At this year’s Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker offered paeans to American greatness. One of the most memorable was Michelle Obama, the first lady, who spoke movingly of America’s story as “the story of unwavering hope grounded in unyielding struggle.” There was something particularly striking about Mrs. Obama’s celebration of what she called “the greatest nation on earth.” Many will no doubt remember that in 2008, when her husband was competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, she briefly betrayed a certain ambivalence about America’s virtues, remarking before the Wisconsin primary that, “for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
Taken literally, this remark implied that Mrs. Obama hadn’t been proud of her country for decades, a sentiment that many Americans found less than relatable. In short order, she clarified her remarks, emphasizing that she was expressing her delight and amazement at the enthusiastic public response to her husband’s campaign, which is fair enough. Campaigning can be a grueling experience, and the occasional slip of the tongue is to be expected.
Another possibility, however, is that like many Americans on the political left, heartfelt nationalism wasn’t exactly Mrs. Obama’s cup of tea. And why would it be? While identifying with America and its triumphs is straightforward for some, it is less so for those who associate America with slavery, segregation, and all manner of other historical evils. It could be that Mrs. Obama accidentally let slip something important — that she believed her husband’s political success represented a turning of the page, from an America that was too compromised to really be proud of to one that finally deserved to be celebrated.
We’ll never really know what exactly Michelle Obama meant about American patriotism back then, but we have a much better sense of what she’s saying now. Jamelle Bouie, writing at Slate, celebrated the optimism on display in Philadelphia, which he described as “an expression of pluralistic nationalism and deep civic pride, a progressive patriotism that acknowledges the nation’s failures but strives to overcome them.” For Mrs. Obama, patriotism is a celebration of the struggle to overcome injustice and to implement various social reforms.
But for many other Americans, patriotism is something more prosaic: It is a celebration of our shared cultural inheritance and a belief that we owe more to our fellow countrymen than we do to the rest of humanity. While Mrs. Obama’s patriotism is rooted in ideological liberalism, this other patriotism is rooted in a more emotional appeal to cultural solidarity.
These two brands of patriotism are hardly unique to the United States. Eric Kaufmann, a sociologist at the University of London and a leading scholar of nationalism, has observed that in countries around the world, conceptions of national identity are hotly contested. National identity is not generally a top-down phenomenon that is crafted by the Ministry of National Heritage or some other centralized bureaucracy. It is a bottom-up phenomenon that is largely shaped by the experiences and understandings of individuals and communities. Because different individuals have different cultures, class backgrounds, and ideological perspectives, they gravitate to different conceptions of national identity. As a general rule, Kaufmann finds that in affluent market democracies, the wealthier and more educated are drawn to civic and multicultural conceptions of national identity, akin to Bouie’s progressive patriotism, that deemphasize the idea of a shared ethno-cultural background. Other people, however, understand national identity primarily in ethno-cultural terms. In his book Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2012), the historian Azar Gat notes that “there have been very few nations, if any, whose existence was divorced from ethnicity, that is, which did not share cultural and at least some kin affinities.” In some cases, this ethno-cultural identity is rooted in common descent, for example, a belief that a given ethnic group is a very extended kinship group. In settler societies such as the U.S. and Canada, ethno-cultural identity is rooted more in the belief that processes of integration and intermarriage have given rise to a hybrid culture — the melting pot, in American parlance. For our purposes, we can call this latter conception of national identity conservative patriotism.
The difference between progressive and conservative patriotism is not so much that the former has a laissez-faire attitude about what it means to belong to the nation while the latter does not. Rather, the progressive patriot might be more inclined to insist on adherence to a set of liberal ideological precepts — e.g., Do you agree that embracing gender equality and the Black Lives Matter movement is essential to being an enlightened 21st-century American? — while the conservative patriot is more interested in whether newcomers are willing to make the effort to “fit in.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of Kaufmann’s thesis is that there are no final victories. These conceptions of national identity are not fixed. All societies have something like a marketplace of national identities, in which some conceptions of national identity win market share over time and others lose it, depending on, among other things, changing tastes and economic conditions. Try as they might, the progressive patriots will never be able to vanquish the conservative patriots, regardless of how vociferously they attack rival conceptions of nationhood as racist or reactionary. Part of the reason is that, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested, these different conceptions are rooted in deeply ingrained psychological predispositions. There will always be people who value cohesive communities, and there will always be others who see these communities as hotbeds of oppression.
The divide between these two conceptions of national identity is most clearly illustrated by the immigration debate. Conservative patriots tend to fear that excessively open immigration policies might retard the assimilation process, which requires that newcomers over time adopt the ethno-cultural identity that defines their adopted homeland. Progressive patriots, meanwhile, champion more-open immigration policies, not least because they are wary of those who want to limit immigration to preserve America’s English-speaking, predominantly European cultural inheritance. For them, a shared culture matters less than a shared devotion to democratic and egalitarian ideals as understood by the contemporary Left. Whether you speak English or not, if you favor higher taxes on the rich and a generous safety net, the progressive patriot will welcome you with open arms.
As new immigrants arrive, they too are often inclined to embrace less culturally specific conceptions of American national identity, since doing so means that they won’t be expected to surrender the cultural traditions they’ve brought with them from their native country. In this sense, at least, they are closely aligned with progressive patriots. If culturally distinctive immigrants arrive in sufficiently large numbers, however, they can prompt natives who embrace an ethno-cultural conception of nationhood to take their national identity more seriously rather than less. Some will seek to defend their cultural community by calling for limits on immigration and by emphasizing the importance of a common national language. To many Americans, these responses to mass immigration aren’t just defensible — they’re necessary. I hold these views myself. Nevertheless, members of minority ethnic groups often find them alienating.
Why is that? In The Politics of Belonging: Race, Public Opinion, and Immigration (2013), the political scientists Natalie Masuoka and Jane Junn offer a novel theory of how different groups of Americans understand immigration policy. They posit that America is defined by a racial hierarchy and that those at the top of the hierarchy — basically, English-speaking whites — are the “default” category of American. Their group identity has no real bearing on their political opinions, and they’re subject to (relatively) few stereotypes, positive or negative. They’re just people. For non-whites, in contrast, Masuoka and Junn find that there is a tension between group identity and being seen as fully American. Those who are more attached to their group identity will tend to be more favorably disposed to high immigration levels, a fact that Masuoka and Junn attribute to a shared sense of outsider status. In other words, non-white Americans who feel culturally marginalized might be more inclined to identify with non-Americans, particularly those from their ancestral homelands, than with their fellow citizens. So, a second-generation Mexican American who feels excluded from mainstream American society might be particularly inclined to look kindly on an unauthorized immigrant from Jalisco or Oaxaca. “Alternatively,” Masuoka and Junn write, “those who feel less attached to their racial group and who practice a higher degree of assimilation with whites may have stronger feelings of American identification and reflect more similar attitudes to whites with strong national identities.” That is, a second-generation Mexican American who identifies strongly with the American mainstream might be just as inclined to support strong border enforcement as her fourth-generation Polish-American neighbor.
There is a certain irony here. While whites who value group loyalty and cultural cohesion might champion American ethno-cultural nationalism, less assimilated non-whites with a strong sense of group identity will tend to feel exactly the opposite — they will tend to favor some version of multiculturalism.
Masuoka and Junn are not the only scholars who’ve argued that the strength of minority ethnic identities shapes political outcomes. A number of researchers, including the political scientist Hovannes Abramyan, have observed that among U.S. Latinos, the native-born are far more likely than immigrants to support restrictionist views. In the words of Abramyan’s enormously valuable doctoral dissertation: “Latinos who are more strongly assimilated to the mainstream values and culture of the United States are more likely to have restrictionist views than those who are more weakly assimilated.”
While Abramyan maintains that the only way for Republicans to win Latino votes is to embrace a liberalized immigration policy, a widely held view, his findings suggest another possibility: If new arrivals are less restrictionist than earlier arrivals, and if they are less restrictionist because their ethnic identities are stronger and they are less assimilated, reducing the size of the immigrant influx might change the Latino community in ways that favor the political Right. Over time, Latinos would grow more assimilated and, presumably, more restrictionist as the supply of newcomers, who are by definition less assimilated, fell. Suffice it to say, progressive patriots see things differently. They’re quick to dismiss calls for immigration restriction as racist, a charge that resonates with those whom Abramyan calls the weakly assimilated.
To return to our marketplace analogy, progressive patriotism is gaining market share as the ranks of weakly assimilated immigrants expand, and as conservative patriotism is increasingly associated with the nostalgic worldview of Donald Trump, which seems to repel younger non-whites more strongly than it attracts older whites. If conservative patriotism is to have a bright future, it will need to find a more forward-looking message and, just as important, more-appealing messengers.