The Not-So-Great American U-turn
There was a time when the millions of huddled masses yearning to breathe free (thank you, Emma Lazarus for your splendid poem) were grateful for the opportunity to make the month-long, often treacherous ocean voyage to the shores of the New World. Their willingness to jettison -- or at least subordinate -- their old national identities in exchange for a new American one that didn't pigeonhole them back into their old-world stereotypes seemed an exceptionally fair bargain.
To start fresh, absent ethnic or religious conflicts or tribalism, was a powerful lure and one that reinforced the notion that duplicating bias and prejudice from an old environment is never a good solution in a new one.
Granted, newcomers to America did initially band together by old-world identities in order to survive the first few years in their adopted country, but they soon discovered that more tribalism was not the cure for tribalism, itself. Embracing a common language and working alongside each other, bolstered by a set of shared values, the new immigrants quickly became convinced that by dropping their 'hyphens' they could find true equality under the umbrella of a Constitution that protected everyone's religions and cultural differences and not just those of the majority.
That reality did exactly what it was meant to do. It gave newly-minted Americans a choice: remain with your 'own kind' or join with others who valued personal choice over the old stereotypes they left behind in Europe and elsewhere. The American choice liberated them from their dependence on the old ways and freed them up to pursue their ambitions as one people. The importance of that one choice cannot be minimized for it established the bold, new, non-tribal American tribe whose values and virtues were both universal and translatable across the broad spectrum of cultural and ethnic differences.
Were there second-class citizens? Yes. Were there groups that desperately clung to their old traditional ways and prejudices? Yes. Were they the majority? No. And while it took a civil war and the deaths of 800,000 Americans in the 1860s to free Negro slaves from bondage in order to make good on the promise of equality to all Americans, it did happen. Understandably, because of generations of slavery and abuse, Blacks remained skeptical. Jim Crow assured that they would live among themselves for generations, uncertain that the promise of equality could be… or would ever be kept.
In the 20th century and on to the present day, the face of American immigration was changing. It was taking on the religious and tribal nuances of immigrants from Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Latin America. New immigrants were not quite convinced that the American dream translated well into their native languages and cultural traditions. Islam and a rapidly growing secularism were in occasional conflict with the prevailing Judeo-Christian mores that had been the cornerstone of America's strength and progress for two centuries. New questions about the relevance or usefulness of traditional American ideals, values and problem-solving were being asked. Was there room for a re-birth of tribalism in the USA? Was the retribalization of America and the move towards identity politics the only possible way to focus the spotlight on what many minority groups saw as discrimination?
Since the start of the new millennium, tribalism has been on the rise. Instead of e pluribus Unum we are experiencing a "many out of one" movement that is, effectively, taking America on a massive U-turn. This U-turn is a potentially dangerous one as it is moving our nation farther and farther away from its promise to build a strong, resilient society through national unity. The tribal/identity politics movement is focused on maximizing the differences between citizens and demographic groups in order to replace a power structure that relies on a Constitution for its lawmaking with a plebiscite-based democracy comprised of constantly competing special interests.
We must remember that history is both a carousel and a roller coaster. Our Civil War took place only six generations ago, and for most of us, the prospect of experiencing another one is unthinkable. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must take that roller coaster back to that time in American history and look at the divisions that existed in our society then and the forces that were working to exaggerate them and divide the country. If we do this, we will understand why the tribalization of men and countries is dangerous and never preferable to achieving national unity that is based on a set of common values that apply to every demographic group.
Stephan Helgesen is a retired career U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in 30 countries for 25 years during the Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush Administrations. He is the author of twelve books, six of which are on American politics and has written over 1,200 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He operates a political news story aggregator website, www.projectpushback.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org