The US political process has developed within the parameters of geography and its unique history. There is a great deal of suspicion of a centralised political and economic authority in an essentially apolitical society, much of which is due to strong traditions of isolationism, exceptionalism, the Lockean heritage of constitutionalism and limited government. These have kept alive the spirit of republicanism even at a time when it was in decline or in retreat in Europe. There are two other strong traditions in the US — one is the predominance of economics over politics and the second that perpetuates a medieval practice of continuing with one person holding both positions as the head of the state and government, a practice that continues because of American exceptionalism. There also exists a large silent majority, as noted by President Richard Nixon, of devout Christians who pay their taxes regularly and are generally law-abiding. This tranquility among the majority, whose support is essential for any political party in order to have a winning coalition, was traumatised by both globalisation and neoliberalism. These worked silently but firmly in ensuring Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Even in his defeat now, his support base remains strong – his electoral base has increased substantially from 2016.
In his book Who are We? The Cultural core of American National Identity (2004), Samuel P Huntington argued that the strong sense of national identity of Americans was being attacked from the 1960s and might not be able to endure even with a renewal of the original spirit after 9/11. Traditional identity was based on race, ethnicity, ideology and culture, while the ideological roots continue to be liberty, equality before law, equal opportunity, individualism, human rights, representative government and private property. Admitting the importance of the first three creeds, Huntington insisted that the fourth facet of identity, Anglo-Protestant culture, provided the foundation to the first three, and that was under attack in recent times. He questioned the description of America being a “nation of immigrants” as the British Protestants who formed it in the 17th and 18th centuries were not immigrants in the popular sense but were founders or settlers whose perception all future immigrants imbibed. “Before immigrants had come to America, settlers founded America,” Huntingon argued, implying that the latter’s work ethics, the English language, the British tradition of law, justice and limited governmental power had to be imbibed along with traditions of European art, literature, philosophy and music. Distancing from this foundational concept of culture would mean a threat to the very foundation of American identity.
Huntington underlined the fact that it was the religious creed and not the liberal one that provided the framework of American national identity. Protestant culture and Anglo-Protestant people were different and as long as America followed this basic postulate, even when the descendants of the original settlers are becoming a small and uninfluential minority, the country’s cultural foundations remain strong. The USA’s national identity has followed the principles of the settlers but the larger question remains, that of sustaining Protestant culture in times when large number of factors undermine it. The demise of the Soviet Union as a threatening “other” left a void as often external enemies assist in creating national identity. Moreover, theories of both multiculturalism and diversity that flourished after the Cold War shifted attention from national to sub-national identities like gender, race and class and, among immigrants, dual nationalisms. Interestingly, the elite encouraged the first two and essentially belonged to the third category. The business elite in a globalised world increasingly think of themselves as citizens of the world. For them, the very basis of national identity was problematic. Martha Nussbaum considered “patriotic pride” as “morally dangerous” and Amy Gutman insisted that the “primary allegiance of Americans should not be to the United States … but to democratic humanism”. This makes Americanisation of immigrants un-American. This also creates a wide gap between ordinary Americans, who are passionately patriotic, and intellectuals and academicians who reject it with contempt.
One of the major emphasis of Huntington is immigration. In recent years, about 50 per cent of immigration has been Hispanic with 27.6 per cent Mexicans. Both the Hispanics and Afro-Americans are about 12 per cent of the population and the former would increase because of a larger flow of immigration and fertility. This inevitably led to a downward pressure on wages along with a higher number of people being relegated to poverty and welfare. But his major concern is cultural. Huntington asserted that these immigrants (particularly Mexicans), unlike the previous waves, were more resistant to assimilation. He pointed out that though the Hispanics came from a number of different countries, they all spoke Spanish, which was unprecedented in the American experience. This created a situation in many small areas, where one could lead one’s life comfortably both at home and outside without learning English. Huntington’s projection was that from a solo culture, the USA had become increasingly bifurcated linguistically and culturally into “Anglo-Protestant” and “Hispanic”.
Huntington added that America was primarily a religious nation and one of the most religious places in the world. He rejected the theory of religious pluralism as America is 63 per cent Protestants, 23 per cent Catholics, 8 per cent non-Christians and 6 per cent atheists. The intensity of Christian belief has increased. This entrenched Christianity differentiated American from most Western nations as there was a close relationship between religion and nationalism. American exceptionalism, religion and patriotism were all closely interlinked. Even the Catholics had imbibed values which were essentially Protestant.
Donald Trump’s meteoric rise, and increased electoral support, despite his defeat, is largely a reflection of this threat perception, the restiveness among a large section of devout Christians. Add to this was the turmoil created by globalisation, which reduced economic opportunities and increased inequalities, breeding suspicion of both the liberal media and the political elite. There was a natural support for the tough outsider who promised to build a wall at the US-Mexico border and make America great again while inventing the other enemy China. The breakdown of close relationships between the two political parties with the average American and the fact that not a single corporate head was punished for the 2008 financial crisis further enhanced the popularity of a crusader from outside the political spectrum.
To end the anxiety for a substantial number of Americans, which until some years ago was a nation of minor contradictions but today deeply divided, there is a need for a fresh initiative patterned along the lines of the New Deal. Biden could win the presidential nomination as a moderate and centrist politician. This was enough to defeat Trump. But that may not be enough to bridge the divisions. It is more difficult now. At the beginning of the American century in 1945, its circumstances were exceptionally favourable, noted Paul Kennedy. Its share of world’s resources was a disproportionate 40 per cent when it should have been 16 or 18 per cent. But in the contemporary multipolar world, it is in relative though not absolute decline. The United States has to adjust to a situation where it would no longer be the world’s largest economy — devastated both by the pandemic and Trumpism.
The inherent periodic instability of unregulated capitalism exhibited during the recent phase of neoliberalism coupled with erosion of the legitimacy of the two political parties have accentuated the crisis of the deep state. The long-term challenge of climate change has been neutralised by the lobby of oil and gas companies that provide jobs to 10 million people. Another 22 per cent of the workforce is engaged in, to use Eisenhower’s phrase, the military-industrial complex. Biden’s task would be to readjust the economic priorities within the larger context of globalisation, provide leadership and bring back legitimacy to a discredited economic and political culture.
(Mukherjee retired as professor of political science, University of Delhi, Ramaswamy is associate professor, political science, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi)
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