• Email
  • Print

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.

1.

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.

2.

The Americans who reside in David Brooks’s On Paradise Drive have had more than their share of attention and analysis. They were scrutinized in his previous book, where he cast them as a new bourgeoisie, whose prosperity was tempered by bohemian tastes inherited from the Sixties.3 They are college graduates with professional careers, who dwell in secure suburbs alongside neighbors much like themselves. For Brooks, what is most notable about them is their devotion to keeping up with what’s newest in acquisitions and experiences, such as a “cooking seminar in Siena, the tiger-watching adventure in India, or the vineyard touring week in Bordeaux.”

As it happens, we hear very little about their politics, except that they aren’t bound to one party or an explicit ideology. That Brooks largely ignores their political sentiments suggests that he has not defined his subjects very clearly or come to know them closely. Instead of inquiring into their views on America’s world power, its social divisions, its political parties and leaders, he takes us on an impressionistic anthropological tour. “You won’t get suburbia right,” he writes, “…if you underestimate the powerful cultural influence of golf.” It’s not that everyone plays it. Rather, golf provides metaphors for the paradisiacal ideal. Thus “fairways are weedless stretches of soft perfection,” while “par is the established suburb’s version of nirvana.”

At first he assumes an indulgent tone, asking that we not be harsh toward newcomers who are trying to find their way. But with each chapter, Brooks sets a higher standard for what is, after all, a relatively privileged segment of society. By the end, however, his portrayal is far from flattering. For example, he cites essays collected for college reunions, in which alumni “who have made partner or president have written paragraphs so mind-numbingly boring that they make your mouth hang open and your eyes dry up.” At times, his critique is almost Marxian, as when he recounts what the ethos of American business does to character:

Personality becomes a mere selling device. Friendships become contacts. The urge to improve deteriorates to mere acquisitiveness. Money becomes the measure of accomplishment. So much intellectual energy is devoted to outward market research that there is none left for inner observation. The language of commerce obliterates the vocabulary of morality.

If the book stopped there, it would be essentially an update of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, confirming that little has changed in the last half-century. However, Brooks has more to say. He goes on to assert that hovering over the well-kept lawns and upscale malls are “grand metaphysical visions.” “I would like to think,” he adds, “that an idealist flame does beat in every American split level.” But we are never told the basis for his hope; for all Brooks’s travels in suburbia, he is not able to tell us what are the contents of the ideals and visions he finds in suburban hearts. In Brooks’s view, his paradise-dwellers may be acquisitive, but the best he can really say for them is that they are not grasping or greedy or obsessed with rank.

America,” he writes, “is not a hierarchical place.” That’s true up to a point, if it means we haven’t defined social tiers or rigid barriers to mobility. But having said that, he goes on to worry that a new kind of hierarchy may be emerging, in the form of “an inherited educational caste system.” The chief cause of this change has been selective schooling and professional careers, which recruit and promote on merit, and are approaching a balance of the sexes. In view of their similar talents and temperaments, it is not unusual for many who win these prizes to meet and mate:

High-achieving parents are marrying each other and breeding kids who are high-achievement squared, who will in turn make a lot of money and breed their own kinds who are high-achievement cubed.

The notion of a high-achievement gene pool goes back as far as Plato, and musings about eugenics apparently never go away. In Brooks’s account, if both parents had what Princeton required, the odds should be good that their offspring will inherit those aptitudes. The only problem is that experience rarely bears this out. While some notable matches produce gifted children, most children of the very successful fall short of their parents’ eminence. This is yet another illustration of what statisticians call “regression to the mean.” Indeed, it is the basis of an open society: as less able descendants go down the ladder, they are passed by new talents on the way up.4 And even apart from genetics, youngsters raised in second-generation comfort are less apt to put in the kind of effort their parents had to display.

The strength of On Paradise Drive derives from the author’s extensive interviews with real people, although it becomes more and more puzzling why he was so selective in the questions he asked. His use of published sources is sometimes misleading. For example, he says the Census Bureau found that only a quarter of teenagers said they expected to continue living in the towns where they were raised. This may be their feeling, but it doesn’t come from the Census, which doesn’t ask this kind of question. He also writes that currently “there are fewer than thirteen students per teacher in school.” This gives a misleading picture. The actual figure is closer to sixteen, and that only holds if you include classes with handicapped pupils, which can have five or six students. Regular classes average twenty-one students in elementary grades and twenty-four students in high school.

3.

The loyalties of American voters are now almost perfectly divided between the Democrats and the Republicans.” So writes Stanley Greenberg, a pollster who most often works for Democratic clients. The 2000 election caught the nation in “a historic political deadlock.” The popular vote was 50,999,897 for Gore versus 50,456,002 for Bush, a gap of one half of one percent. Moreover, the electoral tally of 271 to 266 was the closest since 1876, when Hayes was given 185 to Tilden’s 184. However, to argue that we are at a historic impasse isn’t simply a product of arithmetic. After all, John Kennedy’s popular edge in 1960 was even smaller: he led Richard Nixon by one sixth of one percent. Yet whatever the conflicts that year, they turned out to be neither deep nor enduring.

Allusions to a divided country have been around for some time. The 2000 election, as televised, split the nation into what political commentators called “red” and “blue” states. (Ironically, the Republicans were given red, which a generation ago might have prompted a suit for slander.) We’ve also had liberals vs. conservatives, hawks vs. doves, as well as splits on issues like gay rights, abortion, even attitudes toward the United Nations—all subjects avoided by Brooks. What Greenberg sees as new is that the two major parties are now sharply divided on what before had been diffused sets of issues. “Partisans are more partisan,” he says, “politics more polarized.” While there is still a less committed middle, its members are harder to reach and they often decide to stay home in November. Fewer than 40 percent of eligible Americans turn out for mid-term elections, and for president just slightly over half do.

For Greenberg, presidents are chosen by marketing campaigns. There are millions of potential customers—voters—out there, so the challenge is to ascertain how to make your product—candidate—more appealing than the competition’s. True, the electorate is large and varied, now at more than 100 million, so a single theme won’t work. Greenberg assigns voters to niches, each of which must be courted with a distinctive strategy. There are seven kinds of Republicans, including “Country Folk,” “Exurbia,” and “F-You Boys.” He has six Democratic subgroups, such as “Super-Educated Women,” “Secular Warriors,” “who never go to church and own no guns,” and “Union Families.”

While Greenberg cites statistical surveys, he also draws on discussions with focus groups, in which about a dozen people sit around a table and vent their opinions. Thus Republican “F-You Boys” are firm that “government should stop telling them what to do with their lives, off-road vehicles, and SUVs and guns.” So it follows that “just as they do not want the government to mess with them, they do not want anybody messing with America.” There’s nothing wrong with creating categories like these, even if they verge on caricature. Still, I’d like to have heard more about possible permutations and combinations. For example, we are told that a third of all voters have firearms at home. Are these persons also inclined to oppose abortion, or support tax cuts for the well-to-do? Finding how far there are such linkages could prove illuminating, even if it’s unclear how campaign planners might use that information.

Most of the presidential voters in The Two Americas are in the top half of the income distribution. Even if this doesn’t make them rich, they still see themselves as respectably middle class. Few of them are unemployed, or seem worried about losing their jobs. Voters of both parties are buying SUVs, dining out, and planning four-figure vacations. The fact that financial pain is not widespread may explain why ideological issues such as abortion are so important to many voters today, not to mention the morass of a foreign war. The sharpest pinch may be drug prices. I just paid $100 for fourteen antibiotic pills not covered by my medical insurance. What of the many millions of employed Americans who now have no insurance at all?

Greenberg’s book also makes clear an advantage that the Republicans enjoy. Their core of supporters has more steadfast loyalists, who tend to accept George W. Bush just as he is. In contrast, Democrats continue to dissect their candidate, as if he hasn’t wholly proved himself. Compared to the GOP, it is hard to find a Democratic “party.” Its candidates run on their own, with little assistance from a national organization, and they must reassemble majorities at each election. At the same time, reliance on patriotism can become a problem for the Republicans. When the Vietnam War began to go badly, some of their summer soldiers started melting away. There are already indications that this is happening right now with the war in Iraq.

The Two Americas presents itself as a how-to book, filled with advice for both parties. Its premise is that if messages are fine-tuned to target groups, they are more likely to be heeded and translated into votes. In fact, though, few voters are political aficionados, let alone willing to absorb candidates’ speeches or advertising. My own observation is that they tend to rely on people they know and trust who do have an interest in politics, and who filter the minutiae of a drug bill or trade policy or even a far-off war. (Just as they look to others in their circles about car insurance or new restaurants.) As it happens, these sources of political advice seldom hold office; nor can they be readily located by outsiders. Yet candidates and campaigns hoping to succeed would do well to try to reach these influential people first.

4.

In the late 1990s, largely a prosperous period, David Shipler “set out to find working people who had been left behind.” He introduces us to several dozen he met, including married couples and single parents, of varied races and backgrounds, as well as native citizens and recent immigrants. All were gainfully employed, or trying to find decent jobs. Yet during the time Shipler was with them, all were at the thin edge of subsistence. At the end of Shipler’s book, not much hope is held for their escaping their condition unless major social programs are put in place.

To be counted among the working poor isn’t entirely a matter of low earnings. Shipler doesn’t supply many statistics, because most of the figures we have don’t shed light on individual circumstances. For example, we know that of some 100 million men and women who have full-time jobs, 18.6 percent are paid under $20,000, which is close to a poverty wage. But what the Census doesn’t always tell us is how many have children, or are spouses in two-income marriages, or are single people living with partners of their own or the other sex. Employers have been able to find workers who will accept lower wages since more people than ever are living either on their own or with another earner.5 The young clerks you meet in Barnes & Noble usually share expenses with roommates, while the older women who work at Wal-Mart usually have employed or retired husbands.

It soon becomes apparent that the causes of working poverty are not always economic. Shipler tells of a New England man who works as a roofer, making up to $30,000 in a good year, while his wife stays at home with three small children. But he has to drive five hours to and from work, so gasoline eats up several hundred dollars a month. We also see that the husband and wife are both utterly ineffectual about organizing their lives, let alone adhering to a budget. Their outlays include “about $200 a month on laundry because their appliances didn’t work, and $200 a month to eat out because the gas company wouldn’t turn on their gas until they have paid $400 in overdue bills.” They are also paying for weekly cartons of cigarettes, frequent movie rentals, an outfit for a wedding, and tickets to an Ozzy Osbourne concert. When they go to emergency rooms for medical treatment, bills inevitably follow, which pile up in arrears. “They should be forced to go through budget counseling,” a social worker tells Shipler. But there is no such counselor, and we doubt they would follow her advice if there were one. Whatever the causes may be, there are many such adults who seem unable to get their domestic lives together.

Most of the people Shipler saw are single mothers with custody of the children. Thanks to what has been called “men’s liberation,” men can sire offspring and then decamp, without public censure and often with little or no financial cost.6 As a result, women find they must raise the children on their own; and because of the Clinton cuts in welfare programs, they must now find jobs. The book tells of a once-comfortably-off woman who “would have been financially fine if her marriage had lasted.” Although her former husband has a professional income, he has paid no alimony and gave only $10,000 a year for the two children, which ended when the youngest turned eighteen. Since she had “talents but not skills,” she had to settle for a $23,000-a-year job at an academic press. In other words, the sort of job intended for single people starting out.

At one point, Shipler asks of these struggling women: “Why do they get pregnant and keep the babies?” Since it takes two to start a child, it seems unfair to put the onus entirely on them. In fact, in many instances, they conceived and kept these children during a time when they thought their marriages would work. True, women often initiate the divorce; but this is hardly done lightly, given the likelihood of an income decline. Some figures fill out much of the story. Among the 9.4 million homes headed by single mothers, the median income is $22,637, which includes any support payments they may receive. For married women with children, the family median is $65,399, almost three times as much. Even when we take account of the expenses of two adults, marriage or something similar seems the best way to avert poverty. Anyone who looks into the statistics would hope that there were ways of keeping partners together, but thus far I’ve found little evidence that counseling and seminars have more than marginal success.

One chapter in The Working Poor is entitled “Harvest of Shame” and another is called “Importing the Third World.” Both point out that low wages are typical for immigrants, whether here legally or not, especially recent arrivals. For example, Hector and Maribel Delgado together make about $28,000 a year picking and packing vegetables in North Carolina. Thanks to their low wages, the rest of us pay less than we otherwise might for cucumbers and sweet potatoes. And there is Jung Hee Lee, once a bank teller in Korea, who now waits on tables six nights a week, making slightly under $19,000. That, too, keeps down the price of the meals she serves.

Here a delicate issue arises: What does a society owe to its recent immigrants? Most arrive expecting low pay; indeed, they come hoping to find such jobs. Of course, there can be gross exploitation, which Shipler describes, with working conditions that are wretched by any standard. Yet more than most countries, America offers newcomers ways of getting on. I can’t help feeling that Jung Hee Lee won’t be working as a waitress very long. Like many Asians who emigrate, she has had a disciplined basic education and, from her work at a bank, she surely acquired some salable skills. Asians who move from crowded tenements to suburban houses are not exceptions to a general pattern. But what of migrants like the Delgados? They hadn’t been bank tellers; and, in Shipler’s words, they are unversed in “the ways of the wider world.” However, Census figures suggest another story. In North Carolina between 1990 and 2000, Hispanic households more than quadrupled in number, rising from 21,533 to 93,499, which signifies a lot of new arrivals. Therefore, it seems that many who were there in 1990 are no longer picking and packing vegetables on the migrant trail. Indeed, the 2000 Census found that 38.6 percent of the state’s Hispanic families had incomes above $40,000, which shows at least that many have been bettering themselves. So I suggest that Shipler might return in several years to see how the Delgados are doing. (Samuel Huntington might also learn something from a visit.)

In his introduction to The Working Poor, Shipler confesses that “the United States is not quite sure about the causes of poverty.” In fact, his book points to several factors, including bad breaks and haplessness of the kind he described in his account of the Connecticut roofer. Still, America may well be the most competitive society the world has seen, and rivalry is integral to its social system. Even children are made to compete against one another, starting when the first gold star is awarded in kindergarten. Winners can rise higher here than in any comparable country, as a look at Forbes‘s lists of billionaires shows. Our losers may also fall further than in the nations whose ways of life we see as closest to our own, as is confirmed by infant mortality rates, functional illiteracy, and the odds of spending part of your life in prison. One use of the poor is to keep the rest of us on edge, trying to persuade ourselves that we won’t be included in a revised edition of Shipler’s book.

  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).

  3. 3

    Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

  4. 4

    A recent study by Thomas Hertz has examined children raised in families who were in the top 20 percent of income earners. By the time they were adults, only 37.4 percent of those offspring were still in that quintile. See “Rags, Riches, and Race,” in Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success, edited by Samuel Bowles et al. (Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2005).

  5. 5

    See my “The Underworld of Work,” The New York Review, February 12, 2004.

  6. 6

    Stanley Lebergott, The American Economy: Income, Wealth, and Want (Princeton University Press, 1976).

  • Email
  • Print