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Patriot Games

Samuel Huntington opens his book by declaring that he writes “as a patriot,” a position that leads him to be “deeply concerned about the unity and strength” of his country. He also fears that patriotism is an endangered sentiment. In fact, as Huntington presents it, l’amour patrie has long been an emotion identified with the right. Conservatives are more apt than liberals to pin flags on their lapels and place their hands on their hearts when the anthem is played. Yet for many of them the America they love has an explicit shape: an economy that accords primacy to profits and is willing to tolerate the inequalities that ensue; military might the rest of the world will fear; and an emphasis on religion, with its attendant constraints. Above all, they echo William Bennett in proclaiming the “superior goodness of the American way of life.” So to be a patriot one must feel that the United States surpasses all other societies. (Don’t even try to argue that the Finns might do things better.)

Robert Reich also wants to be counted as a patriot. But he says his is a “positive patriotism,” to be distinguished from what he calls the “bullying, negative version.” “Many liberals have been silent about patriotism,” he adds, “or, at best, embarrassed by it.” Not surprisingly, the aspects of America that Reich esteems do not rank high on the conservative list. When he cites “our democratic right to dissent,” it follows that much of that criticism will be aimed at the perceived injustices of a market economy, which he wants to remedy, for example by reducing inequality, providing universal health care, and much more investment in good education. In a similar vein, the America he loves “emphasizes what we owe one another as members of the same society.”

Liberals like Reich have long argued that the most important American tradition derives from the Constitution and its protections of dissent and therefore of reform and creative change. Unfortunately, attempts to install a critical, altruistic patriotism along the lines Reich recommends are not likely to be popular among the current self-appointed guardians of Huntington’s variety. Like it or not, profits, power, and piety are entrenched in what has become a quasi-official delineation of America. The bullying that bothers Reich has been flourishing at home as well as abroad. Conservatives feel free to say that critics even slightly left of center are “anti-American” and lack some quintessential American quality that they leave undefined. Liberals lack comparable epithets, and were they to be somehow devised, they would have little disposition to use them. The reason for that reluctance, Reich implies, can be found in the word he has chosen for his title.


Huntington’s own title is a question: Who Are We? But even as it is asked, his answer is never in doubt. In his view, the nation’s identity was created at its founding

by British settlers who brought with them a distinct culture including the English language, Protestant values, individualism, religious commitment, and respect for law.

Almost every page of his book has allusions to this “Anglo-Protestant” endowment, according it an all but constitutional status, despite huge infusions of immigrants of other origins. Historians may argue that our culture has changed considerably since the first colonists settled in Massachusetts Bay. Indeed, as the numbers in Table A show, fewer than 25 million of today’s Americans claim ancestries that are solely or primarily English, Scottish, Welsh, or Scotch-Irish. And while we have no firm figures on religion, it seems clear that the arrival of Catholics and Jews, as well as of Africans and Asians, has reshaped the culture in a great many ways. Indeed, WASPs have long been in decline, with their remnants memorialized in plays by A.R. Gurney and John Cheever’s stories. For that matter, they no longer dominate fields like banking, the judiciary, or Harvard’s faculty.

Still, Huntington makes a convincing case that at least until recently, “people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become American by adopting America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values.” Indeed, newer arrivals not only adapted but, in the process, abandoned many of their distinctive features. Germans were the largest immigrant group from Europe, yet it is hard to find signs of their distinctive influence, even in cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati. In New York, the Scotch-Irish once were numerous enough to mount an Orangemen’s Parade; but they’ve also melted away. Thanks to intermarriage and other matings, successive generations find growing numbers of Americans citing an amalgam of origins. Moreover, postponing nuptials or simply ignoring them also permits young people to find and choose partners without parental influence.

Referring to Americans of European origin, Huntington sees an “ending of ethnicity.” As Table A also shows, nearly 62 million Americans now list multiple ancestries, close to 54 million report none at all, and almost 21 million simply put down the “United States.” Together, they almost equal the 143 million men and women who still feel comfortable identifying with a single country or region.

But why give “Protestant” origins a major part in America’s identity today? True, this was the religion of almost all the founders. However, the Reformation had been in place for over two centuries before America’s founding, and its values were well incorporated into European and American life by that time. So imposing a specific religious component onto our American political culture strikes me not only as redundant, but divisive as well. After all, a Catholic signed the Declaration of Independence, and two Catholics were at the Constitutional Convention. In any case, in his book Huntington does not isolate specifically Protestant components of American identity.

His greatest concern is with what he calls “Hispanization,” which he sees as enveloping much of the country. By way of contrast, he has no similar worries about Asian immigrants since, in his words, they are “becoming white,” and “their values are similar to those of Americans and because of their high educational and occupational levels.” Most, I believe, would say that their own Asian background helped to provide them with their values. He even states that “their skin color is whitening,” although he offers no source for this assertion. As it happens, Asian-Americans as a group are becoming darker, insofar as there has been an overall decline in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigration since the mid-1990s, while the arrivals from Pakistan and India are increasing. These arrivals certainly do not trace their motives to the Protestant history and “ethic” described by Max Weber.

In the 1970 Census, Hispanic-Americans, defined as people with family origins in Latin American countries, made up 4.5 percent of the population. In 2000, they made up 12.5 percent of the national total. Of these, 58.5 percent were of Mexican origin, followed by Puerto Ricans (9.6 percent), Cubans (3.5 percent), and assorted Central Americans (4.8 percent) and South Americans (3.8 percent). During this period, the white quotient in the US dropped from 83.3 percent to 69.1 percent. As for the future, Hispanic families are averaging 2.7 children, while the figure for whites is 1.8, well short of a replacement rate.

The Hispanic influx is different from others because of the proximity to the United States of Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, such as the Dominican Republic. This obviously facilitates entry, especially the illegal kind, which Huntington says represents as much as 45 percent of those currently here. But being near their home countries can also weaken their civic commitment, even among the second and third generations. Huntington claims that many retain Spanish as their principal language, demand bilingual classes for their children, choose to live in insular neighborhoods, and often spend extended sojourns in Mexico and the other Latin American countries. As the ultimate test, he points out that only 33 percent of Mexicans become citizens, as against 71 percent of Koreans and 76 percent of Filipinos. (That only 40 percent of Canadians do doesn’t seem to bother him.) Huntington also laments what he sees as a Cuban takeover of Miami, which he claims led 140,000 whites to flee between 1983 and 1993. He cites a bumper sticker that read, “Will the last American to leave, please haul down the flag?”1

The book’s harshest criticisms are of Mexican-Americans, who now account for 71.6 percent of Hispanic births. In view of their country’s large size and the relative ease of entry, even more are likely to come. In Huntington’s view, “Mexican immigration is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas America took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s.” He means by this not so much that large parts of the Southwest will secede as that they will become an internal alien terrain. He rejects the argument that American values can accommodate Latin customs and culture:

There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.

This seems simplistic. Has Huntington never heard of people who speak one language at home, another at school or at work, and still are good, patriotic citizens? What is particularly troubling is that he provides little by way of concrete research for his conclusions. As Louis Menand wrote in his review of Huntington’s book in the May 17 issue of The New Yorker, he doesn’t seem aware of the recent finding by the sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee that in 1990 “more than 95 percent of Mexican-Americans between twenty-five and forty who were born in the US could speak English well.” Alba and Nee concluded that linguistic assimilation by Hispanics was “widespread.”2 Not the least reason is that 28.3 percent of them have now married persons of other origins. What is even more troubling is that Huntington gives no sign that he has actually come to know any Hispanics well or has been willing to visit their families and hear their views about patriotism or any other subject. He seems to have little close knowledge of the people he writes about; perhaps that is why there seems an undercurrent of fear in his treatment of them.

Huntington writes that if “somehow Mexican immigration abruptly stopped, …the wages of low-income Americans would improve.” While this is an often-heard argument, it isn’t easily verified. If immigration were halted, the question is how many of the positions newcomers now hold would be taken by longer-standing Americans. Table B on page 31 shows how many of various jobs in Los Angeles are filled by Hispanics. In most cases, employers hire them because they will work for lower wages, which in turn reduces costs and permits lower consumer prices. If laundries, restaurants, and parking lots had to pay American workers, the patrons of these enterprises would have to pay more for those services. Demand would in many cases fall, and there would be fewer jobs. We already know that Americans prefer to have their appliances made abroad. As David Shipler points out in The Working Poor, immigrants who mow lawns and wash cars are in effect a third-world workforce now residing in our midst.

  1. 1

    In fact, the 140,000 figure is incorrect. The Census showed that from 1980 to 1990, Miami’s white population declined from 67,249 to 44,091, only a 23,158 drop. And by 2000, the city still had 43,195 whites, almost as many as a decade earlier.

  2. 2

    See their Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration (Harvard University Press, 2003).

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