At once contemporary and dated, Randolph Bourne’s 1916 essay “Trans-National America” induces a kind of historical vertigo in its readers today. While it anticipates many themes in contemporary identity politics, many of his concerns seem quite parochial from a 21st-century view. Yet the very parochialism of Bourne’s essay illuminates the limits of many of our current narratives of identity. A progressive cultural critic who died a century ago, Bourne was an influential opponent of the idea of a national “melting pot,” and his essay offers a window into a way of thinking about identity that still haunts American culture.
Much of “Trans-National America” sounds familiar enough to modern ears that it could be found in the chic writings of our own day. First of all, there’s the portrayal of native-born Americans as a source of degeneracy. Bourne argued that “we have needed new peoples — the order of the German and Scandinavian, the turbulence of the Slav and Hun — to save us from our own stagnation.” He attacked the South, which he calls “most distinctively ‘American’” region of the United States, as an “English colony, stagnant and complacent.” Finding that there is no “distinctively American culture” (except for the South and New England, which are “passing into solemn oblivion”), he called for the United States to embrace a policy of transnationalism, in which each American is a “citizen of the world.” He even offered the diversity of the college campus as a model for the bigger political and social reorganization of the United States, thus anticipating the way that campus politics has infiltrated Silicon Valley, marquee media organizations, and other major American institutions. Like contemporary transnationalists, Bourne hoped to use the wedge of ancestral ethnic identities to create a post-national, “cosmopolitan” society.
In the aftermath of the 2012 election, demographer Ronald Brownstein portrayed contemporary American politics as a struggle between the “coalition of transformation” (the Obama coalition of the college-educated, “minorities,” and the upwardly mobile) and the “coalition of restoration” (the Trumpian coalition of blue-collar “white” and rural voters). Brownstein’s diagnosis hints at certain broader political dynamics, but one might draw another dichotomy: the tension between narratives of union and those of fragmentation. The past 50 or so years have seen the fostering of narratives of fragmentation and difference. Part of this fragmentation is a result of changes in technology, which have led to a proliferation of cultural forms; there are now more than three TV networks, for instance. But part of it also results from the desires of certain key stakeholders to accentuate differences between identity categories, especially ethnicity. Some of this accentuation may have understandable motives: Calling attention to ethnic and racial injustices implicitly underlines difference. Yet some of this accentuation is also due to political and personal interest: Tribal alienation can be a good way of forging a group of individuals into a political bloc. And some of it is because of a fascination with the politics of difference in many elite quarters of American society, and this fascination can partly be seen as a response to meritocratic cloistering.
However, a politics of difference quickly reaches diminishing returns. Without common ground, political warfare grows more ferocious and divisive. The survival of a republic depends in part on trust in its institutions, and factional rage risks destroying and delegitimizing those institutions. A society torn by identity-politics warfare is less able to commit to common civic projects or reform existing institutions. All politically ambitious efforts require trade-offs and sacrifices, and an absence of civic trust makes it almost impossible for a consensus to exist on behalf of any course of action. Such a divided polis alternates between paralysis and chaos (a combination that might seem familiar to American political observers).
So how to reverse such a politics of identity fragmentation? At least two (not entirely separate) strategies present themselves: reimagining identity in such a way as to disrupt the silos of identity categories, and emphasizing narratives of commonality. The first involves rethinking identity discourse by breaking down seemingly solid categories (or suggesting their limits for defining a person). And narratives of commonality can allude to different identity categories while finding bonds that reach across and beyond such categories.
Part of this process of identity reimagining might include drawing attention to the nebulous nature of some identity blocs. Conventional discourse sometimes takes certain ethnic classifications — ”white,” “Hispanic,” and so forth — as representing absolute categories. But this absolutism obscures some historical contingencies: The definition and salience of various identity markers has shifted over time. Bourne’s essay unwittingly demonstrates this sort of fluidity. Much of his essay is dedicated to ridiculing “Anglo-Saxon” Americans and exploring social tensions between the “Anglo-Saxon” and the “unpopular and dreaded German-American” (he was writing during World War I, after the sinking of the Lusitania but before U.S. entry into the war). At a time of great migration from Europe, Bourne saw in the different European nationalities enduring social differences and feared the dissolution of these differences into the “indistinguishable dough of Anglo-Saxonism.” Many have tried to cast Donald Trump as a figure of deplorable reaction against the cultural “other,” yet in the early 1900s the president’s immigrant grandfather would himself have been seen as the other. Some suggest that this historical inversion somehow delegitimizes the president’s views on immigration, but it actually reveals the historical contingency of the politics of difference.
The differences that seemed so fixed and permanent in 1916 softened considerably by 1966 and had almost been forgotten by 2016. There were many reasons for this. Changes in immigration law in the 1920s slowed down the rate of demographic transformation. World War II helped dissolve ethnic differences among Americans of European descent; all those diverse ethnic types were simply classified as “white.” (This had a particular bearing on Americans of German heritage, who were subject to great social pressures during both the world wars.) Cultural exchange and intermarriage played considerable roles, too, and a reform of immigration laws in 1965 altered the calculus of difference.
The mutability of identity categories continues to this day. For instance, as the Heritage Foundation’s Mike Gonzalez has noted, considerable cultural work was done to transform “Hispanic” — a term now applied to Americans of a vast range of ethnic heritages — into an identity bloc. Nor is the contingency of identity categories confined to the United States. As political theorist Benedict Anderson argued in Imagined Communities, colonial governments in Asia invented certain identity distinctions in their censuses, many of which were reimagined after independence. But if these categories are to some extent contingent, they can also be revised. This identity reimagining would also include a recognition of the provisionality of these categories and of the possibility for drawing new lines of association across them.
Certain iterations of the “cosmopolitan” project can reveal quite parochial tendencies. When cosmopolitans seek to maintain cultural distinctiveness and avoid a common national culture, they at times slip into invocations of tribal purity. This can also be seen in Bourne’s essay. He argued that immigrants and their children became degenerate when they lost their connections to their ancestral culture: Those “half-breeds who retain their foreign names but have lost their foreign savor” become the “flotsam and jetsam of American life, the downward undertow of our civilization with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook.” The current crusade against “cultural appropriation” can be seen as a variant of this urge for purity: Only by keeping cultural practices confined to individual identity groups can we avert the “indistinguishable dough” of a common culture.
Narratives of commonality need not be ones of uniformity. Sustaining a common ground as Americans can complement the real diversity of American cultural traditions. In The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mark Lilla advances something like this argument, finding that “identity politics” narratives of American life have all too often neglected that common heritage. Narratives of commonality might acknowledge the full equality of citizens, but they would not stop with invocations of abstract principles. They would also draw attention to the grand events of American history and a broader common heritage that abides regardless of the details of genealogy.
Bourne sneered at the idea of the United States’ being held together by “doubtful triumphs of the past,” because such triumphs “redound to the glory of only one of our transnationalities.” But bloodlines are not the only way of passing down a civil or cultural inheritance. By the very act of living in a country shaped by such triumphs and such struggles, we come to partake of them. The common ground has been forged out of the different accomplishments, histories, and struggles of our (common) civic ancestors. Those whose ancestors arrived decades after the Civil War can still rightfully see themselves as the descendants of such a conflict, for example, and the promise of the Declaration of Independence is an equal birthright to a Mayflower scion and a child of Nigerian immigrants. (The uptick in multiethnic births suggests that a growing portion of Americans will have increased bloodline-connections to this past, too.)
Nor is a common inheritance simply limited to political events. For instance, there is a line of inheritance from the Puritans to Nathaniel Hawthorne to the acclaimed contemporary writer Jhumpa Lahiri. An American of Bengali descent who immigrated to the U.S. as a child and was raised in Rhode Island, Lahiri has little direct blood connection with Hawthorne, but she has drawn from many of the same traditions and even named a book — Unaccustomed Earth — after a line from his work. The fact that Lahiri now writes in Italian is perhaps one of the most New England things about her; for centuries, Italy has fascinated New England writers (including Hawthorne and Longfellow).
Against the purifying impulse of “cultural appropriation,” a strategy of cultural proliferation would allow diverse cultural networks to form. These networks could make themselves distinctive by adopting certain practices, fashions, ideas, and so forth, but all other networks would be welcome to borrow from these practices, fashions, and ideas. This openness to cultural sharing could lead to new common ground. American cuisine obviously demonstrates this, as the institutions of one culture were borrowed by members of other cultures and eventually became universal touchstones — from pizza to hamburgers to egg rolls to tacos. Sustaining the possibility of such sharing means accepting the legitimacy of borrowings and, more broadly, cultural experimentation.
Deemphasizing the role of bloodlines for cultural inheritance might make it easier for more recent immigrants to feel part of a broader American story (which, of course, they are). The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a sign of the deep craving to connect a diverse United States to its founding figures. In the early 20th century, the founders of this nation were offered as common civic ancestors for a wave of European immigrants, and there is no reason why they cannot still be offered as such figures to new immigrants, whatever shore they hail from.
The civic power of celebrating a common past offers a reason why narratives of American history as only a catalogue of oppressions are so woefully unsuited for a diversifying United States. Grievance is a weak glue for any society, especially when such grievances are directed at given populations within that society. A common gratitude for the particular inheritance of the United States — not a mere abstract set of propositions, but a particular texture of sacrifice, accomplishment, and culture — offers a way of bringing together a people whose bloodlines reach across the globe.
The point of this reconstruction of identity would not be to pretend that the contours of history (including the invidious legacy of racism) have no influence upon the past. Nor would it be to dissolve all difference into an endless blankness. But it would offer the possibility of reimagining the body politic in order to lessen social tensions and expand the range of cultural expression. Far from distracting us from the enterprise of redressing the wrongs of the past, reconstructing identity in this way could help assimilate all Americans into a common fellowship. A strengthened sense of civic commonality can inspire more private efforts to help all and can provide an infrastructure for a more thoughtful discussion of public-policy responses to suffering as we find it in this flawed world. After over 200 years, e pluribus unum still shines.