Like most, if not all, of my friends, I was shocked by Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College, especially his victory in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. However, when I picked up a book by Samuel Huntington that I read nearly ten years ago, the election and its result in those states especially, made more sense to me. Huntington’s book—Who Are We? The Challenge of America’s National Identity—raises the question of which national identity America will assume, given three possible alternatives (I’ll only consider two, which were represented by the two major political parties in the United States). Although Huntington’s description of the two identities may represent, in my opinion, an extreme view of the alternatives, it does differentiate the choices offered in the election and helps explain the choices made by many voters, especially in the states mentioned above.
The first view, which Is exemplified in Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan “Better Together,” is the cosmopolitan alternative:
The first, or cosmopolitan, alternative involves a renewal of the trends dominating pre-September 11 America. America welcomes the world, its ideas, its goods, and, most importantly, its people. The ideal would be an open society with open borders, encouraging subnational ethnic, racial, and cultural identities, dual citizenship, diasporas, and led by elites who increasingly identified with global institutions, norms, and rules rather than national ones. America should be multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural. Diversity is a prime if not the prime value. (p.363)
The second view, exemplified by Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” is the national alternative:
. . . A national approach would recognize and accept what distinguishes America from other societies. America cannot become the world and still be America. Other people cannot become Americans and still be themselves. America is different, and that difference is defined in large part by its Anglo-Protestant culture and its religiosity. The alternative to cosmopolitanism . . . is nationalism devoted to the preservation and enhancement of those qualities that have defined America since its founding. (pp. 364-365)
Huntington argues that the choice favored by most Americans is nationalism:
Significant elements of American elites are favorably disposed to America becoming a cosmopolitan society. . . . The overwhelming bulk of the American people are committed to a national alternative and to preserving and strengthening the American identity that has existed for centuries. . . . America becomes the world. . . . America remains America. Cosmopolitan? . . . National? The choices Americans make will shape their future and the future of the world. (p. 366)
To a large extent, the election was framed in terms of what kind of nation do we want to be: What is America’s national Identity? One can argue that based on the popular vote plurality for Hillary Clinton, most Americans want to become more like the world. However, for nearly an equal number of Americans, the desire is for America to return to an American past.
This is a sobering, and for me, a difficult judgment to accept. I have always viewed America as a nation that is identified by a set of ideas or ideals---equality, liberty, individualism, democracy, and constitutionalism. The history of America is one of accepting people, regardless of their previous national identity, as Americans based on their allegiance to those ideals. One does not have to give up his or her previous culture and adopt an Anglo-Protestant culture and religiosity. Our granting of citizenship based on a knowledge of American ideals and institutions reflects that history. The trend has been to grant equality to those who may have been marginalized by historical American traditions and institutions, whether because of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
In a previous book—American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, Huntington wrote:
Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short or its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is a hope.
Now, I see America as turning back the clock of progress toward the ideal to an earlier, darker, and less idealistic time. Making sense of an event doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance of the event as a final answer to the question. So, I am recommitting myself to making America’s national identity what I and many millions of Americans want it to be—more like the ideals. I want the hope of America to continue!