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Obama’s Americans

The former president’s atomized, placeless definition of who we are is a recipe for national disintegration

Michael Lind
April 10, 2024
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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Is the United States a nation-state, in which there is an “American people” whose members have more in common with each other than merely being subject to the jurisdiction of American federal, state, and local governments? Or is the United States just a random agglomeration of tribes and individuals who share nothing except an agreement to abide by certain minimal rules? The answer is the latter, according to Barack Obama. In a plutocratic fundraiser for the reelection campaign of Joe Biden, the former president declared:

But what has always made America exceptional is this radical idea that you can get people from every corner of the globe—don’t look alike, don’t have the same name, worship differently, speak different languages, have different cultural traditions—and somehow they’re going to come together under a set of rules and we’re all going to pledge … that’s our creed …

It may seem pedantic if not cruel to dissect boilerplate political rhetoric like this. Obama is merely saying the same thing that countless Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, say in contemporary Fourth of July speeches and other orations. This kind of talk combines a historical assertion—the United States has always welcomed people from every background—with a political theory—the mere existence of a set of legal rules and political institutions can “somehow” generate a national community out of people who otherwise share nothing in common, including the language in which they communicate. While it doubtless serves the purpose of discouraging xenophobia and encouraging toleration of differences in a diverse society, it is bad history and bad political science.

Let’s start with the history. You don’t need to be a left-wing opponent of “settler colonialism” to see that Obama’s account of American history is, well, whitewashed: “What has always made America exceptional is this radical idea that you can get people from every corner of the globe.” This is true, if you are referring to the United States from 1965 to the present. It is not true of the U.S. before 1965.

Most Americans—though not all—from 1776 onward have shared and continued to share a common language, a common culture, and common values that transcend particular religious groups.

The first Congress held under the auspices of the federal Constitution convened from March 4, 1789, to March 4, 1791, during the first two years of the presidency of George Washington. It is sometimes described as “the Congress of the Founders” because so many representatives and senators had taken part in the drafting of the new Constitution. They passed the Nationality Act of 1790, under which only “free white persons” could become naturalized citizens of the United States. Not until 1952 was the exclusion of nonwhite immigrants from naturalization eliminated, and only in 1965 were the vestiges of racism completely purged from federal immigration law by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This meant that for most of U.S. history if you were Irish or German you could move to the U.S. and become a naturalized citizen in a few years, but if you were an Indian or Japanese immigrant you could never be eligible for American citizenship, no matter how long you lived.

To keep out Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and other Asians, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The bar on Asian immigration was expanded in subsequent acts in 1892 and 1902, and confirmed in the federal immigration acts of 1917 and 1924 which established a quota system for white immigrants favoring those from Northern and Western Europe.

In denying citizenship to nonwhite immigrants and discouraging their immigration before the 1960s, the United States was anything but “exceptional.” All of the major English-speaking lands of settlement, including Canada, New Zealand, and Australia with its “White Australia” policy that lasted from 1901 until 1975, banned or limited nonwhite immigration and naturalization until after World War II.

OK, so Obama is wrong about pre-1965 America. Is he right that since 1965 the U.S. has demonstrated that people who “don’t look alike, don’t have the same name, worship differently, speak different languages, have different cultural traditions” have “somehow” created a community even though they agree on nothing except “a set of rules”? To put it in more academic language—does the experience of the U.S. since the 1960s prove that a democracy can function without a shared extra-political culture of some kind, even one that excludes racial and religious tests for citizenship? The answer is no, because most Americans—though not all—from 1776 onward have shared and continued to share a common language, a common culture, and common values that transcend particular religious groups.

The common language of the American cultural majority, to which most Americans of all races, religions, and ethnicities belong, is English. According to the U.S. Census, the number of people in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home rose from 1 in 10 in 1980 to 1 in 5 in 2019.

Some on the right have feared that linguistic Balkanization might undermine national cohesion. In practice, this has never been a problem. Even today, following a generation of mass immigration, four out of five Americans are exclusively or primarily English speakers. Moreover, most of the foreign languages that are spoken in the U.S. are spoken by relatively small ethnic diasporas. Spanish speakers account for 62% of those who speak a foreign language at home—outnumbering the next largest groups (Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Arabic) by 12 to 1. And native-born Hispanics of later generations lose Spanish as rapidly as the European immigrants of the past lost German, Polish, Italian, Yiddish, and other diaspora languages. Only a third of Hispanics in the third generation say they can carry on a conversation in Spanish “pretty well” and a majority cannot do so at all.

This does not mean that a common language is not important to a shared sense of national identity. On the contrary, countries divided among multiple large, permanent linguistic groups also tend to have politics divided along the lines of language, like Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland. Many such countries have broken up, peacefully or violently, like Norway and Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the successor states of Yugoslavia, the USSR, and Sudan. This has never been a problem to date in the U.S., because foreign language use has usually dwindled as the descendants of immigrants assimilated, making concerns about a “Spanish-speaking Quebec” in the Southwest and subversion by German speakers in the U.S. during World War I out of touch with reality.

If the U.S., with its overwhelmingly monoglot population, does not prove that a country can function with a Babel of mutually incomprehensible languages, does it prove that people who, in Obama’s words, “worship differently” can “come together” to form a coherent society? Here, as in the case of language, this thought experiment has never really been put to the test, because there is far more diversity in religious beliefs among Americans than there is diversity of actual values.

Obama to the contrary, ‘our creed’ is not that ‘somehow’ a coherent national community spontaneously can arise by throwing together linguistic, religious, and cultural groups that share nothing in common other than commitment to a government charter.

The real test would be substantial elements of the U.S. population whose religions were radically alien to the values shared by most American Christians, Jews, Muslims, secularists, and others—say, neo-Aztecs or neo-Norse pagans or American worshippers of Baal who insisted that human sacrifice was an essential part of their religion. In tolerant, pluralistic, inclusive America, we make all sorts of accommodations for religious communities, allowing Native Americans in rituals to use the otherwise illegal drug peyote and allowing Jewish soldiers to wear yarmulkes in uniform. In the spirit of religious accommodation, why not permit Baal-worshipping parents to burn their firstborn infants?

Defenders of the theory that American national identity is purely a matter of abstract procedures and rules might claim that child sacrifice violates the natural or civil rights of the child. Family law in general, however, is impossible to square with the claim that federal, state, and local governments are neutral with respect to values, as distinct from theologies.

For example, Title IV-D of the Social Security Act of 1975 requires every American state to maintain a system punishing divorced parents who do not support their children under child support laws. Violators will be fined; if they do not pay up they may be imprisoned. How is this imposition of morality by coercive government compatible with value-neutrality in a purely procedural republic? Why should one view of parental rights be imposed by the state on everyone?

In The Ethics of Liberty (1982), which the libertarian Mises Institute describes as “Murray Rothbard’s greatest contribution to the politics of freedom,” Rothbard argues that parents should have the rights to sell their children and also to let them starve, if they get tired of having to feed them:

The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die.

To Rothbard’s credit, he claims that children of all ages have the right to flee from parents who want to sell them or starve them: “The absolute right to run away [crawl away?—ML] is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age.”

Thankfully, in the United States as it actually exists, devoutly libertarian parents are not allowed to starve their children to death. When asked why the values of the majority should be imposed on them, the best answer is that of a character in a Ring Lardner story: “Shut up, he explained.”

Apart from family law, there are many areas of American life in which duties are imposed on citizens, regardless of their personal opinions and with minimal exceptions, including wartime draft laws. And then there is the common American dress code. In every U.S. jurisdiction outside of a few nudist beaches and nudist camps, it is illegal to walk around naked in public. In a purely procedural republic, nudists who believe in the Constitution and democracy and rights and the rule of law should be free to shop in the buff and to dine out in restaurants in the altogether. In actually existing America, otherwise law-abiding and patriotic American nudists may end up in jail for violating a tribal custom of the cultural majority—wearing clothes—a custom which is not mentioned in federal or state constitutions but which nevertheless is coercively enforced by governments at all levels.

Obama to the contrary, “our creed” is not that “somehow” a coherent national community spontaneously can arise by throwing together linguistic, religious, and cultural groups that share nothing in common other than commitment to a government charter. If the U.S. population were divided three ways among German-speaking Amish, Arabic-speaking Salafist Muslims, and Chinese-speaking secularists, the country would quickly disintegrate, even if the three groups agreed on free elections and minimal civil rights. In Federalist Number 2, John Jay holds out the hope that a federal union of the former British colonies might hold together thanks to the preexisting, extra-political commonalities of “one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs …” The New Deal era finally brought Catholics and Jews into the American mainstream, with the rejection of religious tests for identity in the American community. And the civil rights revolution belatedly and thankfully abolished racial tests as well. But if “manners and customs” and a common language and other elements of a common American culture are thrown out as well, what remains is more likely to be a failed state along the lines of Lebanon or Somalia than a flourishing democracy.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.