Note from the Editors: This dialogue is contained in our fourth print edition “Counterrevolution: The Coming Storms“.
Dialogue: Lafayette Lee & Darryl Cooper on what it means to be an American
Lafayette Lee: An old tweet by (former) Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy recently caught the attention of the online Right. In the tweet, Ramaswamy said that “being American isn’t about whether you can ‘trace your ancestry on this land.’ It’s about whether you’re committed to our nation and its core ideals. The problem I see is too many people who can ‘trace their ancestry’ don’t actually give a damn about the nation.”
While most critics would probably concede the last point, Ramaswamy’s comments about what it means to be an American — to be committed to the nation and its core ideals — reignited an old debate between traditionalists and libertarians. Do you agree with his definition of an American?
Darryl Cooper: The definition of an American has been a moving target at least since Irish and German immigrants began arriving en masse in the mid-19th century. These former English colonies woke up one day in the 1850s and discovered that there were non-English majorities in many of their big cities. Ethnogenesis was required if America was ever going to be a people, rather than merely a state. The Naturalization Act of 1798, which offered citizenship to free white men “of good moral character,” is remembered today as an example of nativist exclusivity, but not so at the time. If a late 18th-century European country had offered the full rights and privileges of citizenship to any European of good moral character, we would view it appropriately as an act of revolutionary openness. The idea that the law was primarily intended as a restriction against non-whites is pure revisionism. In its earliest days, America was radically redefining European concepts of citizenship and national belonging.
Lafayette Lee: This is a good point, but it presumes that native-born citizens, as constituent members of a sovereign people, already possess an American identity and sense of national belonging. Ramaswamy is challenging the old assumption that birth, history, and place are fundamental to the American identity, arguing instead that allegiance to ideals can, and should replace it. His argument is hardly new; it has long been an article of faith among civic nationalists and is the de facto position of both political parties. Ramaswamy should be commended for addressing American identity and citizenship, but his solution will only accelerate their disintegration.
For all the emphasis on core ideals, the American identity today is more hollow than ever. Many Americans now describe the nation of their birth as a mere “idea” and citizenship a right rather than a privilege. Whereas, in the past, a strong civic culture would replace more intimate attachments to provide a basis for national identity, this is not the case today. Americans increasingly identify with race, ethnicity, gender, ideology, and sexual orientation, and more and more aliens do not bother to become citizens – even with naturalization requirements relaxed. This is no accident, and a primary driver of this fragmentation is the intellectualization of citizenship and identity.
The spirit of our nation’s early naturalization acts, no matter how revolutionary, was to assimilate foreigners while preserving the sovereignty of the American people. Naturalization presupposes the existence of a sovereign people to assimilate to, with the newcomer gradually adopting native culture, customs, and habits. The process is rooted in things that are embodied; it is organic. This is the essence of ethnogenesis.
Ramaswamy’s prescription, on the other hand, further intellectualizes citizenship and identity by tying them to things that are disembodied; ideals that are ambiguous at best and tyrannical at worst. If citizenship and identity are to be anything more than meaningless abstractions, some kind of authority, whether by mob or monocrat, will have to judge and enforce allegiance. This is the essence of the dysfunctional status quo.
Darryl Cooper: I once brought up a similar point to Balaji Srinivasan in a discussion about his idea to build autonomous cities and mini-states for people with shared ideological, lifestyle, or consumer preferences. A problem with his idea was that groups bound by ideological or lifestyle affinities, rather than by organic bonds of blood and place, have a tendency to turn into cults. The only way such social organizations can sustain the requisite buy-in from their members is to keep them in a constant state of heightened enthusiasm. A “nation of ideas” defends ideological boundaries rather than borders, and turns out to be far less tolerant than a society bound by more traditional ties.
You might be right that Ramaswamy’s solution will only accelerate the disintegration of American identity and citizenship, but it may be that they disintegrated long ago. This, I think, is one of the core questions the Right needs to answer for itself. Is there anything left to salvage? Or, do we have to build something genuinely new, and, if so, what are the conditions for which we have to account as we set out to do that?
I tend to believe that everyone is assimilable if the native population is confident enough to apply appropriate pressure, but Ramaswamy provides an example of this definition of assimilation. During my time working in East Africa, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of Somali translators. All of them lived in Minnesota and had been brought to the United States as children by Catholic charities. Every one of them hated the terrorists they helped us hunt, none of them were compromised by split loyalties, and they knew and appreciated what this country had done for them and their families. They were solid Americans, but they weren’t really Minnesotans. They were able to assimilate into the mass culture – that is, the liberal culture of New York City and Hollywood – but even the most Americanized among them had not assimilated into any local culture. Mass culture, however, cannot sustain a personal or a community identity, so they did what anyone would do, and continued to identify primarily with their ethnic group. The combination of American liberalism and ethnic identification manufactures the kind of people we see disrupting college campuses, chanting Hamas slogans, and defacing statues of American heroes. Have these people really assimilated? Well, yes, in a way, their behavior is as American as apple pie, and this is a fatal flaw in the civic nationalists’ program.
Lafayette Lee: Whether we have anything left to salvage is critical, and I think the Right has the advantage of providing an answer, but so far most attempts fail before they begin. We remain too sharply divided to agree on what we ought to preserve, much less whether to build something new. As you indicate, mass culture, for all its power to shape perceptions and behaviors, cannot sustain a person, community, or movement. Three years after the Trump presidency the populist Right still fails to articulate what America is and what it ought to be. A tired and bitter sentimentalism has dislodged the spirited ethos of 2016, and would-be leaders refuse to acknowledge a dire reality for fear of upsetting their constituents. Furthermore, while weak institutions and rapid technological change embolden the forces of reaction, they also reanimate arcane ideas and lost causes that distort expectations and paralyze efforts to recover our inheritance. Even if we do overcome these obstacles and manage to salvage something, we are left asking, for whom?
You make an interesting distinction between “Americans” and “Minnesotans,” and I suspect there is something vital here. What always seems to be missing from our discussions of national identity is place. We speak of America as an idea and Americans as loyal subjects to that idea, but the very real landscape that Americans inhabit – which holds tangible markings of an actual people at a certain place in time, a people with a history – rarely makes an entrance. This is unfortunate, as a sense of place was always until recently a bedrock to Americans’ conception of themselves and their country. Place contains real people and all that comes with them: affections, attachments, obligations, and a shared cultural memory. Perhaps this explains why Robert E. Lee’s refusal to command the Federal Army in 1861 is incomprehensible to many today; they have lost their conception of place.
I often wonder if this disconnect is partially responsible for the Right’s paralysis and vulnerability to mass culture. If we are not anchored to a place with a people, where we help set the conditions of a polity in the micro, how can we ever hope to identify what ought to be salvaged or built on a grander scale?
Darryl Cooper: A healthy society is one in which local identities are nested within larger, more inclusive identities, with each identity nourished by those it contains and in which it is contained. A person’s primary loyalty should lie with his family and friends, and next with the family and friends of those in his primary group, and so on. When loyalties are structured this way, the local community is not an abstraction, but the sum of those primary relationships. The concentric circles of affection and loyalty continue to grow and become more distant until they include states, nations, perhaps even broader cultures and international alliances, but these things only hang together organically as long as the root remains strong. Each larger nested identity is valued because it nurtures and sustains the ones it contains. When family and friends are no longer one’s primary locus of identity, there is no longer any organic basis for one’s loyalty to a community. Now, the community, the state, the nation, and the people are reduced to mere abstractions, loyalty to which can only be sustained by fear, force, or ideological enthusiasm.
Lafayette Lee: This is true, and I think harmony within the social order is really the essence of federalism and the spirit behind the American Constitution, particularly the doctrine of the separation of powers. But we do not live in a healthy society today, and this is due in no small part to the fact that the US Constitution has been supplanted by an incomprehensible tyranny in Washington — an impenetrable political bureaucracy flanked by parasitic special-interest groups — all of which upend the social order by redefining or extinguishing our most intimate attachments to people and place. This might explain why the Declaration of Independence has transformed from a historical document for posterity into a revolutionary manifesto for the world. While local and state governments can serve as a redoubt, the problem of a hostile national government remains, and Americans who find themselves at odds with Washington must have a certain level of protection to advance their interests.
Going back to your example of Somali translators, it seems that, in the long run, recent immigrants with stronger ties to their diasporic communities would be better able to thrive in spite of these pressures than native-born Americans whose interests, loyalties, and attachments have been abstracted over time. For native-born white Americans, “patriotism” tends to be the catch-all for abstracted interests and loyalties that ultimately mean little. And as you mention in your podcast series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “patriotism and tribalism are natural enemies.”
Native-born Americans who would have called themselves patriots in the past, appear to be at a crossroads. As I see it, they can either try to independently salvage identity and restore a sense of harmony by prioritizing attachments and loyalties to the near and dear, while taking on a more tribal character, or they can try to revolutionize patriotism, which is the objective of the pride movement and Washington’s campaign to rename military bases. Where should a native-born American, who still reveres the Constitution and sees himself as a patriotic citizen rather than a member of a racial or ethnic tribe, go from here?
Darryl Cooper: In terms of practical politics, the two groups you just described should both be focused on reducing, or, if possible, halting mass immigration for the foreseeable future. The Immigration Act of 1924 more or less brought immigration to a halt for over 40 years, and during that time the motley assortment of ethnicities that had crowded into American cities for the last century made real strides toward a genuine ethnogenesis. Interestingly, they were able to accomplish this despite most of the immigrant groups continuing to cluster in ethnic neighborhoods and identifying with their people. Many Italian-Americans who grew up in Italian immigrant communities attended Italian Catholic churches and still spoke Italian at home, nevertheless signed up to fight for America in a war against Italy. It’s doubtful this would have been possible if mass immigration had continued right up to the beginning of the war. As long as the floodgates remain open, immigrant populations will always be surrounded by a fresh crop of new arrivals, and the natives will be anxious about their ongoing displacement. Both of these circumstances inhibit assimilation and encourage immigrants to remain identified not only with their ethnic communities in America, but with the old country itself. The ethnogenesis that had made such great strides by the 1950s was brought to a crashing halt by the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, as we returned to 19th-century levels of immigration, but anyone committed to the civic nationalist project — even an edgy version of it, like Steve Sailer’s “citizenism” — must have faith that the new immigrants are assimilable, and the American ethnogenesis can get back on track.
The point in favor of the civic nationalist position is that it might be politically possible to achieve a major reduction, or even a halt, to immigration; the point against it is that there’s no proof civic nationalism can actually work to sustain a multi-everything national identity. The white identitarians can claim with a reasonable degree of certainty that their program would work to revive and sustain American identity, but even in their wildest fantasies — which must include a return to racial political supremacy and mass expulsions on a scale unprecedented in world history — cannot claim that their program is politically possible.
Lafayette Lee: We have to play the cards we are dealt, and there are pragmatic steps we can take at the national level to secure the border, halt mass migration, deport illegals, and pressure recent arrivals to return to their countries of origin. I do think we are capable of assimilating many people from many different places on a long enough timeline. But all this requires a pro-American executive and lawmakers with an indomitable political will.
There is also the question of what we can expect immigrants to assimilate to. This is why I believe it is critical that we grapple with the American identity once more. As I see it, whoever can provide the best answer to this question will win the future. And, as previously mentioned, I think the Right is best suited to not only diagnose the problem but provide a solution. And yet empty platitudes and anti-rational nostalgia will not take us there. Like you, I have my doubts about white identitarianism and civic nationalism, and I cannot help but wonder if there is fertile ground elsewhere.
This struggle for the American identity is nothing new, and I think that should be a comfort to us. Frederick Jackson Turner was wrestling with this very thing back in 1893, when he wrote that “most famous and influential paper on American historiography,” the so-called “Frontier Thesis.” Turner drew an important distinction between American and European concepts of identity, arguing that the Old World’s rigid boundaries between race, ethnicity, class, and geography had collapsed in pursuit of “winning a wilderness” in the New. By the end of the 19th century, Turner insisted, a true ethnogenesis had occurred — Americans were a distinct people with an identity forged on the frontier. Scholars today widely dismiss the Frontier Thesis, and in some ways Turner was more myth-maker than historian (which is a point in his favor as far as I am concerned). But I think Turner’s argument for the birth of a unique American identity is compelling, and the role of “section” in his thesis is underappreciated and quite profound.
Turner would go on to write The Significance of Sections in the United States History, incorporating the Frontier Thesis into a broader theory to explain American identity, culture, and national character. According to the aged Turner, the closing of the Western frontier was merely a chapter in the living history of America, leaving behind a rich cultural deposit that would shape individual regions and nourish the country as a whole. Turner saw America and its people as a product of regional tensions: the country shaped by a series of sectional clashes and compromises, with Americans knitted together in a tapestry of cultures, folkways, and experiences between physiographic boundaries. For much of our past, sectionalism was a crucial lens by which Americans interpreted their history and identity, from the consolidation of 13 British colonies into a single republic to the violent contest between North and South, from Manifest Destiny and the rise of the Farmers’ Alliance to the birth of Roosevelt’s New Deal regime and global American empire — each chapter the unfolding of a new ethnogenesis, held together by political and social arrangements.
Somewhere along the way we lost this perspective, probably amid the rapid centralization of the mid-20th century. But the old spirits seem to have returned, conjured by social media and other disruptive technologies, and so I wonder if we are misinterpreting the decay of national symbols and narratives and the deepening divide between Red and Blue America; perhaps our attempt to restore a mid-century consensus on identity and national character is simply kicking against the pricks. Maybe injecting continental philosophy and European notions of identity into the country’s bloodstream will only worsen the disease. While the immediate solution to problems like mass immigration demands a vigorous response from Washington, I suspect most of us are looking at the deeper questions all wrong.
If our history, culture, and identity are bound up in regional tensions, and control of Washington is the grand reward for sectional domination, could the answer to so many of our problems lie closer to home? No doubt we have to wield federal power to secure the border and halt mass immigration. But the questions beneath the surface — matters of identity, culture, and even political power — we have yet to embrace this most American aspect of our heritage. This is really what separates us from European nations. All of our political machinery rests upon it, and any cultural power we hope to wield depends on us seizing this ground first. Here, not in Europe or Washington, is where we may find, not only answers, but also solutions.
Darryl Cooper: You’re leading us into a conversation I’ve been having with myself for a long time. Most nationalists (of whatever stripe or temperament) have taken for granted America’s role as an outpost of European civilization in the New World. Mainstream conservatives might, for fear of alienating non-European political allies, shrink from referring to our civilization as European, instead substituting “Western” or “Judeo-Christian,” but meaning the same thing. Racialists, for their part, insist that our European roots are the indispensable basis of American identity. In fact, I’ve seen some of the more sober and measured white racial activists (the type that might be found giving speeches at an AmRen conference) begin to refer to themselves as European Americans, emphasizing their status as a people in diaspora. This view, however it’s formulated, sees America as a junior partner to Europe in a broader civilizational project. Consider how many American nationalists use Greek statues or Dutch paintings for their social media avatars. Why not a giant sequoia, a bighorn sheep, or a strutting cowboy?
Americans who view their country in terms of the European-style nation-state have good cause for despair, because the level of demographic transformation already baked into our cake would be fatal for, say, Poland, Greece, or Israel. A people must settle territory in order to hold it and make it theirs. The original English colonists had no choice but to call on unlimited numbers of immigrants — first from Scotland and Ireland, then from Germany, and eventually from the half-civilized hinterlands of Europe — if they were to pacify the natives and claim the West before it fell to Spain, Russia, or other powers. The price of Manifest Destiny was the sacrifice of America’s English heritage, but, even with reinforcements from all over Europe, America’s appetite proved to be larger than its stomach. Our failure to adequately settle the territory conquered in the Mexican-American War left a vacuum that has been filled with migrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
My questions, then, are these: What if preserving America as a nation-state was never in the cards? What if, given the vastness of our territory, the length of our borders, and the teeming impoverished masses to the south and east, it was inevitable that others would push in before it was possible to truly make every inch of the country in the image of 19th century America? All of these are preliminary questions to the real question I’d like to consider: What if it was never America’s destiny to be a junior partner in European or Western civilization? What if the Western Hemisphere is a new civilization that is our destiny to lead? Five hundred years from now, historians could very well see this outcome as obvious and inevitable. If Europe cannot muster the will in the coming centuries to hold off the exploding populations of Africa and the Middle East, a view of America as an outpost of European civilization will seem quite anachronistic. How would it affect our view of demographic change, or our relationship to Asia, Latin America, and Europe, if America was understood not as one of many European nation-states, but as a civilization state in embryo?