Who Are We?

In a piece on Donald Trump and the coming end of “White America,” Derek Thompson over at The Atlantic poses an interesting question gleaned from something Samuel Huntington wrote in the mid–1990s:

Several weeks ago, The Atlantic’s David Graham wrote about the way Trump uses the word “we.” The word is inherently inclusive, yet Trump uses it to exclude. “For Trump, blacks and Hispanics aren’t part of ‘we’,” Graham wrote. “‘They” constitute separate groups.”

We and they. My group and your group. Like quarks and leptons, these ideas-are the sub-atomic building blocks of politics. Huntington knew it, predicting the Trump phenomenon in 2004, when he named his book Who Are We? Huntington believed in a national identity bound up in whiteness. So do millions of voters. But the math of demography is stark. In 2033, the U.S. Census will record that half of 18-year-olds showing up to vote for the first time will be non-white. Young voters will belong to an electoral cohort that claims no majority. In November, tens of millions of voters may choose resentment over acceptance of this inevitability. But if they do, then who are we?

I touch upon this in my book, and the answer “Who are we?” is fairly simple for me. If I am compelled to belong to or identify with a particular group, I should share in some kind of moral or material benefit from that identification or membership. Too often, however, I have found myself part of a “we” in which I was compelled to bear a burden or make a sacrifice but not allowed to benefit in any meaningful way.

Or, as I wrote on page 58 about growing up in Upland, California:

I brought nothing of value to this community; it would accept no part of me. Conformity in this place was entirely about meeting community expectations and demands. There was no meeting anyone halfway. It was just being what was expected and demanded of you. Individual human beings were widgets, interchangeable parts, molded and shaped to fit into a machine. How much force you had to use to make the pieces fit all depended on how much the pieces resisted, or how oddly shaped they were.

Some parts could just be thrown away. They clearly were not worth the effort.

What was even worse, after all this, after eight years of brutality and abuse, this community could turn around and demand my love and loyalty. And act as if somehow they were the injured party when I was something other than fervently in love with them.

They got neither my love nor my loyalty. They hadn’t earned it.

Whatever “we” existed where I grew up, I was clearly not part of it. Even as those around insisted I was.

There is, all to frequently, an odd component to conservative thinking on social order — that those who are marginalized or brutalized as part of that order somehow must accept their place, the moral legitimacy, of that order. Whether people benefit or not, they must accept their part in the “we” that is created and sustained by that order. I don’t know whether partisans of order, so enamored of a particular kind of order, simply cannot imagine what it is to be on the wrong side of laws, custom, and culture — and thus what it means to live perpetually insecure and in fear of the violence that comes from having no acceptable legal or moral existence — or they simply do not care that their order depends so heavily on violence toward particular kinds of people. (Progressives, as they move forward with the very ideological reorienting of society under the sexual revolution, are preparing to make all of the same mistakes, which suggests it is all about the blindness that arises from believing one’s we is so morally right as to be beyond question or critique, and that any alternatives or dissent are completely unacceptable.) I suppose it hardly matters.

What is coming to an end is the fiction there is a grand American “we” created and sustained by shared citizenship. This was always something of a lie anyway, an engine to drive assimilation toward a white protestant norm, but even the pretense of this is finally over. In effect, politics is now a form of open warfare used both defensively and offensively — to protect one’s own group from the depredations of the other group, and to conquer the country and rule those who are “not us” as conquered people. Again, there’s always been that component, but it’s open now, naked, undisguised. Because a political arrangement — a government — is all we Americans share. Not culture, not language, not ethnicity. Just a constitution and an increasingly divergent stories about who and what we are under that governing arrangement.

2 thoughts on “Who Are We?

  1. Well, what do you think Americans should do about it? I mean Americans and not necessarily Christians.

  2. It’s no coincidence that much of American cultural lore — ‘regularized’ as uniform national custom as opposed to local tradition — began during the Civil War and reached its final form during or shortly after WWII. It was then immediately subjected to enormous stresses, since a) in most places it had been merged with some sort of cultural Christianity as civil religion, and b) it had gelled before the great victories of the Civil Rights movement, which it could not easily absorb. And so a national ideological mythos which had received important contributions from immigrant ethnics during its middle phase (1900 plus or minus 20 years), became the basis for polarization and division.

    It was doomed anyway, just as the Roman Republic was doomed by its own success. The US before the Civil War was not a stable entity. It was protean — far more than the older states liked. It was also aggressively expansionist, but in different directions with different agendas according to region. Under stress we have reverted to our ‘roots’, except that we are more expanded into than expanding out. We shouldn’t be surprised. Migration and cultural cross-pollination have always been the driving forces of history.

    No wonder young people are obsessed with the right to define one’s own identity. Hard to predict who will benefit from change over the next few decades and who will end up on the outside. Maybe it’s just as well we can continually redefine the meaning of our own “who”. As you have noted, human nature is a constant. It’s cultural expression can vary in strange ways, though. At my age, I consider myself just a spectator viewing the pilot episode; and I don’t expect to live long enough to see the series finale.

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