The mantra “We are a nation of immigrants” is repeated endlessly, but this incantation is essentially misleading. The addition of one adjective, “assimilated,” as in, “We are a nation of assimilated immigrants,” would greatly clarify our understanding of American identity. The question then becomes, Assimilated to what? Samuel Huntington argued (correctly) that immigrants have, for the most part, assimilated into the culture, language, and institutions formed by the original settlers who emigrated from the British Isles. Thus, we are a nation of settlers and assimilated immigrants. Two new optimistic books from Encounter grapple with this issue of American identity.
In a long bibliographical essay, the authors of America 3.0 explain that their book is the product of ten years of research into the cultural foundation of America. Building upon co-author James Bennett’s previous work on the Anglosphere, this new book is buttressed by scholarship in archaeology, anthropology, and historical analysis, particularly the work of French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, English anthropologist-historian Alan Macfarlane, and English historian James Campbell, the foremost modern expert on the Saxons.
“Our American culture today,” Bennett and his co-author, Michael J. Lotus, tell us, “is part of a living and evolving organism, spanning centuries.” At the center of that culture is the American nuclear family. In the American nuclear family (as opposed to the traditional extended family), individuals are free to select their own spouses; grown children leave their parents’ homes and form new households; women enjoy a high degree of freedom compared with those in other cultures; children have no legal right to demand any inheritance from their parents; parents have no legal right to demand support from their adult children; and people have no right to expect help from their relatives.
The consequences of the American type of nuclear family, according to Bennett and Lotus, are that Americans are more individualistic, entrepreneurial, and mobile than other peoples. Suburbia is a major consequence, as American nuclear families prefer dispersed single-family homes over dense urban arrangements. Despite what they admit are “chaotic” changes in American family life, Bennett and Lotus do not “anticipate a basic change in cultural attitudes” that are “shaped by upbringing, language, institutions, and unconscious patterns of behavior that take centuries to form.”
Applying their anthropological-historical analysis, the authors note that the nuclear family emerged among the English. Bennett and Lotus state explicitly that the English family type became the American-style nuclear family, and this “underlying Anglo-American family type was the foundation for all the institutions, laws, and cultural practices that gave rise to our freedom and prosperity over the centuries.”
America 3.0 contains two well-researched chapters on the history of family structures and related cultural institutions among the English and among the earlier Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) that formed the cultural basis of the English nation. Thomas Jefferson, among others, heralded the Saxon roots of American liberties. But examinations of the Anglo-Saxon inheritance in American institutions became absorbed in 19th- and 20th-century racialist theories, which were totally (and rightly) discredited. Bennett and Lotus and the modern scholars they cite make it clear that when discussing “Saxon roots,” they are talking about culture, thoroughly distinct from race or ethnicity.
The bulk of America 3.0 is focused on the future. America 1.0 started during the colonial period, took off during the Founding era, and began to fade away in the middle of the 19th century. It was a period of individual- and family-scale farms and businesses. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were products of this era, which has “never lost its grip on the American imagination.”
The years between 1860 and 1920 proved to be a transition period between America 1.0 and America 2.0. Americans developed a new system of “big units,” large corporations, big cities, and eventually bigger government and labor unions. By the New Deal, America 2.0 was firmly in place. Its heyday came in World War II and the two decades following the war. Bennett and Lotus tell us that America 2.0 was “great in its day. But it is over.” The government sector of America 2.0 — the “Blue Model” or “Welfare State” — is failing. We do not know when America 2.0 will end (parts of it will survive, just as parts of America 1.0 have survived), but we are now in a period of transition between America 2.0 and America 3.0.
The future America 3.0 is described, in a chapter titled “America in 2040,” as a decentralized, networked era of prosperity. Social programs have been stripped from the federal government and sent to the states. There are 71 states (the larger ones — California, Texas, New York — have subdivided) and some functions are performed by multistate compacts. Cities, counties, and townships have taken on more responsibilities. Decentralization leads to a “big sort,” as families and individuals sort themselves by communities, religions, politics, and lifestyles. With the “big sort” and minimized federal role, “the need for a national consensus on most issues is non-existent.” This also means that (despite the continued existence of the red-blue political split) a decentralized “social settlement” could evolve on the most contentious social issues. Bennett and Lotus foresee more individual freedom and material wellbeing, with the U.S. remaining the world’s leading political and economic power.
To help the country achieve the status of America 3.0, the authors offer a raft of detailed policy prescriptions related to decentralization, including the following: shifting political power to the states; reducing public debt (a “big haircut,” or the equivalent of bankruptcy); abolishing the federal income tax and replacing it with a consumption tax; and creating an alliance for decentralization that would place social issues beyond the power of the federal government and federal courts and into the hands of state legislators and voters. In the end, the authors contend, America 3.0 is possible because its formation would be consistent with America’s deepest cultural roots and institutions. It is an updated version of the best of America 1.0.
Bennett and Lotus have produced a very important evergreen book making a strong case for their myriad arguments. Interest among the conservative intelligentsia should be intense. There have already been endorsements from Glenn Reynolds, Michael Barone, Jonah Goldberg, and John O’Sullivan. Rebuttals from our friends at the Claremont Institute are sure to come: As Straussians rather than Burkeans, they will insist that politics (the Declaration of Independence) trumps culture (the nuclear family).
The other new Encounter book, James Robbins’s Native Americans, is an optimistic celebration of American identity, patriotism, and exceptionalism. Robbins tells us that American identity is fighting a two-front war against multiculturalists and globalists. This reviewer could not agree more. The federally imposed “diversity” project assumes an oppositional posture toward American culture, dividing citizens into antagonistic ethnic boxes. Once in these legal categories, individuals are labeled as members of either a “victim group” or the “oppressor class.”
Robbins rightly rejects all of this. He argues that we need a definition of American ethnicity that is based not on race but on American culture and values. Most of all, this means we should self-identify as Americans. Robbins makes it clear that he disdains the concept of hyphenated Americans: He scorns the idea that he is an “Irish-American” or a “white non-Hispanic” American. “My Americanism,” he declares, “needs no prefix or suffix.”
In 1980, the Census Bureau began asking questions about one’s ancestry, suggesting categories such as German, English, Irish, African-American, etc. Robbins traces how an increasing number of people listed their ancestry simply as “American.” In the 2000 census, over 20 million people identified their ancestry as “American,” making this the fifth-largest ancestry group. Robbins has fun tracking down where these “Americans” live. The highest proportion of “Americans” (over 50 percent) live in southeastern Kentucky. “Americans” are the plurality in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The most “Americans” live (in descending order) in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and California.
Like Bennett and Lotus, and unlike many in America’s contemporary elite, Robbins believes there is a distinct American culture. He cites data from the Bradley Foundation Project on National Identity that indicate that 84 percent of our citizens believe that there is “a unique American national identity based on shared beliefs, values, and culture.” Further, writes Robbins, the American melting pot has formed a single people “rooted in shared language, foundational stories, history, experience, culture, belief systems, national myths, and political culture.”
Robbins doesn’t quote a July 22, 1966 letter from gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan to former president Dwight Eisenhower, but — in political terms — the letter is more relevant today than when it was written half a century ago. Reagan wrote to Ike: “I am in complete agreement about dropping the hyphen that presently divides us into minority groups. I’m convinced this ‘hyphenating’ was done by our opponents to create voting blocs for political expediency. Our party should strive to change this — one is not an Irish-American but is instead an American of Irish descent.”
The coercive “diversity” project and a bloated welfare state have only gotten worse in the years since. Bennett, Lotus, and Robbins are pointing out a better direction for our country.
– Mr. Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others?