A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
A constant cry from the far right on the subject of immigration usually contains the sentiment that “they” need to come here legally and when “they” come “they” need to learn English, suppress their culture of origin and become American. It is not a new sentiment but rather a question that has been asked in one form or another for over two centuries; what is American, what defines the identity of its citizenry?
As imperial America grew and expanded in the nineteenth century and cast it eyes and efforts towards the annexation of Mexico the great southern intellect and orator John C. Calhoun rose in the US Congress to address this very issue of what exactly comprised the American character and identity.
The next reason assigned is, that either holding Mexico as a province, or incorporating her into the Union, would be unprecedented by any example in our history. We have conquered many of the neighboring tribes of Indians, but we have never thought of holding them in subjection, or of incorporating them into our Union. They have been left as an independent people in the midst of us, or have been driven back into the forests. Nor have we ever incorporated into the Union any but the Caucasian race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the first departure of the kind; for more than half of its population are pure Indians, and by far the larger portion of the residue mixed blood. I protest against the incorporation of such a people. Ours is the Government of the white man.
— John C. Calhoun, speech on Mexico (January 4, 1848)
Here, in the early 21st century, so many suffer from an ahistorical perspective and fail to understand that the issues that divide and inflame us are not recent revelations but rather the cumulative results of centuries of injustice. The entrenched battle lines over the issues of race and identity that dominate today’s headlines are a continuation of a struggle that has at last reached its endgame.
Consider a recent tweet by the writer Josh Jordan claiming that newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was, according to a Gallup Poll, “underwater with every demographic group other than women, minorities and younger voters.” By implication what Mr. Jordan is telling us is that older white males are “every demographic group” or at least the only important one. Would it be too much of a stretch to see the continuity of thought between Mr. Jordan and Mr. Calhoun?
Despite the protestations to the contrary there still remains a virulent strain of white supremacy permeating the fabric of American society. Though not always a demographic reality the political power structure of the United States has always propagated rule by a white, Anglo-Saxon, predominantly male elite. In addressing this issue it is at this point we would start lamenting the election of 2016 and its results but as the above quote illustrates these thoughts and attitudes pre-date Mr. Trump.
Through two centuries American hegemony has maintained its preferred racial superiority with strategies of genocide, slavery, and oppression. In the early years of the republic the fledgling empire was surrounded and outnumbered by indigenous nations and imprisoned slaves yet it was able to perfect white apartheid rule. Despite the rhetoric of the equality of all people proclaimed by the sacred texts of democracy there has always been a struggle for actual equality by the voices from below.
This struggle has, over time, produced small victories but has had little success in breaking the structural barriers that maintained the political imbalance. The drama of American political theatre has played out through most of the 20th century presenting itself to the world at large as the shinning city on the hill while hiding its compromised core behind the curtain. The smoke and mirrors perpetuated the illusion of freedom while masking the reality of continued repression.
Unfortunately for those satisfied with the status quo the 21st century has dawned with a radically changing reality. Demographic projections tell us that America will become “minority white” by the year 2045 with non-whites, at that point, making up over 50 percent of the population of the United States. As referenced above, the early years of American existence mimicked this demography but political power was then vested in its white minority and that power dictated the parameters of American identity.
Beyond a historic population shift the 21st century carries forward a political revolution that has fought its way through the turbulent years of the 20thcentury. The question, indeed, is not the particulars of the 2040 or 2050 census but the extent of influence the centuries old struggle for civil rights has on the foundations of American political power. The question of our time will be, will the state dictate who we are or will the true nature of the citizenry be reflected by the state?
While politics have become a proverbial three-ring circus this question of identity lies at the root of the chaos. As the bifurcated government struggles across an ideological divide that seems unbreachable conservatives and liberals seem to have firmly planted their flags. A cursory examination could ascribe this current conflict as a continuation of the arguments of political dogma that has been a feature of party politics since the elections of 1800. Unfortunately, again, for the fans of the status quo this century will give credence to the Bob Dylan lyrics, “Times they are a changing.”
On the conservative side there is a substantial portion of the population that can be described as ideological heirs to our illustrious Mr. Calhoun. For those who marched at Charlottesville in 2017 or stand in support of politicians like Donald Trump and Steve King the question of American identity in the 21st century is not a question at all. To this faction of the U.S. electorate the historic White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant identity should still be the standard of our time. While there may be some softening around the edges the core of this demographic will remain steadfast till they are supplanted by a younger generation.
On the political left there is the claim, with some substantiation, of inclusivity. The democrats of today are the party of multi-culturalism and racial tolerance but there are questions about the extent of their political philosophy. For some historic perspective we need only consider the greatest icon of liberalism, Martin Luther King Jr. When Dr. King expressed his dream and marched for voting rights he had the support of the progressives of his day but when he went on to condemn the illegal and immoral war in Vietnam or the economic disparity in communities of color he quickly became anathema to the same democratic leadership.
Through the progressive Obama administration the democrats continued the Bush “War on Terror,” tacitly approved political coups in Honduras, Egypt and Brazil, destabilized Libya and Syria, and set deportation records that devastated the immigrant community long before the arrival of Donald Trump. While Obama professed a liberal ideology the world continued to be on the receiving end of conservative policies that further destabilized the Middle East and Central America expanding a refugee crisis that has now engulfs the western world. This was the political reality that caused many to question the moral foundations of the left and dampened the enthusiasm for the 2016 Clinton campaign.
All of this brings us to the here and now as we move inevitably forward towards the 2020 Presidential election. More than a question of choosing a leader to carry us to the quarter century mark this election will be a referendum on the question of American identity. The election of this county’s first African-American president in 2008 and the fallout from that which contributed to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 has laid bare the racial and ideological divide and now demands an answer to the question, what is the quintessential American identity?
Are we destined to continue this century perpetuating the cold rigidity Nietzsche warned us of, taking our identity from a state that proclaims freedom and justice while its policies produce and support death and oppression? Will “American” continue to be a synonym for political power and the tyranny of that minority or can it at last reflect the true nature of the majority. Can we, as a people, come to terms with the idea that concepts such as universal health care, a clean environment, and an educated populace are not a radical move towards socialism but rather a fulfillment articulated by admittedly flawed men who coined noble sentiments such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
If this experiment in democracy is to continue then it must shake off the shackles of kleptocracy, patriarchy, and imperialism embracing the ideals that have been claimed for over two centuries but never implemented. In fact we need to even move beyond that characteristic of American identity that embraces the notion of American exceptionalism. We, as a people, will become truly exceptional when we embrace the ideal of being human with the dignity and compassion that is inherent in that identification.