement. First, there is his assertion that national identity is central to national survival. Second that the substance of national identity is as important as its salience. Third, and most controversially, he proposes that the composition of American national identity is as much Anglo-Protestant culture as it is secular political creed. Many will read Huntington’s book as an argument for cultural purity (which it is not) as well as an argument against multiculturalism (which it is).

Most observers have defined American political culture in strictly political terms, echoing Richard Hofstadter’s famous observation about the United States that, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one". That ideology is often summarised as a national faith in the "creed": those aspirational political values which Americans hold dear, liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, human rights, the rule of law, private property.

Huntington’s argument is that an Anglo-Protestant culture pre-dated the invention of the American political creed and that this has profoundly shaped America from the outset. Huntington ramps up the importance of this duality of culture and creed, insisting that the nation’s very survival rests on the re-invigoration of the Anglo-Protestant culture as "the" American culture. The creed alone is not sufficient to sustain the nation, and a nation defined by only an abstract political creed will not survive. He suggests that if united only by creedal beliefs, America will become a "loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural and political groups, with little or nothing in common apart from their location in the territory of what had been the United States of America". Culture is the fundamental basis of unity no less than conflict, as Huntington has argued before.

Huntington sees both the idea of an American national political identity and its cultural core as under attack. But these enemies are not Islamic terrorists. They are America’s own political and cultural elites with their doctrines of cultural pluralism. Armed with a misinformed virtue, these elites, says Huntington, have systematically undermined the very idea of a national identity and sought to erase its cultural component, leaving the salience of American national identity low and the substance resting on an insufficient political creed.

This stance - an attack on America’s elite from Huntington, a Professor of Government at elite Harvard University - echoes Christopher Lasch’s populist critique of the betrayal of America by America’s cultural leaders. This cultural war underpins and lends fascination to contemporary American social criticism. Huntington has now enlisted in that war. He has written this book with his politics on his sleeve: it is a book written "as a patriot" about an America Huntington loves. But is he right?

There are some obvious problems. We have only Huntington’s insistence that Anglo-Protestantism is as central to American identity as the creed. But the point is a telling one, if we accept it. Here is an explanation for American religiosity - almost always a surprise to observers from more secular countries. The United States is not unique in its emphasis on the importance of religion and religious values for, as Huntington observes, the 21st century is dawning as the age of religion. American religiosity is not striking in that global perspective; it appears odd only in the much narrower context of comparison with a thoroughly secular Western Europe. Huntington’s acclaimed 1996 book, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, was not about Western Europe either.

Huntington’s point is that the religious revivals shaping global conflict are also re-shaping the United States. The dormancy of religion in contemporary Europe, after centuries of religion-based conflict and organisation, is not the future from which global - or American - lessons can be drawn.

An Anglo-Protestant culture standing alongside the secular political creed are the twin forces making up the substance of American political identity, says Huntington. This argument, again, if we accept it, helps explain much of the disjunction in the application of the creed to American citizens. In Huntington’s historical perspective the original Anglo-Protestant cultural core as carried by the first settlers exerted extraordinary shaping force on the ideas of those who followed - by virtue of Wilbur Zelinsky’s doctrine of "first effective settlement". In this Anglo-Protestant culture was the definition of America as a Christian nation with a specifically Protestant moral compass and the work ethic; here was the central agreement on English as America’s only language, the British traditions of law, justice and limits on government. And here too was the source of America’s love of European art, literature, philosophy and music.
But this cultural code also included racial, ethnic, and religious markers which at the outset excluded those who were not white, not Western European, not Protestant, from coming under the umbrella of the American creed. Only gradually and painfully, in what Huntington sees as "America’s finest achievement", have these exclusionary cultural markers been removed. Huntington argues that those who came to America - at least in the past - did so because they actively sought not only America’s creed, but also its Anglo-Protestant culture. Those outside that cultural framework gradually accommodated to it, as did the American Catholic Church. Race, ethnicity, and religion gradually have been removed as those "outsiders" adopted the values of the culture and were accepted by the culture as members of it.

What Australians and many others so frequently see as American hypocrisy in the exclusion of so many from the fruits of the American creed, Huntington neatly explains as a long historical struggle of adapting a profoundly important culture to increasingly diverse groups. But, Huntington insists, this has been done not by removing the culture from national identity, but through a process in which "outsiders" - with staunch encouragement by American political and cultural elites - accepted the values of the American Anglo-Protestant culture.

What then about Huntington’s third point - the "revolt of the elites?" Huntington is scathing in his attack on those who have so assiduously sought to downplay the importance of a national identity and who have actively sought to dismiss the cultural component of that identity. Again the argument is powerful. There is no doubt that in deconstructionist and multiculturalist mode, America’s leaders downplayed any notion of a distinctive American identity. In one of his most telling points, Huntington shows how American leaders in politics, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the universities, assisted by corporate leaders and many of the major philanthropic foundations, attacked notions of American distinctiveness and cultural specificity. The goal was to create a loose transnational identity into which could be fit all of the specifics of identity politics so prevalent in recent American history. Anglo-Protestantism declined so that specific racial and gender identities could develop; in the process loyalty shifted from the collective nation to the specific group. The result is, Huntington says, a non-sustainable situation: a national identity only temporarily salient, resting on abstract political ideas without a cementing cultural core.

Resisting the revolt of the "white establishment,” the "liberal intelligentsia," and the "well-educated five to six percent of the population who had gone to graduate school", says Huntington, was "the patriotic public". Huntington seeks to enlist in their cause and evidently to enlist them in his.

Adding immediacy to his rather abstract crisis is a new, and to my mind, unlikely force - the vast numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants to contemporary America - immigrants both legal and illegal. In the circumstance of already weakened substantive national identity, the vast numbers of Hispanics now in the United States, threaten, Huntington insists, to divide America into two nations, one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking, with the latter less identified with America than any other immigrant group in American history. The 23 million Mexicans now in the United States - Catholic, poor, undereducated, resident largely on lands the United States took from Mexico 150 years ago and with a loyalty to Mexico - constitute an unprecedented threat to American identity. They also threaten Huntington’s hoped-for revival of the Anglo-Protestant culture that has made America.

This is undoubtedly the weakest aspect of the book. Huntington’s alarm exceeds his analysis and he fails to make the case that the Mexican population is distinctively "unmeltable", although the Mexicans are certainly different from any other large immigrant group to the United States. This is not the only "excess" in this book; Huntington’s denunciation of the elite of which he is a part, while always interesting if not ironic, too often strays over the line of fairness.

America’s future is of course unclear. It may become, as Huntington fears, either a bifurcated nation or a mere association of cultural sub-groups. Or it may be that Huntington’s hope is realised: September 11 may help create a renewed America with a strong identity based in its distinctive creed and culture. If a nation is a "remembered community", Huntington reminds us of the importance of culture as the basis of that community. And this is a lesson for Australia no less than America.

A review based on this article first appeared in The Canberra Times, August 7/8 2004.

Don DeBats is Head of the Department of American Studies, Professor of American Studies and Professor of Politics and International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide. His research focus is 19th century U.S. political history and he keeps a close watch on contemporary U.S. politics.

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