What Does It Mean To Be An American?

"Undocumented Americans."  This is how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently described the estimated 12-20 million illegal aliens living in America.  What was once a Mark Steyn joke  has now become the ideological orthodoxy of the Democratic Party.

Reid's comment triggered an avalanche of outrage among commentators, bloggers, and the general public.  Why?  Because it strikes at the heart of the American people's understanding of themselves as a nation and a civilization.  Indeed, opposition to the ongoing push for "comprehensive immigration reform" -- i.e., amnesty and a guest worker program -- is being driven by a growing concern among millions of Americans that massive waves of legal and illegal immigration -- mainly from Mexico, Latin America, and Asia -- coupled with the unwillingness of our political and economic elites to mold these newcomers into red-white-and-blue Americans, is threatening to change the very character of our country.  For the worse.

I share this concern.  I agree with the political, economic, and cultural arguments in favor of sharply curtailing immigration into the United States, as well as refocusing our immigration efforts on admitting those foreigners who bring the greatest value to -- and are most easily assimilated into -- American society.  (See generally here, here , and here.)  But this essay is not intended to rehash these arguments.  Rather, I wish to explore the question that underlies this entire debate:  What does it mean to be an American?  This may seem like an easy question to answer, but it's not.  The harder one thinks about this question, the more complex it becomes.

Clearly, Harry Reid has not given this question much thought.  His implicit definition of "an American" is simply:  Anyone living within the geopolitical boundaries of the United States.  In other words, mere physical location on Earth determines whether or not someone is "an American."  Presumably, Reid's definition is not intended to apply to tourists and other temporary visitors.  Some degree of permanency -- what the law in other contexts calls "residency," i.e., a subjective intention to establish one's home or domicile -- is required.  In Reid's view, therefore, a Mexican from Guadalajara, a Chinese from Shanghei, an Indian from Delhi, or a [fill in the blank] become "Americans" as soon as they cross into U.S. territory and decide to live here permanently, legally or not.  Nothing more is needed.

This is poppycock, of course.  A Mexican or a Chinese or an Indian, for example, cannot transform themselves into Americans simply by moving to this country, any more than I can become a Mexican, a Chinese, or an Indian simply by moving to their countries.  Yet contemporary liberals have a vested interest in believing that they can.  This is not just a function of immigrant politics, which strongly favors the Democratic Party (hence the Democrats' growing support for voting rights for non-citizens).  It also reflects the liberals' (and some libertarians') multicultural faith, which insists that it is morally wrong to make distinctions among different groups of people, let alone to impose a particular way of life -- what heretofore has been known as the American way of life -- on those who believe, speak, and act differently.  Even in our own country.

In short, diversity, not Americanism, is the multicultural touchstone. 

What's more, the principle of diversity, taken to its logical extreme, inevitably leads to a rejection of Americanism.  Indeed, the ideology of multiculturalism has its roots in the radical -- and anti-American -- New Left and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  Thus the sorry state of U.S. history and civics education in today's schools and universities, which are dominated by adherents of this intellectual poison.  Moreover, when it comes to immigration, multiculturalists actually prefer those immigrants who are as unlike ordinary Americans as possible.  This stems from their deep-rooted opposition to traditional American society, which they hope to undermine through an influx of non-western peoples and cultures.

This, in fact, describes present U.S. immigration policy, which largely is a product of the 1965 Immigration Act (perhaps Ted Kennedy's most notorious legislative achievement).  The 1965 Immigration Act eliminated the legal preferences traditionally given to European immigrants, and opened the floodgates to immigration from less-developed and non-western countries.  For example, in 2006 more immigrants came to the United States from Columbia, Peru, Vietnam, and Haiti (not to mention Mexico, China, and India), than from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Greece.  And once these immigrants arrive here, multiculturalists believe we should accommodate our society to the needs and desires of the newcomers, not the other way around.  Thus, our government prints election ballots, school books, and welfare applications in foreign languages, while corporate America asks customers to "press one for English."   

Patriotic Americans -- those who love our country for its people, its history, its culture, and its ideals -- reject the multiculturalists' denuded, and ultimately subversive, vision of what it means to be "an American."  While the American identity is arguably the most "universal" of all major nationalities -- as evidenced by the millions of immigrants the world over who have successfully assimilated into our country over the years -- it is not an empty, meaningless concept.  It has substance.  Being "an American" is not the same thing as simply living in the United States.  Nor, I would add, is it the same thing as holding U.S. citizenship.  After all, a baby born on U.S. soil to an illegal alien is a citizen.  This hardly guarantees that this baby will grow up to be an American.

So what, then, does it mean to be an American?  I suspect that most of us believe, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in describing pornography, that we "know it when we see it."  For example, John Wayne, Amelia Earhart, and Bill Cosby definitely are Americans.  The day laborers standing on the street corner probably are not.  But how do we put this inner understanding into words?  It's not easy.  Unlike most other nations on Earth, the American nation is not strictly defined in terms of race or ethnicity or ancestry or religion.  George Washington may be the Father of Our Country (in my opinion, the greatest American who ever lived), but there have been in the past, and are today, many millions of patriotic, hardworking, upstanding Americans who are not Caucasian, or Christian, or of Western European ancestry.  Yet they are undeniably as American as you or I (by the way, I am Jewish of predominantly Eastern European ancestry).  Any definition of "American" that excludes such folks -- let alone one that excludes me! -- cannot be right.

Consequently, it is just not good enough to say, as some immigration restrictionists do, that this is a "white-majority, Western country."  Yes, it is.  But so are, for example, Ireland and Sweden and Portugal.  Clearly, this level of abstraction does not take us very far towards understanding what it means to be "an American."  Nor is it all that helpful to say that this is an English-speaking, predominately Christian country.  While I think these features get us closer to the answer, there are millions of English-speaking (and non-English-speaking) Christians in the world who are not Americans, and millions of non-Christians who are.  Certainly, these fundamental historical characteristics are important elements in determining who we are as a nation.  Like other restrictionists, I am opposed to public policies that seek, by design or by default, to significantly alter the nation's "demographic profile."  Still, it must be recognized that demography alone does not, and cannot, explain what it means to be an American.

So where does that leave us?  I think the answer to our question, ultimately, must be found in the realms of ideology and culture.  What distinguishes the United States from other nations, and what unites the disparate peoples who make up our country, are our unique political, economic, and social values, beliefs, and institutions.  Not race, or religion, or ancestry. 

Whether described as a "proposition nation" or a "creedal nation" or simply just "an idea," the United States of America is defined by our way of life.  This way of life is rooted in the ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; in the system of personal liberty and limited government established by the Constitution; in our traditions of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and entrepreneurism; in our emphasis on private property, freedom of contract, and merit-based achievement; in our respect for the rule of law; and in our commitment to affording equal justice to all.  Perhaps above all, it is marked by our abiding belief that, as Americans, we have been called to a higher duty in human history.  We are the "city upon a hill."  We are "the last, best hope of earth."

Many immigration restrictionists and so-called traditionalists chafe at the notion that the American people are not defined by "blood and soil."  Yet the truth of the matter is, we aren't.  One of the greatest patriots who ever graced this nation's history, Teddy Roosevelt, said it best:  "Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul."  Roosevelt deplored what he called "hyphenated Americanism," which refers to citizens whose primary loyalties lie with their particular ethnic groups or ancestral lands.  Such a man, Roosevelt counseled, is to be "unsparingly condemn[ed]." 

But Roosevelt also recognized that "if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else."  Roosevelt's words are not offered here to suggest that all foreigners are equally capable of assimilating into our country.  Clearly, they aren't.  Nevertheless, the appellation "American" is open to anyone who adopts our way of life and loves this country above all others.

Which brings me to the final, and most difficult, aspect of this question:  How do we define the "American way of life"?  This is the issue over which our nation's "culture wars" are being fought.  Today the country is divided between those who maintain their allegiance to certain historically American values, beliefs, and institutions (but not all -- see racial segregation), and those who want to replace them with a very different set of ideas about the role of government, the nature of political and economic liberty, and the meaning of right and wrong.  Are both sides in this struggle equally "American"? 

Moreover, the "American way of life" has changed over time.  We no longer have the Republic that existed in TR's days.  The New Deal and Great Society revolutions -- enthusiastically supported, I note, by millions of white, Christian, English-speaking citizens -- significantly altered the political, economic, and social foundations of this country.  Did they also change what it means to be "an American"?  Is being an American equally compatible, for example, with support for big government versus small government?  the welfare state versus rugged individualism?  socialism versus capitalism?  And so on.  Plainly, this is a much harder historical and intellectual problem than at first meets the eye. 

Personally, I do not think the meaning of America is nearly so malleable as today's multiculturalists assume.  But neither is it quite as narrow as many restrictionists contend.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that being an American requires something more than merely living in this country, speaking English, obeying the law, and holding a job (although this would be a very good start!).  What this "something more" is, however, is not self-evident, and, indeed, is the subject of increasingly bitter debate in this country. 

Yet one thing is certain:  If we stray too far from the lines laid down by the Founding Fathers and the generations of great American men and women who built on their legacy, we will cease to be "Americans" in any meaningful sense of the word.  As Abraham Lincoln warned during the secession era, "America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."  Today the danger is not armed rebellion, but the slow erasing of the American national character through a process of political and cultural redefinition.  If this ever happens, it will be a terrible day for this country, and for the world.

Steven M. Warshawsky is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.   
"Undocumented Americans."  This is how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently described the estimated 12-20 million illegal aliens living in America.  What was once a Mark Steyn joke  has now become the ideological orthodoxy of the Democratic Party.

Reid's comment triggered an avalanche of outrage among commentators, bloggers, and the general public.  Why?  Because it strikes at the heart of the American people's understanding of themselves as a nation and a civilization.  Indeed, opposition to the ongoing push for "comprehensive immigration reform" -- i.e., amnesty and a guest worker program -- is being driven by a growing concern among millions of Americans that massive waves of legal and illegal immigration -- mainly from Mexico, Latin America, and Asia -- coupled with the unwillingness of our political and economic elites to mold these newcomers into red-white-and-blue Americans, is threatening to change the very character of our country.  For the worse.

I share this concern.  I agree with the political, economic, and cultural arguments in favor of sharply curtailing immigration into the United States, as well as refocusing our immigration efforts on admitting those foreigners who bring the greatest value to -- and are most easily assimilated into -- American society.  (See generally here, here , and here.)  But this essay is not intended to rehash these arguments.  Rather, I wish to explore the question that underlies this entire debate:  What does it mean to be an American?  This may seem like an easy question to answer, but it's not.  The harder one thinks about this question, the more complex it becomes.

Clearly, Harry Reid has not given this question much thought.  His implicit definition of "an American" is simply:  Anyone living within the geopolitical boundaries of the United States.  In other words, mere physical location on Earth determines whether or not someone is "an American."  Presumably, Reid's definition is not intended to apply to tourists and other temporary visitors.  Some degree of permanency -- what the law in other contexts calls "residency," i.e., a subjective intention to establish one's home or domicile -- is required.  In Reid's view, therefore, a Mexican from Guadalajara, a Chinese from Shanghei, an Indian from Delhi, or a [fill in the blank] become "Americans" as soon as they cross into U.S. territory and decide to live here permanently, legally or not.  Nothing more is needed.

This is poppycock, of course.  A Mexican or a Chinese or an Indian, for example, cannot transform themselves into Americans simply by moving to this country, any more than I can become a Mexican, a Chinese, or an Indian simply by moving to their countries.  Yet contemporary liberals have a vested interest in believing that they can.  This is not just a function of immigrant politics, which strongly favors the Democratic Party (hence the Democrats' growing support for voting rights for non-citizens).  It also reflects the liberals' (and some libertarians') multicultural faith, which insists that it is morally wrong to make distinctions among different groups of people, let alone to impose a particular way of life -- what heretofore has been known as the American way of life -- on those who believe, speak, and act differently.  Even in our own country.

In short, diversity, not Americanism, is the multicultural touchstone. 

What's more, the principle of diversity, taken to its logical extreme, inevitably leads to a rejection of Americanism.  Indeed, the ideology of multiculturalism has its roots in the radical -- and anti-American -- New Left and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  Thus the sorry state of U.S. history and civics education in today's schools and universities, which are dominated by adherents of this intellectual poison.  Moreover, when it comes to immigration, multiculturalists actually prefer those immigrants who are as unlike ordinary Americans as possible.  This stems from their deep-rooted opposition to traditional American society, which they hope to undermine through an influx of non-western peoples and cultures.

This, in fact, describes present U.S. immigration policy, which largely is a product of the 1965 Immigration Act (perhaps Ted Kennedy's most notorious legislative achievement).  The 1965 Immigration Act eliminated the legal preferences traditionally given to European immigrants, and opened the floodgates to immigration from less-developed and non-western countries.  For example, in 2006 more immigrants came to the United States from Columbia, Peru, Vietnam, and Haiti (not to mention Mexico, China, and India), than from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Greece.  And once these immigrants arrive here, multiculturalists believe we should accommodate our society to the needs and desires of the newcomers, not the other way around.  Thus, our government prints election ballots, school books, and welfare applications in foreign languages, while corporate America asks customers to "press one for English."   

Patriotic Americans -- those who love our country for its people, its history, its culture, and its ideals -- reject the multiculturalists' denuded, and ultimately subversive, vision of what it means to be "an American."  While the American identity is arguably the most "universal" of all major nationalities -- as evidenced by the millions of immigrants the world over who have successfully assimilated into our country over the years -- it is not an empty, meaningless concept.  It has substance.  Being "an American" is not the same thing as simply living in the United States.  Nor, I would add, is it the same thing as holding U.S. citizenship.  After all, a baby born on U.S. soil to an illegal alien is a citizen.  This hardly guarantees that this baby will grow up to be an American.

So what, then, does it mean to be an American?  I suspect that most of us believe, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in describing pornography, that we "know it when we see it."  For example, John Wayne, Amelia Earhart, and Bill Cosby definitely are Americans.  The day laborers standing on the street corner probably are not.  But how do we put this inner understanding into words?  It's not easy.  Unlike most other nations on Earth, the American nation is not strictly defined in terms of race or ethnicity or ancestry or religion.  George Washington may be the Father of Our Country (in my opinion, the greatest American who ever lived), but there have been in the past, and are today, many millions of patriotic, hardworking, upstanding Americans who are not Caucasian, or Christian, or of Western European ancestry.  Yet they are undeniably as American as you or I (by the way, I am Jewish of predominantly Eastern European ancestry).  Any definition of "American" that excludes such folks -- let alone one that excludes me! -- cannot be right.

Consequently, it is just not good enough to say, as some immigration restrictionists do, that this is a "white-majority, Western country."  Yes, it is.  But so are, for example, Ireland and Sweden and Portugal.  Clearly, this level of abstraction does not take us very far towards understanding what it means to be "an American."  Nor is it all that helpful to say that this is an English-speaking, predominately Christian country.  While I think these features get us closer to the answer, there are millions of English-speaking (and non-English-speaking) Christians in the world who are not Americans, and millions of non-Christians who are.  Certainly, these fundamental historical characteristics are important elements in determining who we are as a nation.  Like other restrictionists, I am opposed to public policies that seek, by design or by default, to significantly alter the nation's "demographic profile."  Still, it must be recognized that demography alone does not, and cannot, explain what it means to be an American.

So where does that leave us?  I think the answer to our question, ultimately, must be found in the realms of ideology and culture.  What distinguishes the United States from other nations, and what unites the disparate peoples who make up our country, are our unique political, economic, and social values, beliefs, and institutions.  Not race, or religion, or ancestry. 

Whether described as a "proposition nation" or a "creedal nation" or simply just "an idea," the United States of America is defined by our way of life.  This way of life is rooted in the ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; in the system of personal liberty and limited government established by the Constitution; in our traditions of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and entrepreneurism; in our emphasis on private property, freedom of contract, and merit-based achievement; in our respect for the rule of law; and in our commitment to affording equal justice to all.  Perhaps above all, it is marked by our abiding belief that, as Americans, we have been called to a higher duty in human history.  We are the "city upon a hill."  We are "the last, best hope of earth."

Many immigration restrictionists and so-called traditionalists chafe at the notion that the American people are not defined by "blood and soil."  Yet the truth of the matter is, we aren't.  One of the greatest patriots who ever graced this nation's history, Teddy Roosevelt, said it best:  "Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul."  Roosevelt deplored what he called "hyphenated Americanism," which refers to citizens whose primary loyalties lie with their particular ethnic groups or ancestral lands.  Such a man, Roosevelt counseled, is to be "unsparingly condemn[ed]." 

But Roosevelt also recognized that "if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else."  Roosevelt's words are not offered here to suggest that all foreigners are equally capable of assimilating into our country.  Clearly, they aren't.  Nevertheless, the appellation "American" is open to anyone who adopts our way of life and loves this country above all others.

Which brings me to the final, and most difficult, aspect of this question:  How do we define the "American way of life"?  This is the issue over which our nation's "culture wars" are being fought.  Today the country is divided between those who maintain their allegiance to certain historically American values, beliefs, and institutions (but not all -- see racial segregation), and those who want to replace them with a very different set of ideas about the role of government, the nature of political and economic liberty, and the meaning of right and wrong.  Are both sides in this struggle equally "American"? 

Moreover, the "American way of life" has changed over time.  We no longer have the Republic that existed in TR's days.  The New Deal and Great Society revolutions -- enthusiastically supported, I note, by millions of white, Christian, English-speaking citizens -- significantly altered the political, economic, and social foundations of this country.  Did they also change what it means to be "an American"?  Is being an American equally compatible, for example, with support for big government versus small government?  the welfare state versus rugged individualism?  socialism versus capitalism?  And so on.  Plainly, this is a much harder historical and intellectual problem than at first meets the eye. 

Personally, I do not think the meaning of America is nearly so malleable as today's multiculturalists assume.  But neither is it quite as narrow as many restrictionists contend.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that being an American requires something more than merely living in this country, speaking English, obeying the law, and holding a job (although this would be a very good start!).  What this "something more" is, however, is not self-evident, and, indeed, is the subject of increasingly bitter debate in this country. 

Yet one thing is certain:  If we stray too far from the lines laid down by the Founding Fathers and the generations of great American men and women who built on their legacy, we will cease to be "Americans" in any meaningful sense of the word.  As Abraham Lincoln warned during the secession era, "America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."  Today the danger is not armed rebellion, but the slow erasing of the American national character through a process of political and cultural redefinition.  If this ever happens, it will be a terrible day for this country, and for the world.

Steven M. Warshawsky is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.