In 2004, historian Samuel Huntington warned that America was at risk of losing its national identity because there were fewer and fewer values still uniting us. His argument in “Who Are We?” had tremendous influence as a politically unifying force. Huntington was already a bit of a rock star among neoconservatives and military hawks who viewed his Islam vs. the West polemic — “The Clash of Civilizations” — as both an explanation for the age of terror and a justification for America’s desperate search for exceptionalism. The nostalgia for a unified America was appealing at a time when the “other” seemed so dangerous.
Since I was a kid growing up in an increasingly Latino Los Angeles, I have been hearing about this doomed America. Several decades later, and another Independence Day having passed, I’m still waiting; honestly, what does it take to rip America apart from within? New studies now show that we might be waiting awhile. The uniqueness of our American identity is that it is, above all other things, contagious.
Deborah Schildkraut, associate professor of political science at Tufts University, has been working on immigration issues for over 12 years. While critics of immigration are the first to speak for the very class of people they tend to dismiss — “they don’t want to be American” or “they are weakening our common identity” — Schildkraut’s new book, “Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration,” finds something much more benign, even graceful, in the American narrative.
In a 144-question telephone survey of 2,800 people nationwide, cutting across every imaginable demographic, it turns out that a rather obvious fact for most Americans is actually validated by the numbers: Immigrants and those born in the country share similar values of what it means to be an American. Regarding those great American notions of embracing economic and political freedoms, there is barely a distinction. Better still, as Schildkraut told me, “This is not just about rights, but also about obligations and being engaged through this notion of civic republicanism.” Immigrants and those born here believe in giving as much as they do in taking.
Schildkraut’s book eviscerates the misconceptions about a struggle for America’s soul, fears that have lingered since our independence. Ben Franklin initiated the lament with his growing concerns about the influx of Germans into colonial life. Present policy debates aside, over our history, the threat of America’s identity being overwhelmed by the “other” has affected a broad brush of groups: the targeting of Irish Catholics during the 1840s Know-Nothing campaign; the Chinese exclusion rules in the 1880s; quotas for less desirable immigrants in the 1920s; Japanese internment in the 1940s.
But perhaps the most important contribution of Schildkraut’s analysis is that immigrants and American natives all agree that maintaining the cultural traditions of our ancestors is essential. As first generation immigrants who are most likely to maintain strong cultural ties begin to assimilate, their children and grandchildren tend to regret not having stronger ties to their mother country.
It is truly American to be nostalgic for the non-American in most of us.
Schildkraut recently won the best book award from the political psychology section of the American Political Sciences Association, but such kudos are unlikely to influence the heated debates being waged about the nature of border controls or self-deportation. But what it should change is this persistent stereotype that somehow the immigrants themselves have a detrimental impact on American cohesion.
Indeed, the study shows that the only time when immigrant groups tend to disavow American assimilation is when they feel that they are persecuted and that their group, by sheer place of birth, is being mistreated or alienated. Americans can best maintain cohesion by not being too worked up about some perceived lack of cohesion.
It turns out that the ugliness around our immigration debate does far more to prevent a consensus around “who are we?” than the existence of immigrants in our midst.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem