Two forms of nationalism were contrasted at the first annual National Conservatism conference. Let’s trace their historical roots.
Last month at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, DC, well-heeled and well-credentialed intellectuals gathered for a conference on “National Conservatism.” The men and women at the conference looked to give intellectual heft to a Trumpian—and, if things go well for them, a post-Trumpian—nationalist movement. Future historians will write about it.
Topics discussed included the American tradition, America as a nation, how “big business hates your family” and immigration.
On one afternoon panel, Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the daughter of immigrants, gave the conference’s most controversial remarks, initially reported by Vox, speaking on “American Greatness and Immigration: The Case for Low and Slow.”
Wax’s talk was based on an academic article she published last year which attacked the national discussion about immigration as one-sided and naïve. “Academics and journalists,” Wax wrote, “too often neglect vital aspects of the debate surrounding immigration to our country and to Europe — primarily from the Third World to the Western or First World.”
Wax says she’s asking for an honest discussion. But her ostensibly neutral accounting of right, and, frankly, far-right, claims about certain immigrants’ alleged inability to assimilate into Western society effectively mainstreams the views of racists like John Derbyshire and Jared Taylor, whom Wax mentions, and the fringe website VDARE.
In American Affairs, a heterodox right-wing journal, Wax and Jason Richwine argued that low-skilled immigration hurts low-skilled Americans and fuels pathologies like family breakdown and opioid addiction. Things get thornier—or, for Wax, the political correctness blowback is greater—when she outlines cultural arguments for immigration restriction.
There is a literature, led by Robert Putnam, that does suggest immigration can undermine community cohesion and social trust. But in her article, published in the Georgetown Law Review, Wax questioned whether immigrants can assimilate at all. She pursues her inquiry with respect to two models of nationalism.
The first, Creedal Nationalism, maintains that the essence of Americanness is “mainly comprised of abstract political ideals and beliefs.” These include “equality before the law, fundamental human and Constitutional rights” and “commitment to democratic governance and institutions.” Although this model demands assimilation, it is basically universalist: anyone, regardless of their background or race, can become an American by embracing these fundamentals.
Wax’s second model, however, questions this universality. In what she calls Cultural Difference Nationalism, Wax cites right-wing thinkers who hold that America’s “Anglo-Protestant heritage” was key to its political development. Building on this argument, some argue immigrants from cultures far from this “Anglo-Protestant” background will struggle to assimilate. They might even corrode the communities they enter.
Because this cultural argument often correlates with race, Wax notes, elites have been squeamish about engaging it.
In the Georgetown Law Review, Wax calls for a frank conversation and highlights taboo but, she argues, necessary viewpoints. However, at the National Conservatism Conference last week she committed herself to Cultural Difference Nationalism.
“According to this view,” Wax told her audience, “we are better off if our country is dominated numerically, demographically, politically — at least in fact, if not formally — by people from the First World, from the West, than by people from countries that have failed to advance.”
She didn’t balk at the implications of this argument. Embracing Cultural Distance Nationalism means “taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”
Wax and the conference organizers insist this isn’t a racist argument but rather a cultural one with racial correlations. Conservatives would be wise, Wax insisted, to resist politically correct attacks that would paint Cultural Difference Nationalism as racist.
These remarks and especially Wax’s dismissal of Creedal Nationalism reminded me of another set of remarks about America’s history of immigration.
With his poll numbers flagging in 1976, President Gerald Ford hoped to harness the Bicentennial Celebration of the Declaration of Independence to associate himself with the best and brightest elements of the American tradition.
At a citizenship ceremony in Monticello, Ford refuted Cultural Difference Nationalism, telling those present that “the essential fact is that the United States as a national policy, and in the hearts of most Americans, has been willing to absorb anyone, from anywhere.”
“We offered citizenship,” Ford continued, “and we have been richly rewarded.”
The United States was able to be this open precisely because “we are uniquely a community of values.” Not a “a religious community, a racial community, geographic community, or an ethnic community.” In short, according to Ford, to be an American was to “subscribe to those principles which the Declaration of Independence proclaims and the Constitution protects.”
This is a clear expression of Creedal Nationalism placed at the center of a national celebration. Wax would no doubt deride it as the type of “feel-good bromide” that populates immigration discourse with “high moral dudgeon.”
Wax explicitly singles out clichés like Ford’s as simplistic and deleterious to an honest debate: “we are a nation of immigrants; foreigners just want to make things better for their families; they work hard and pay taxes; they are good for our country, full stop.”
Where did Ford get this idea? Where did these phrases, especially the idea of a “nation of immigrants,” come from?
The short answer, at least for Ford’s speech, was that he got these lines from Irving Kristol, the intellectual and networker regarded as the godfather of neoconservatism. Ford sought out Kristol specifically to help him frame the Bicentennial and Kristol came back with extended thoughts on the theme of “a nation of immigrants.”
In a memorandum for the president, Kristol claimed that the United States was “the only nation in history which, during most of its existence, permitted unrestricted immigration,” a strikingly bold policy. The success of mass 19th-century immigration “reveals both the universality of the political ideals on which the U.S. was founded, and their realism.” Much of what Kristol wrote to Ford ended up directly in the speech at Monticello.
On one level, Kristol was right. The United States had no federal immigration law for much of the 19th century. By 1910, 22 percent of America’s workforce and 41 percent of its non-agricultural workforce was composed of immigrant labor. On the other hand, Kristol glossed some extremely restrictive and racially motivated policies.
American reaction to immigration had never been as straightforward as Ford and Kristol suggested. John F. Kennedy wrote, “the Irish are perhaps the only people in our history with the distinction of having a political party, the Know-Nothings, formed against them.” Likewise, a newspaper opining on immigration in New York warned “the sewer is choked…the scum of immigration is viscerating upon our shores. The horde of $9.60 steerage slime is being siphoned upon us from Continental mud tanks.” In race riots up and down the West Coast, white (and in some cases mestizo) workers attacked, expelled and killed Chinese immigrants.
These nativist sentiments produced restrictive legislation: The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; an 1885 ban on companies paying laborers immigration costs; an 1891 creation of health standards for immigrants and a prohibition against polygamists.
By the early 20th century, a progressive, conservative, and social consensus emerged in favor of stark immigration restriction.
The historian Thomas Leonard shows many progressives believed and actively promoted pseudoscience about the mental and cultural inferiority of non-white races. Theodore Roosevelt declared “race suicide,” the eclipse of the Anglo-Saxon race, the most pressing national issue in 1907, the same year immigration peaked at 1.3 million. Progressives also feared that immigrants undercut the living wage of American workers. Some — although by no means all — progressives argued that reducing immigration would raise wages for white American men.
Conservatives likewise promoted race-based immigration restriction motivated by racism and anti-Semitism as well as Red Scare anti-communist politics. Even the American Federation of Labor supported racial immigration restriction to reduce the competitive labor pool.
As a result of this nativist turn, Congress enacted a second wave of immigration-restriction legislation passed with relatively little controversy. The Immigration Act of 1917 placed literacy tests on immigrants and banned immigration from the Asia-Pacific region. Four years later the Emergency Quota Act slashed immigration by limiting immigration by ethnicity. Finally, in the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress definitively restricted immigration by banning all immigration from Asia and limiting European immigration to 165,000 per year — an 80 percent drop from pre-World War I levels. It established racial quotas based on the ethnic breakdown of the United States 34 years earlier — before the wave of Southern and Eastern European immigrants.
In other words, nearly a hundred years ago the federal government created a Cultural Difference Nationalism regime, sharply restricting immigration largely to Northern Europeans.
Gradually anti-immigrant sentiment declined. In part, the cultural shift was due to the work of Oscar Handlin, a prominent historian of immigration and the product of Jewish immigrant culture. In his Pulitzer-winning The Uprooted (1951), Handlin wrote “once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”
Handlin’s brilliance was to insist that with the exception of Native Americans, all Americans were descendants of immigrants of some sort or another.
Handlin worked to overturn the quota system. The system discriminated against Southern and Eastern “New Immigrants” simply because they were most recent. “Isolationism and racist xenophobia,” he argued, were of a reactionary era without basis in the modern mid-20th century. Any “hierarchy of desirable and undesirable peoples is offensive to our allies and to our potential allies throughout the world and is a slur upon millions of our own citizens,” he charged.
Handlin’s work was further popularized, albeit in simplified form, becoming the basis of A Nation of Immigrants, a 1958 pamphlet by Senator John F. Kennedy, later expanded into a book.
As president, Kennedy pushed to overturn the quota system. Writing in The New York Times, Kennedy argued America needed “a new, enlightened policy” that was not based on “false or unjust premises.” Kennedy was not opposed to limiting immigration. What he did oppose was restricting immigration based on ethnic or racial stereotypes. A new policy, he declared, “should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible.”
In 1965, Congress abolished the racial quota through the Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act with bipartisan support (excepting Southern white opposition). Immigration historian Mae Ngai calls Handlin’s work for racial quota reforms among his most important achievements. He refashioned the narrative of American history as one of successive waves of immigration, placing immigrants at the center of the American story. He reframed immigration as “an assimilative, modernizing process” vital to America itself. The rise of the “nation of immigrants” view of history was Creedal Nationalism triumphing over a deeply racialized — not to say, racist — Cultural Distance Nationalism.
For Oscar Handlin and Irving Kristol, both products of immigration, Creedal Nationalism made sense. Even as both became markedly more conservative as they aged, it was a conservatism linked to a profound belief in America’s benevolence.
The idea that America is a nation of immigrants is a narrative steeped in American exceptionalism and rooted in a Cold War liberalism. But as Ngai points out, millions of immigrants find powerful meaning in it.
It always strikes me how little confidence nativists have in America and the American creed. To say one group or another, be they Irish, Germans, Jews, or Muslims, cannot or will not assimilate is to evince a profound lack of faith in one’s own culture. It’s somewhat contradictory, too, for conservatives at the National Conservatism conference to decry the irresistible power of liberalism out of one side of their mouth and then bemoan dangers of unassimilable ethnics out of the other.
This apparent contradiction points to a fault line in the burgeoning National Conservatism and more generally in the effort to intellectualize Trumpism. Some conservatives with strong religious convictions see liberalism as a dangerous cultural rival to American religiosity or even a corrosive anti-culture. These religious conservatives, like Sohrab Ahmari or Matthew Schmitz, who took aim at the nation of immigrants idea earlier this year, argue Wax has it backward: due to their vibrant faith, Third World immigrants are a better cultural fit than are secular Europeans. Wax primarily identifies American culture with secular bourgeois mores — attributed to an “Anglo-Protestant” heritage — rather than with an active, orthodox Christianity, as does Schmitz. It remains to be seen whether national conservatives settle on a vision of the United States organized around religious adherence or a sort of right-wing liberalism that correlates with race.
Whether or not Wax’s comments are racist or bigoted has been parsed ably and disputed elsewhere. But to return to a nationalism of cultural distance is to return to a legislative regime that was explicitly based on racism and pseudo-scientific bigotry. To return to it is to play footsie with the type of stereotypes that considered Catholics and Chinese alike as impossible Americans. It would, as Berny Belvedere argues, “privilege white identity within the American fabric.”
What ultimately overcame the prejudicial regime was the American creed President Ford reached for when he said “these beliefs are the secret of America’s unity from diversity, in my judgment the most magnificent achievement of our 200 years as a nation.”
Joshua Tait is a columnist for Arc Digital and a PhD candidate in history at the University of North Carolina. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post and The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @Joshua_A_Tait.