For most of his half-century-long career, Samuel Huntington, professor of government at Harvard, has made a point of telling the US ruling elite what it has most wanted to hear. During the Age of Eisenhower, he extolled “the military values [of] loyalty, duty, restraint, dedication” and argued that the United States had more to learn from “the disciplined order of West Point…than the garish individualism of Main Street.” In the 1960s he assured America that time was on its side in Vietnam because “forced-draft urbanization and modernization”–i.e., the free use of napalm and defoliants–was emptying the countryside and depriving the Vietcong of its rural base of support. He called for a stronger presidency and a more disciplined Congress after Watergate and added for good measure that granting equal rights to African-Americans might be more than the American political system could bear. “There are…potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy” was how he put it in a 1975 report sponsored by the Trilateral Commission. During the early years of the Reagan Administration he warned that the United States faced “a major survivability gap” and urged the deployment of the MX and a Star Wars antimissile defense system to counter what he said was a growing Soviet threat.
Despite such unpleasant tidings, however, he remained essentially optimistic about America’s long-term prospects. Xenophobia was on the rise, but Huntington continued to stick with the longstanding liberal line that immigration and diversity were positive and that there was no ethnic group that an open and dynamic America could not absorb. Rather than an ethnic state, he wrote in 1981, the United States was an ideological state based on an “American Creed” of liberty and justice for all. Where ordinarily one might expect such a belief system to weaken over time, the opposite was more likely. “The more culturally pluralistic the nation becomes,” he declared, “the more essential the political values of the Creed become in defining what it is that Americans have in common.” Diversity, in other words, was a source of strength. The more America’s population mirrored that of the world at large, the more ideologically united it would become.
This was also what the ruling elite wanted to hear. Yet a dozen years later, just as the United States was celebrating its final victory over the Soviet Union, Huntington’s thinking took an unexpected turn. Despite America’s unparalleled triumph, he argued in “The Clash of Civilizations?,” an article in Foreign Affairs that he later expanded into a bestselling book of the same title (minus the question mark), it would not get its long-awaited opportunity to remake the world in its image. On the contrary, the United States would find itself embroiled in a series of global conflicts pitting a secular West against an Islamic Middle East, a Hindu South Asia, an Orthodox Russia and so on. The epic contest between capitalism and socialism, in Huntington’s view, thus turned out to have been an epiphenomenon masking the real struggle among the followers of Jesus, Mohammed, Vishnu et al. Now that the cold war was out of the way, the struggle of some seven, eight or nine regional civilizations (Huntington was vague as to the exact number) was once again coming to the fore. Instead of advancing into the twenty-first century, the world, as he saw it, was returning to the eleventh.
This was grim, but, as things have turned out, not entirely inaccurate. The world is more fractious since the demise of the cold war system, and post-9/11 a growing portion of the conflict is transpiring along “civilizational” lines. Osama bin Laden has declared war on Crusaders and Jews, while the President, according to an unnamed family member quoted in Peter and Rochelle Schweizer’s new book, The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, believes that “we the Christians” must “strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.” One might argue that Huntington’s argument is more than a bit self-serving, since Muslim fundamentalists, Christian Zionists and others sympathetic to his point of view are acting in concert, more or less, to see to it that his prophecy comes true. Still, there’s no question that his influence has been growing.
Now Huntington is back with a vision that is even bleaker. In Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, he narrows his focus from the civilization to the state. His former confidence concerning America’s ability to carry on as a purely ideological entity has vanished; he now believes that it can survive only as an “Anglo-Protestant” state dedicated to the matrix of religious, cultural and political beliefs that the original settlers brought over from England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is not arguing that everyone who is less than 100 percent WASP should pick up and leave. But he contends that if Americans want their country to hold together in the coming decades, they must rededicate themselves not only to a set of founding political beliefs but to a founding culture.
What is that culture? Rather than just life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Huntington says, it includes such key elements as “the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a ‘city on a hill.'” Readers familiar with Huntington’s massive 1968 tome, Political Order in Changing Societies, will recognize these as the essential features of the “Tudor polity,” which the Puritans supposedly took with them when they set sail for Massachusetts in 1630. Although the Tudor dynasty had ended some twenty-seven years earlier with the death of Elizabeth I, the theory (which Huntington picked up from the constitutional historian Charles McIlwain) holds that the Puritan middle class responded to the absolutist, crypto-Catholic policies of her successors, the Stuarts, by holding ever more tightly to the ideas they associated with her reign: patriotism, antipapism, limited government and the belief that the English were God’s new chosen people. Their purpose in journeying to the New World was to safeguard this heritage and construct a new political order (or, rather, reconstruct an old one) along neo-Elizabethan lines. Anxious nearly four centuries later that assorted multiculturalists, affirmative action advocates and Clinton Democrats are tearing America apart, Huntington makes a passionate plea for a return to the original Tudor “constitution” underlying the formal Constitution now encased in a bomb-proof vault in the National Archives.
While America may change in some respects, he argues, it must never abandon those sixteenth-century Anglo-Protestant beliefs that have been the source of its greatness. Rather, it must return to its roots by restricting immigration, protecting the English language and turning its back on liberal secularism. Although Huntington is cagey as to whether he thinks it should happen or is merely predicting that it will, he contends that a white, male, nativist backlash would be a “possible and plausible response” to the affirmative-action policies and “minority language and cultural maintenance programs” that “nonelected governmental elites” have imposed on the United States in violation of the “American Creed.” After all, “if blacks and Hispanics organize and lobby for special government-sponsored privileges, why not whites? If the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and La Raza are legitimate organizations, why not a national organization to promote white interests?”
All of which is enough to establish Huntington as America’s answer to Jean-Marie Le Pen, or perhaps the thinking man’s Pat Buchanan. But while it would be nice to report that Who Are We? is crude and lowbrow and therefore easily dismissed, the unfortunate fact is that it is Huntington’s best book in decades. Compared with the tangled mess that was The Clash of Civilizations–which in true tautological fashion assembled a mass of evidence in support of its thesis and then announced that its thesis was proven because the evidence was so massive–his new work is far more rigorous and logical. He puts his finger on the key problems besetting the modern nation-state, analyzes them with admirable clarity and then uses such analysis to reach conclusions that are the diametric opposite of what they should be. The results are seductive and powerful and all the more dangerous as a consequence. This is a very bad book precisely because it is so very good.
On at least one level, the key problem besetting the modern nation-state has to do with the old question of change and continuity. Specifically, how can the United States claim to be the same nation it was in the eighteenth century when so much about it is different? A liberal might respond that what unites modern-day Americans with their eighteenth-century “forebears” is a common set of beliefs that have defined their country from the outset. Yet this avoids the question of the degree to which those core values have changed. In fact, a major portion of the US population believes in things such as racial and sexual equality and gay rights, which we can safely say would have left the embattled farmers at Lexington and Concord aghast. How can we claim to be members of the same great American family given such an enormous gulf? And if we don’t make such a claim, why not cut our ties with the past and float freely away?
Needless to say, Huntington either does not believe in such a right or thinks that Americans exercise it only at their peril. Cutting America’s cultural ties to the past, he writes, implies a concept of nationhood consisting of little more than “a political contract among individuals lacking any other commonality.” Where he once thought this was enough, he now declares that “America with only the Creed as a basis for unity could soon evolve into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups, with little or nothing in common apart from their location in the territory of what had been the United States of America.” The United States would come to resemble the old polyglot Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman or Russian empires, except that where they at least had emperors to hold them together, America would lack even that. Instead, it would disintegrate as each subgroup went off to contemplate its own navel, leaving no one to worry about the nation as a whole.
This is a caricature, obviously, of a movement that represents fragmentation in some hands but something quite different in others. Huntington, however, targets not just multiculturalism but immigration, both the form it has taken in recent years and the way it has been presented. Contrary to myth, he argues, America is not a nation of immigrants but, initially at least, was a nation of settlers who, in going off to the New World, saw themselves not as moving to a new nation but rather as relocating from one British jurisdiction to another. Like American settlers in the Old West, they sought not to build a new nation but to extend the domain of an old one. In so doing, they gave the country a distinctly British cast to which subsequent immigrants, those who arrived after independence, have had no choice but to adapt. Thus, the children of Jewish immigrants have donned tweed jackets and entered the Ivy League, while at least one offspring of Italian immigrants has taken a seat on the Supreme Court so as to better expound the “timeless” principles of Anglo-Norman law. Regardless of religion or nationality, all have subjected themselves to an Anglo-Protestant makeover to one degree or another, Germans, Irish, Chinese, Mex…
Actually, says Huntington, Mexicans are the exception. Not only have they been slower to assimilate than other immigrant groups, but the fact that the United States shares a 2,000-mile border with their original homeland, he argues, has given their influx the quality of an invasion, which previous waves have not had. Huntington is not one to beat around the bush. “Mexican immigration,” he declares, “is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas Americans took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s.” (Actually, many of us would be happy to give back Texas, although we doubt the Mexicans would take it.) The new arrivals are “blurring the border between Mexico and America, introducing a very different culture, while also promoting the emergence, in some areas, of a blended society and culture, half-American and half-Mexican.” Huntington marshals evidence showing that because their original home is just next door, Mexican immigrants have been slower to adopt US citizenship than other ethnic groups (although Canadians have not been much quicker, for presumably the same reason) and also slower to learn English. Mexican-Americans are hardly the first immigrant group to be pulled this way and that by loyalty to both the United States and their original homeland. But because the latter in their case is exceptionally close at hand, the pull it exerts, according to Huntington, is exceptional as well.
Nowhere does Huntington address the question of what is to be done. He doesn’t have to. Merely to “problematize” Mexican immigration in this fashion is enough. The more Americans buy into his argument that Mexicans are a threat–an argument that will be increasingly attractive the more the economy turns downward–the more a host of “solutions” will present themselves more or less automatically: stepped-up border patrols, intensified efforts to bar those whose papers are not in order from public schools and hospital emergency rooms, etc. Considering the immense economic benefits of moving to America–Huntington quotes the historian David Kennedy to the effect that the US-Mexican income gap “is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world”–all such measures will prove ineffectual to one degree or another. But, as with the drug war, each failure will lead to an even more extreme response. Ultimately, the result is likely to be a Fortress America complete with a militarized border zone, police checkpoints and “English-only” signs in bus stations and other such gathering spots, an outcome that Huntington is not likely to find displeasing. Of course, it is not only Mexican-Americans who will suffer in such circumstances, but Irish-Americans, Jews, leftists and anyone else suspected of dual loyalty.
Huntington is equally adamant on the subject of religion. Americans are exceptionally religious by First World standards, and he thinks they should remain that way because…well, because Americans are exceptionally religious. He also points out that the United States is anything but religiously diverse by world standards. With as many as 88 percent of Americans declaring themselves Christian, the United States is more Christian than Israel is Jewish, Egypt is Muslim or India is Hindu. In a global survey of religious attitudes conducted in the early 1990s, he notes that America emerged as the fifth-most-religious nation in the world, behind Nigeria, Poland, India and Turkey but ahead of some thirty-seven others ranging from Ireland and Brazil to South Korea, China and Japan. Ninety-two percent of Americans believe in God, according to other polls, 85 percent believe that the Bible is God’s word and 74 percent believe in life after death. As the sponsor of another religious survey observed in 2000: “Americans strongly equate religion with personal ethics and behavior, considering it an antidote to the moral decline they perceive in our nation today. Crime, greed, uncaring parents, materialism–Americans believe that all these problems would be mitigated if people were more religious.” Amid the unprecedented stresses of the post-9/11 period, an astonishing 59 percent of Americans said they believed that the apocalyptic prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation would come true.
Nowhere, needless to say, does Huntington indicate that he himself believes in the Book of Revelation–he is far too sophisticated for that. Rather, he approves of religion not because it is true but because it is essential to the Tudor constitution and because it is intrinsic to America’s evolution from “promised land” to “crusader state.” While it doesn’t quite come out and say so, Who Are We? comes remarkably close to thanking Al Qaeda for the events of 2001. Because “identity requires differentiation,” Huntington writes, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 left the United States adrift. It needed a new enemy to define itself, and small-timers like Slobodan Milosevic simply would not do the trick. But then, says Huntington, “on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden ended America’s search.” In addition to “kill[ing] several thousand people, he…filled the vacuum created by Gorbachev with an unmistakably dangerous new enemy, and he pinpointed America’s identity as a Christian nation.” Where the struggle against the Soviets encouraged America to define itself ideologically, the new struggle, according to Huntington, encourages it to define itself religiously. Indeed, Bush’s crusade and bin Laden’s jihad have, in an odd way, turned out to be mutually reinforcing. The more they wage war against each other, the more they succeed in “fundamentalizing” both the United States and the Middle East. The more America battles militant Islam, the more it makes itself into its Christian equivalent.
Now that much of the world has adopted the logic of The Clash of Civilizations, the question is whether Americans will go the extra mile and adopt the logic of Who Are We? My guess is that a growing number will. The problem is not just a declining economy that leaves Americans short-tempered but a growing sense of belligerence that the war on terrorism serves to promote. Huntington is right: It imposes a different sort of logic. In previous conflicts Americans took aim at targets that were specific and down-to-earth–the Southern slavocracy, for instance, imperial Germany or the Nazi government in Berlin. As soon as they fell, the war was over. But this time, the goal–to “rid the world of evil,” as Bush put it a few days after 9/11– is nebulous in the extreme. Since evil will always be with us in one form or another, a crusade aimed at banishing it forever is a formula not only for endless warfare but for ever-expanding bitterness against anyone who is not completely on board. It is a self-feeding, self-perpetuating system designed to isolate the United States and cause it to turn inward. The more it does, the more preoccupied it will become with searching out that kernel of America that it regards as its true essence. The more it tries to isolate that core, the more intolerant it will grow of anyone or anything that it regards as adulterated or impure.
The process is by no means inevitable. Americans could put a stop to it either by admitting defeat or by rethinking the war on terrorism from top to bottom in order to come up with something more rational, democratic and effective. But the first is something that Americans never, ever do, while no one in Washington seems morally or intellectually capable of the second. Since no one is willing to challenge the (il)logic of an endless crusade against terrorism, it can only drag America deeper and deeper into the abyss.
Interestingly, there is little in Huntington’s book about democracy. The reason is obvious. Government of, by and for the people implies the sovereignty of “we the living” not only over government and society but over tradition as well, whereas Who Are We? implies something very different. It represents a return to the ideas of Edmund Burke, a longstanding hero of Huntington’s, who argued that “a perfect democracy is…the most shameless thing in the world” and that a nation must be seen as a mystical union “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The effect of such thinking is to reduce “we the living” to little more than “temporary possessors and life-renters,” as Burke put it, and to substitute tradition for popular sovereignty. Instead of the present triumphing over the past, it means the past triumphing over the present. Samuel Huntington’s new work is a reactionary manifesto that may very well be on a par with Burke’s conservative classic Reflections on the Revolution in France. Considering America’s mood these days, it should have no trouble finding an audience.