Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.
In this piece, I argue for a new way of conceiving national identity and ethnic relations. This entails a porous ‘melting-pot’ ethnic majority, which is informal and social, within a personalized national identity that includes virtually everyone. I also trace the origins of today’s left-modernist (‘woke’) ideology, with its penchant for contrasting the blessings of diversity with a confining and oppressive white majority, to early-twentieth century Liberal Progressivism and modernist radicalism.
My view is that nations with ethnic majorities are more stable than polycentric multi-ethnic nations like Trinidad, Kenya, Belgium, or Guyana. In polycentric nations, ethnicity is the basis for political parties and the ‘normal politics’ of left and right is submerged. Federations which have ethnic majorities tend to endure much longer than those where there is no majority.1 Higher ethnic diversity correlates with lower economic development, which is a major reason why many sub-Saharan African countries — which are generally the most ethnically diverse in the world — have struggled compared to East Asia.2
Ethnicity is not the same as race, even if race is sometimes used to tightly demarcate one ethnic group from another, as with the ‘one drop’ rule in the pre-Civil Rights American South, which stipulated that even those with a fraction of African ancestry could not be considered white. However, in parts of Latin America, the color line was not drawn so tightly. Meanwhile, a number of ethnic groups cross conventionally defined racial boundaries. Some central Asian Turkmen look ‘white,’ others East Asian. Some Pashtuns look South Asian and others ‘white.’ Some African Americans pass for white and are only recognized as black when they are known to have African ancestry.
What is Ethnicity?
Ethnicity is based on a subjective belief in common ancestry, as well as a shared collective memory.3 Ethnic groups can be transracial and inclusive, with boundaries defined by a critical mass of traits rather than a single criterion—just as the line between country music and rock cannot be boiled down purely to subject matter, instrumentation, or style but rather to a threshold defined by the sum of all three. In other cases, there is a sharp ethnic boundary defined by race, language, or religion. I distinguish between the former, liberal ethnicity, and more tightly bounded ethnicity in which intermarriage and identity shift is difficult.4
In defining ethnicity, ‘objective’ cultural markers such as race, religion, and even language are secondary to the subjective myth of ancestry. These markers often blur at the boundaries between groups. Think of the line between light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned whites, part-Anglo Hispanics with Anglo first names (Ted Cruz, George Zimmerman), and English-speaking Hispanics like former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson; between assimilated Kurds in Turkey and ethnic Turks, between Italians with German surnames and ethnic Germans with Italian surnames in Italy’s South Tyrol region.
It’s clear that some critical mass of markers is needed to tell one’s group apart from others. You may not look white, but you act, speak, or dress ‘white.’ Or you may look white, but you dress in a turban and have a foreign accent and surname. Each combination may put you on one side or another of a line. That line may vary depending on the observer. It may change when people talk to you and find out about your ancestry, as with a white-looking person who relates that their father is African American and is thereby accepted as such.
Most ethnic groups are at least somewhat porous and open to intermarriage. Depending on the tightness of ethnic boundaries, mixed offspring may or may not be accepted as group members. Some ethnic groups are sealed tightly, such as the Parsees of India or Northern Ireland Protestants (where intermarriage with Catholics is a taboo). Others such as the Kikuyu of Kenya or Creoles of Mauritius, or African Americans or Native Hawaiians, have looser boundaries.5
America’s ethnic majority is white American, which is a category that expanded its membership criteria in the 1960s from being white, Protestant and ‘colonial stock’ (British, Dutch, or French Huguenot) to include German and Scandinavian Protestants, as well as white Catholics and Jews. This happened mainly due to intermarriage and a decline in sectarianism, but also because of the growing power of a pan-ethnic white American mass culture.
The Civil Rights revolution may have elevated race as a more politically salient marker for northern whites than religion. I think the jury is still out on this, as it is difficult to argue that race didn’t matter prior to the 1960s. I reject the notion, from Critical Race Theory, that Catholics and Jews ‘became white’ because a WASP power elite decided they were useful for shoring up a white power structure.6 They were already legally and socially white in a way blacks, American Indians, and Asians were not. What changed was that they became part of a newly defined ‘white American’ ethnic majority as well as being racially white. That is, the ethnic majority expanded from being narrower than all racial whites to being coterminous with all racial whites.
Looking ahead to the next century, when a majority of Americans will be mixed-race, I would expect ancestry (having some European background) and culture to eclipse race as the key criterion of membership. This would of course mean that many African Americans (80 percent of whom have European origins) could become ‘white’ if they adopted ‘white’ cultural codes.
The new ethnic majority group might even evolve into a twin-stranded ‘American’ ethnic group based on a fusion of Anglo-European and African descent, much like Mexico’s 90 percent Mestizo majority. Most other lineages would be airbrushed out of the collective memory, though their myths and memories may survive in local pockets such as Chinatown, Irish South Boston, and Hasidic Borough Park. There are many examples of this in world history, such as the Turks and Hungarians, who assimilated outsiders that were more numerous than the original ethnic core.7 Just as the ethnic majority expanded from being narrower than all whites in 1920 to coterminous with all whites in 1970, it will likely expand to being wider than all whites in 2050 or 2100.8
Thus far I have largely discussed American ethnicity. But not everyone must join the ethnic majority: assimilation should be voluntary, and there are other long-established groups, notably African Americans and American (Native) Indians, which are also poles of attraction, with their own melting pots. Some might move between categories or combine them. We need a superordinate category that encompasses virtually all citizens: the nation.
The American nation must include everyone from the most recent immigrant from Somalia to an Amish farmer from Ohio, an African American in the Mississippi Delta to a Navajo from Arizona or a Mayflower descendant from Oregon. It must bridge an ideological divide between socialists and libertarians, nationalists and cosmopolitans. While the traditional means of doing this is the American Creed of liberal democracy and capitalism, ideology on its own is not a sufficient basis for nationhood. How so?
First, people may differ ideologically, with many on the left and some on the right rejecting a narrowly defined liberal-democratic capitalism. More importantly, liberal democracy and capitalism are much less distinctively American than was once the case. Much of the world shares these systems. Without a war — or even a Cold War — ideology cannot overcome the divisions that exist in diverse societies. Imposing a civic nationalist state-assimilation project along the lines of the French Third Republic (1870-1900) or the 100 Percent Americanization crusade of the 1920s is much more difficult in today’s peaceful, individualistic society.
In addition, this ‘hymn sheet’ approach to nationhood fails to incorporate ‘everyday’ symbols that make the nation real and bind people to it in their everyday lives.9 It fails to recognize that people attach to the nation in different ways. A rural American may connect through their many generations’ ancestry and the rural landscape. An immigrant may attach through the idea of America as a nation of immigrants and diversity. The leftist may look to the country’s heritage of radicalism from the antinomians to the Hippies. The Southern Baptist will draw on a long Christian heritage beginning with the First Great Awakening. In England, for instance, religious ‘nones’ are nearly 50 points less attached to Christianity as a symbol of Englishness than even nominal Christians who don’t attend church. Even South Asian Hindus and Muslims are 5 points more attached to Christianity as a symbol of Britishness than white British ‘nones.’10
Finally, there will be cross-identification: we know that conservative Hispanics and Asians who voted for Trump are attached to the country’s Anglo/European-Protestant heritage, while left-liberal whites who vote Democratic are attached to its non-European diversity.11
Differences in our Commonality: Toward Multivocal Nationhood
I believe the idea of nation-as-menu is more meaningful than nation-as-hymn sheet. The menu model is what I term ‘multivocalism.’ This is not multiculturalism, which looks away from the United States to people’s foreign roots and homelands. Rather it is about different ways of identifying with America: to the same flag and country. Multivocalism derives from anthropologist Victor Turner’s concept of multivocality, which captured how people read different meanings into the same symbol.12 Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for example, has been an anthem of the Nazis and is now the anthem of the European Union. The American flag can be a symbol of freedom, of tradition, or of equality. It has been appropriated by both Hippies and the far right. The Union Jack in Britain has likewise been used by Northern Ireland Protestants, the 60s ‘mod’ youth culture, and the far right. Even the Confederate flag has multiple meanings to different parts of the population.
‘Freedom’ and the American Creed are important touchstones, but so are the ‘everyday’ symbols of American nationhood from landscape and history to sports, cars, and place names; regional cuisines and architecture to popular culture. Having people construct their own ‘personal nationhood,’ with no version viewed as the ‘correct’ way of identifying with the nation, will help make nationhood more meaningful, more tolerant, and more cohesive — all at once.13 Of course, this doesn’t mean that symbolic competition over the meaning of nationhood will cease: each side will push its cherished constellation of symbols, myths, and memories. The conversation over which version of nationhood is a truer reflection of its essence can be cordial; this struggle, as John Hutchinson notes, almost always reinforces the idea of nationhood.14
By contrast, a compulsory ‘hymn sheet’ civic nationalism flattens the differences in how people meaningfully attach. Many Americans with deep ancestral and cultural ties to the land will not appreciate their identity being defined abstractly in terms of a universalist idea which rejects the importance of the ethnocultural aspects of their Americanism. Other Americans — immigrants or liberals — may view urban cultural diversity as an important aspect of their American nationhood that is flattened by the notion of nation-as-idea. Alienating people through forcing all into a truncated Americanism tends to reduce both freedom and unity.
The Link Between the Ethnic Majority and the Nation
The vision of an inclusive majority within an inclusive nation recognizes that ethnic majorities are important for well-functioning nations. Much of national solidarity is in fact an overspill from the taken-for-granted unity that ethnic majorities have, and which extends to encompass the wider nation which the ethnic majority implicitly associates with itself.15 Minorities’ identification to the nation differs symbolically from the way majorities identify to the nation. That’s fine. There should be no one way to be American.
There are limits to the national menu. Those who reject equal treatment under the law and individual rights should be seen as violating a condition of national membership. But this stipulation should be drawn loosely, allowing room for ideological differences to be accommodated. All but the most extreme antisocial dissenters and anti-liberals should have a way of being American.
Immigration is also pertinent here. Immigration tends to increase diversity while ethnic assimilation reduces it. As diversity increases, the anxiety of members of the ethnic majority who care about unity and continuity with the past grows. In survey experiments, telling conservative American or British voters that immigrants will melt into the ethnic majority, leaving the country little-changed, tends to reduce opposition to immigration. Telling them that the majority is shrinking and that the country is becoming ever more diverse, and that these are great things, tends to heighten anxiety and sow divisions.16
Calibrating the immigration rate to the assimilation rate is important for national unity. Doing so permits voluntary assimilation through intermarriage and acculturation to take place, which tends to increase the size of the ethnic majority. By contrast, rapid immigration tends to reduce the share of the population comprised of the ethnic majority. The problem is that it typically takes several generations for deep assimilation to take place. When it happens, as in America in the 1960s when ethnic neighborhoods began to dissipate and intermarriage took off, it happens very quickly. This is mathematical: the children of mixed offspring are automatically mixed, and so the curve of mixed-race population is exponential. The share of mixed-race Americans will still be a minority in 2100 but will be a clear majority of at least 75 percent by 2150.
State integration policies can do little to accelerate the process, and there are few if any examples of state policies that do more good than harm. This means that periods of rapid increase in the foreign-born share, as today or a century ago, should be followed by periods of immigration reduction — such as that of 1924-65 — which slow down the rate of change. When assimilation takes off, the immigration taps can be loosened once again.
Common Enemy vs. Common Humanity Identity Politics: The Role of the Left
Some commentators correctly decry the ‘identity politics’ of the left, but pivot to attacking the notion that any identities other than that of the civic nation should matter to people. This is not realistic, in my view. While all politics is not identity politics (there is also self-interest), it is nonetheless the case that group identities matter a great deal in politics and always have. Identity need not produce disunity, but can even reinforce cohesion. Does identifying as a Protestant Christian or as Irish make a person feel less American or more American? What about being Jewish or Catholic? In most survey data I have seen, people who identify strongly with the one also identify more strongly as American.
The key to compatibility lies in whether the group identity is viewed as opposing the nation or complementing the nation. Once we allow that people identify through different symbolic pathways to the nation, various ethnic, regional, and class identities can be readily compatible with nationhood.
But this is not possible for an oppositional identity. If, for instance, black, gay, or Muslim identity is defined in opposition to the nation, then identity politics weakens the country. We move from what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff term a ‘common humanity’ identity politics, where groups see their distinctiveness as not being in a zero-sum relationship to society, toward a ‘common enemy’ identity, in which groups are defined against society.17
Ethnic identity can be defined in a positive-sum or common enemy form. The Irish used to define themselves against the British, drawing on a storyline of a thousand years of oppression, from the Normans to the British Empire. The English were caricatured as anti-Catholics who exploited the Irish and caused the famine. More recently, the Irish have turned to a positive form of identity that emphasizes their achievements in poetry, music, and culture, as well as their ‘tiger’ economy. This cultural confidence allowed them to invite the English rugby team to play at the iconic nationalist venue of Croke Park, a Gaelic football stadium in Dublin. African Americans, likewise, can define themselves through their cultural achievements and their considerable economic and political rise in the face of adversity, or through a ‘common enemy’ identity that foregrounds the misdeeds of the white oppressor.
Most minorities, including African Americans, adopt a common humanity form of identity, taking pride in their achievements. However, today’s cultural left places a premium on the oppression narrative and thus encourages minorities to adopt a victimhood-based ‘common enemy’ form, rather than a ‘common humanity’ form, of identity.
The dominant ideology in western elite institutions today is what I term left-modernism.18 This is not socialism. Instead, it is a hybrid left-liberal ideology that emerged hegemonic after two world wars and the Civil Rights revolution. It involves applying a leftist worldview, which sees the world in terms of oppressed and oppressor groups, to cultural categories that had been the focus of liberalism, notably race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Beginning in the 1910s, ordinary Anglo-Protestant Americans came to be stereotyped by the modernist left as boring, repressed bullies. Since the 1990s, Critical Race Theory has repurposed this culture of self-repudiation into anti-white animus, as with Noel Ignatiev’s call to ‘abolish the white race’ and stop being white, or Robin D’Angelo’s more recent trope of white fragility.19
Left-modernism began in America with Liberal Progressives such as Jane Addams and John Dewey around 1905-10. Dewey in particular looked down on his New England Yankee heritage as confining and uninteresting compared to the exotic culture brought by new immigrants from Europe. This outlook was then succeeded by a more explicit denigration of WASP America by the mainly Anglo-Protestant bohemian ‘Young Intellectuals’ of Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1912-17 period. Randolph Bourne, a student of Dewey’s at Columbia and a bohemian writer who was viewed as the doyen of a new youth culture, set the template which left-modernists have followed down to the present day.
In his 1916 essay, ‘Trans-National America,’ Bourne urges his fellow WASP Americans to shed their ethnic identity and find the ‘cosmopolitan note.’ On the other hand, he warns Jews and other immigrant groups not to become assimilated ‘cultural half-breeds’ but to ‘stick to their faith.’20 The conceit that ethnicity is wonderful for minorities but toxic for majorities spread widely with the 1960s countercultural explosion as universities and television expanded. Meanwhile the anti-WASP animus of left-modernist intellectuals has morphed into anti-white sentiment. It has since become de rigeurfor elite whites to repudiate their own group and encourage minorities to assert an oppositional form of identity. What Matthew Yglesias terms the ‘Great Awokening’ involves a surge, since 2014, in the share of white liberals who believe racism and white supremacy are major problems in American society.21
Left-modernist white Americans have a long tradition of repudiating ethnic majority identity and encouraging a ‘common enemy’ form of minority identity. Since the late 1960s, and especially since 2014, there has been a surge of left-modernist ‘antiracist’ activism which seeks to weaponize minorities as an opposition force to overthrow a perceived (but seldom carefully evidenced) white power structure. The 2020 election, in which minorities shifted toward the Republicans, shows just how little resonance that message has, and how much white liberal and minority views of the country diverge. Instead of embracing the victim narrative touted by left-modernists, a growing number of minority voters are rejecting their overtures.
Going forward, slower immigration and continued assimilation through intermarriage can make the vision of an inclusive-majority-within-an-inclusive-nation a reality. Moving from the state-led assimilation drives of the past to voluntaristic multivocalism is the best way to make this model work in the twenty-first century. This can help erode the historically high diversity which has both increased conservative anxiety and emboldened left-modernism.
A prerequisite for change, however, is to shrink the outsized influence of left-modernism in the meaning-making center of U.S. society. This ideology, which has reached a peak of influence since its inception more than a century ago, encourages minorities to adopt a hostile posture toward the ethnic majority and national traditions while simultaneously teaching whites to repudiate their heritage and wallow in guilt. The net result is to stoke cultural division and populist backlash, all of which underpins today’s increasingly toxic level of affective polarization.
1 O’ Leary, B. (2001). “An iron law of nationalism and federation?: A (neo-Diceyian) theory of the necessity of a federal Staatsvolk, and of consociational rescue.” Nations & Nationalism 7 (3): 273-296.
2 Easterly, W. and R. Levine (1997). “Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 111(4): 1203-1250.
3 Smith, A. (1991). National Identity. London, Penguin.
4 Kaufmann, E. (2000). “Liberal Ethnicity: Beyond Liberal Nationalism and Minority Rights.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 23 (6): 1086-1119.
5 Wimmer, A. (2008). “The making and unmaking of ethnic boundaries: A multilevel process theory.” American Journal of Sociology 113 (4): 970-1022.
6 Roediger, D. R. (1991). The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York & London, Verso.
7 Francis, E. K. (1976). Interethnic Relations: An Essay in Sociological Theory. New York, NY, Elsevier Scientific.
8 Kaufmann, E. (2019). Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, Penguin UK and Abrams USA., p. 462; Alba, R. (2020). The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream, Princeton University Press.
9 Edensor, T. (2002). National identity, popular culture and everyday life. Oxford ; New York, Berg Publishers.
11 From unpublished data from ‘New poll: Some Americans express troubling racial attitudes even as majority oppose white supremacists’, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, 14 September 2017.
12 Turner, V. (1967). Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites de passage, in the forest of symbols, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
13 Cohen, A. P. (1996). “Personal nationalism: a Scottish view of some rites, rights, and wrongs.” American Ethnologist 23 (4): 802-815.
14 Hutchinson, J. (2005). Nations as Zones of Conflict. London, Sage.
15 Kaufmann, E. (2019). “Ethno‐traditional nationalism and the challenge of immigration.” Nations and Nationalism 25 (2): 435-448.
16 Ekins, Emily and David Kemp. (2020). ‘What Increases Public Support for Immigration? Results from a New Experiment,’ Cato Institute blog, Dec 29; Willer, R., et al. (2016). “Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support among White Americans.” SSRN working paper.; Craig, M. A. and J. A. Richeson (2014). “More diverse yet less tolerant? How the increasingly diverse racial landscape affects white Americans’ racial attitudes.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: 0146167214524993.
17 Lukianoff, G. and J. Haidt (2018). The coddling of the American mind : how good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York City, Penguin Press, ch. 3.
18 Kaufmann, E. (2004). The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America: The Decline of Dominant Ethnicity in the United States. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, p. 33; Kaufmann, Whiteshift, p. 21.
19 Ignatiev, N. (1997). “The point is not to interpret whiteness but to abolish it.” Race Traitor.