Editor’s note: This review of Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? by John Fonte appeared in the May 31, 2004, issue of National Review.
Harvard’s Samuel Huntington is perhaps America’s foremost political scientist. His forte is comprehensive intellectual analysis of the deepest issues we face. In the 1970s, on President Carter’s National Security Council staff, Huntington organized the most thorough strategic review of the Cold War ever undertaken, influencing the Brzezinski and, later, Reagan counteroffensives against world Communism. In the 1990s, his detailed analysis of the new global fault lines in The Clash of Civilizations alerted a complaisant pre-9/11 world to the dangers ahead. Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity is Huntington doing what he does best: It is a classic — perhaps the definitive — overview of the future of the American nation-state.
Huntington argues that American identity today is based on both ideology and a common culture. The ideology — the “American Creed,” a belief in liberty, democracy, individual rights, and the like — is a “product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture” brought to North America by the mostly British settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Universalist Enlightenment concepts also played a part. These ideas proved especially fruitful because they found “receptive ground in the Anglo-Protestant culture that had already existed in America for over a century.” This culture includes the English language; British traditions of law, rights, and limited government; the values of dissenting Protestantism (especially its moralism and anti-hierarchical spirit, which made it different from European Protestantism); the work ethic, economic opportunity, individualism, and Christianity.
Huntington contends that two widely accepted propositions about American identity — that we are a “nation of immigrants” and that our identity is defined solely by the values of the American Creed — are half-truths that are ultimately misleading. First, he says, we are a classic “settler” nation, in which the ideas and institutions of the original settlers established the core culture that (with modifications) “still primarily” endures. It is this “Anglo” culture in the first place that attracted immigrants, who then, in large measure, did not simply replicate the old country but assimilated into the new — into the American mainstream. Thus, as a people, we are descendants of settlers and assimilated immigrants, not simply a “nation of immigrants.”
Second, although the Creed is a crucial element of American identity, our nation is not solely based on ideas. Huntington notes that a strong believer in the American Creed of liberty, democracy, and individual rights, who lives in Russia or India, is not an American, but a Russian or Indian. That person would be an American only if he immigrated, learned America’s language and customs, took the oath of allegiance, and became a loyal citizen of the United States. Moreover, a truly multicultural America (not what exists today, a country with many subcultures within a common civic core) would ultimately become multi-creedal. If ethnic and religious groups had distinct cultures in opposition to the mainstream culture, they would eventually advocate different political creeds and ideologies.
Huntington makes it very clear that America’s Anglo-Protestant culture is not dependent upon British ethnicity or Protestantism. He heralds our “multiethnic, multiracial society in which individuals are judged on their merits” as “the America I know and love.” He declares that “America will still be America long after the WASPish descendants of its founders have become a small and uninfluential minority.” The chief weakness of the book, however, is Huntington’s failure to articulate the extent to which the principles and politics of America’s 18thcentury Founders both influenced the pre-existing settler culture and established the moral and intellectual foundation for repudiating all racial and ethnic hierarchies. Some attention to the work of scholars like Thomas West and Charles Kesler could have strengthened the section on the Founders.