In a podcast on ‘This American Life’, residents of White Cloud, Minnesota confront their congressman over immigration. For a variety of reasons, the community had seen a large influx of Somali immigrants. The residents at the congressional Town Hall advocated for a moratorium on immigration into their community. Their congressman, a conservative, was rather taken aback. While the residents felt they owned their community and had a right to determine who could move in, the congressman countered that this would violate the Constitution.
I work in San Francisco, in a startup with a typically liberal culture (of which I heartily approve). We are espousing increasing gender diversity, particularly on the executive team, and are LGBTQ friendly. We understand the importance of culture, and actively hire to maintain our culture. I sometimes imagine the sensation if we hired contrary to culture. I imagine a couple of rough-speaking, open-carry guys descending on our lunch room and conversation, and me feeling quite uncomfortable in their presence, even if they’re not doing anything specific that could be held against them. I imagine others agitating to have them fired.
The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted a poll recently. The poll revealed that national identity was important to both Republicans and Democrats, but that what comprised that identity was very different. Democrats thought, generally, that our identity is bound up with the fact that our history is a mixing of people from around the globe, particularly the persecuted to whom we have offered refuge. Republicans, on the other hand, identified our culture with Christianity and the traditions of our early European immigrants.
Back in August of 2015, Ann Coulter launched into a diatribe on what it means to be an American. Railing against anchor babies, she rejects the interpretation of the 14th Amendment that those born on American soil are by virtue of that fact, Americans. While it may be true, Coulter seems to be saying, that we might have been immigrants ourselves at one time, now that we have set down roots, this is our country, our community, and we have the obligation to maintain our cultural prominence. In Coulter’s case the fear is of Mexicans overwhelming our culture; today that fear is mostly directed at Muslims.
While Ann Coulter and others are promoting the notion that America is exceptional because its culture makes it so, others are finding other reasons for Americans doubling down on maintaining the dominance of their culture.
Sam Altman traveled the U.S. to interview Trump supporters and see if he could discover what motivated them. He recognized that immigration was a major issue for them, but expecting Trump supporters to voice concerns over job opportunities lost to immigrants, was instead surprised to discover that their main concern was the changing American culture, and wanting to fight to preserve it.
Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson predicted the circling of the cultural wagons we are seeing. In August 2008, the Census Bureau released a report that showed that by 2050, minorities would make up a majority of the population. “That is probably freaking somebody out,” Richeson noted. Heightening this reaction to whites becoming the minority is The End of White Christian America, as Robert P. Jones traces it in this his new book. Richeson’s studies note that when a group is in the majority, in this case white, and in a more tailored fashion, white Christians, the sense of race is dormant. Since white Americans are the dominant group, they can avoid having to think in terms of their racial identity. Confronted with the loss of their dominance, they develop this racial identity. As Jones adds, “I think the principal reason white evangelical Protestants are reacting more viscerally to the end of White Christian America is because they represented the last phase of its health and vitality.” He continues:
While the decline among their more northern mainline Protestant cousins began in the 1970s and continued through the turn of the twenty-first century, the decline among white evangelical Protestants did not occur until the last decade. As a result, there was a significant period of about four decades where white evangelicals adopted a fairly self-congratulatory posture, concluding that their more conservative theology was what had protected them from decline.
But over the last decade, the evidence showing that white evangelicals are declining and graying has become irrefutable.
In contrast to those searching for exceptionalism in our white, Christian, European culture, or merely agitating to maintain its dominance, others find exceptionalism in other parts of the American experience. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post took a different angle on the findings of the above-mentioned AP-NORC poll.
Despite the central ethos dating to the country’s founding and real expression after a bloody civil war and the postwar constitutional amendments, Republicans seem to reject the premise that no religion should have primacy over another and no race or ethnicity should have a preferred position. They have become convinced that an essential part of being American is being white and Christian.
“You either see America in racialist terms or you see it as the embodiment of an idea. You either see every immigrant (legal or not) as taking us farther away from the “ideal” America or you see every immigrant as a vote of confidence in the United States and an affirmation of the American idea,” she concludes.
In the Trump Era, this search for what makes us exceptional, or alternately, this search for what keeps us dominant, seems salient. Many analyses of our recent election indicate that those who put Trump into the Presidency reflect this fear of culture change, even if they don’t accept the Republican agenda.
Still, this obsession with the loss of cultural dominance might be overstated. Corey Robin describes Michael Rogin dismantling the idea that ‘status anxiety’ is at the heart of our political somersaults, noting that this was Hofstadter and Bell’s argument about McCarthyism in the 1940’s and 50’s, and that “This is a fairly familiar theme in all modern social thought, from Tocqueville to Durkheim to Arendt, from Talcott Parsons to Robert Putnam. It gets resurrected every seven years or so as if it were some blazing new insight, but it’s been around for centuries.”
More generally, Rogin’s work stands as a cautionary note to liberals and the left: When it comes to conventional political positions and partisan disagreements, we tend to invoke conventional categories of politics. But when someone like a McCarthy—or a Trump—arises, we forget or toss out everything we know about conventional politics and instantly resort to more far-flung notions and categories (fascism, authoritarianism, and the like).
Robin believes in concentrating on “the boring bread and butter of conventional GOP party politics and policy: debates over Obamacare, rumblings over tax and trade and debt, and all the rest.” Vindication for this idea is in the followup to the debate of the AHCA and other policies. Karen Turner of Vox met with Sherri Underwood, who voted for Trump expecting that his Obamacare repeal and replace strategy would result in a better healthcare plan for her and her family, only to be disappointed both with the failure to repeal and replace, and with the AHCA which was the vehicle for it. Elsewhere, in Kinsman, Ohio, Joseph and Tammy Pavlic are fearful that the housing policy that this administration and Congress are preparing will leave them without the support of the HOME Investment Partnership Program which they have come to rely on in the face of disability and lost income. These stories are perhaps the bread and butter counterparts to analyses emphasizing fear of cultural change.
There is a political divide in America (but isn’t there always?) Voters broke with expectations in supporting Trump (we think). But as the Trump administration unfolds, will we see more evidence of the split reflecting concerns over loss of cultural dominance; or will voters coalesce around more practical issues like how health care and housing and other initiatives affect their families and their lives?