The Ties That Bind

On Americanisation, cultural nationalism, and e pluribus unum.

Welcome to a new chapter for The Transom here at Substack! I hope this edition is delivered smoothly. While I’m sure there will be some kinks to work out in the early going, I’m pleased at all the kind words and support sent along for this move and for the changing nature of this newsletter. Aggregation is a young man’s game, one friend noted, and that’s quite true, though it will still be part of what The Transom offers. 

As a reminder: I will be hosting Fox News Primetime all next week, and I’d appreciate your input on the shows as always. My general theme for the week will be about the things that once united us that now divide us, and why.

One of the political observations of the moment that underlies much of the analysis going into next year’s midterms and beyond is the demise of the “demography as destiny” theory, depicting ascendant Democrats at the head of a multi-ethnic coalition biding their time until all the old white voters are diminished and die off. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea: you folks on the wrong side of history, your time is over, it’s our time now. Get on the right side of the arc or we riot.

Smart voices on the left have been critiquing this demographic destiny view for years. But after the past year, it seems clear even the skeptical leftist political analysts underestimated the depth of their problem, as made clear by the Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police, and Critical Race Theory movements and weaponized toward communities through the churning houses of unlearning known as America’s public schools.

The American Hispanic voter is, it turns out, not motivated at all by what Democratic progressives or Republican corporatists would prefer they value. It is not a matter of immigration policy. It is not a matter of racial and cultural victimhood. Instead, they are households overwhelmingly aspirational in nature. They seek inclusion. They want their children to live in the big house in the nice neighborhood. They do not want to remain as an out-group as the CRT pushers would prefer. They do not view cops or the military or the border patrol as negative forces of violence and colonialism. The American flag is not a stain to them. They do not need a second anthem.

It’s important to note: breaking this potential nation-changing multiethnic coalition apart has been the self-destructive work of the left, not the right. It is based on voters behaving according to their own priorities, not how the left would prefer they behave. So how should the American right, particularly a right that increasingly cares as much about culture as it does about tax rates, respond to this development with more awareness than they have in the past?

In thinking on these topics, I’ve returned a few times to a symposium by Law & Liberty back in the spring, and particularly this essay by Brad Littlejohn on “The Necessity of Cultural Nationalism”, a review of Samuel Goldman’s book on the subject. In it he writes:

The kind of story-telling necessary to sustain any family, community, or nation, though idealistic and over-simplistic, should not be dismissed as mere “useful fabrication,” even if it does need critical historians to keep it honest. Certainly, an American national history that glossed over the evils of slavery, ignored the betrayal of American principles in the Mexican War, and casually justified the genocide of Native Americans would be a pernicious myth. But it would be equally pernicious, and no less truthful, to tell America’s story as a long list of atrocities and oppressions in which all imperfect heroes had been banished from the national pantheon.

Of these two errors, it is not hard to see which is the more lively threat today. Goldman sometimes writes as if today’s nationalists were nostalgic bards, trying to reconstruct national traditions out of thin air, rather than principled conservatives trying to defend the crumbling structure of the American nation against radicals bent on demolishing it altogether. He dismisses one recent statement of “benign nationalism” by Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry as so vague and abstract that hardly anyone would disagree. Yet it should be clear that in 2021 America, there are those who disagree with the idea of “loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it,” and though they may be relatively few, they wield a powerful cultural microphone. In 2020, they used that microphone to provoke the destruction or removal of hundreds of monuments throughout the United States, including statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Francis Scott Key. In the face of such rabid anti-nationalism, surely it is high time for patriotic scholars to assemble for a determined defense of the relative coherence of the nation, the relative goodness of its traditions, and the relative virtue of its heroes.

Littlejohn goes on to express justified misgivings about whether such a project could alter the course of the nation today without being tied to a heartier form of cultural and religious nationalism:

More significantly, however, I am dubious that history provides us with evidence of nations that have long sustained themselves on shared constitutional principles alone. Certainly, of the three conceptions that Goldman describes, the creedal model was much the most short-lived in its hold on the American soul. History shows few examples of a “constitutional consensus” sustaining itself in the absence of a larger cultural and/or religious consensus—especially when the constitution itself was the product of a particular set of cultural and religious customs and convictions, as ours is of British Protestantism.

This need for cultural consensus could hold the key for how the right ought to approach this moment of opportunity. As G.K. Chesterton writes in 1922 from his English perspective in What I Saw In America:

The Americans are very patriotic, and wish to make their new citizens patriotic Americans. But it is the idea of making a new nation literally out of any old nation that comes along. In a word, what is unique is not America but what is called Americanisation. We understand nothing till we understand the amazing ambition to Americanise the Kamskatkan and the Hairy Ainu. We are not trying to Anglicise thousand of French cooks or Italian organ-grinders. France is not trying to Gallicise thousands of English trippers or German prisoners of war. America is the only place in the world where this process, healthy or unhealthy, possible or impossible, is going on. And the process, as I have pointed out, is not internationalization. It would be truer to say it is the nationalization of the internationalized. It is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.

If you step back and look at the leftist project within academia and public education since the middle of the past century, you see within it a driving effort to prevent this process of Americanisation, to decry it as racism, colonialism, or cultural appropriation, and to use these divisions to achieve their political aims. Al Gore’s confidence thirty years ago that America “can be e pluribus unum -- out of one, many” can be read as less a slip of the tongue and more a deep, horrifying admission.

The problem the left has run into in recent years isn’t just that they overstepped what they could get away with in identifying everything as racist. It’s that they moved far beyond trying to teach the immigrant and the refugee that they can never be truly American, and they started to teach that no child should want to be an American in the first place. That was a bridge too far.

White guilt and parental absence allowed the former message to take hold. But the latter message offends many of the very people leftists need at the ballot box to hold their radical agenda together. 

Now, those voters are looking for a place to go. Will the American right offer it? Or will they find another way, autopsy style, to screw it up? We are about to find out.