Last week, in denouncing President Trump’s decision on DACA, former President Obama proclaimed the decision inconsistent with “who we are as a people.” Obama was repeating a familiar refrain from his presidency, during which he often trotted out the “who we are as a people” theme to attack those who disagreed with his left-wing views on immigration, refugees, health care, Islamic terrorism, etc.
I criticized Obama’s latest incantation on several grounds. For one thing, his statement that, as a people, we hold to the ideals that “all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation” excludes one of the most fundamental components of the American creed — adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law.
Moreover, if DACA-style amnesty is an essential element of Americanism, surely Congress will enact it, as Trump is giving it the opportunity to do as DACA winds down. After all, Congress is a better guide to who were are as a people than an ex-president whose goal it was fundamentally to transform America.
David Azerrad, writing for “American Greatness,” offers a different critique of Obama’s argument from “who we are as a people.” David is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Titles aside, he’s a rising conservative intellectual star.
David takes on the premise that I implicitly accepted, at least for purposes of argument — namely, that (to quote Obama), “what makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideals.” He considers this only “partially true.” David writes:
It is true insofar as we are indeed a nation dedicated to certain ideals—the truths we hold to be self-evident. America, alone among the nations of the world, defines itself by a commitment to a set of universal ideas.
We are not, however, a mere “propositional nation,” defined only by abstract ideals and shorn of any ties to its past, its culture, its ancestors, its language, and its land. We are also a particular people bound by “the mystic chords of memory” and shaped by our way of life. Our Declaration of Independence, after all, does not begin with the self-evident truth of human equality, but with “one people”—that is, we Americans—assuming our separate and equal station in the world.
What makes us American is not just “our fidelity to a set of ideals”—but also that we speak English; that we honor our war dead; that we inhabit a land that stretches “from California to the New York island; from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”; that we naturally love our country and our countrymen more than we do the foreign nations and foreign peoples of the world.
Our dedication to the idea that all men are created equal does not detract from our rootedness in our own history and land. Nor ought it to weaken our attachment to our fellow citizens or erode our national sovereignty.
This has to be right. It’s not possible that, nearly 250 years after our forefathers set forth our founding principles and four centuries after the founding of our first colonies, Americanness is not connected to our history, our land, and our traditions. America is exceptional, but not that exceptional.
Indeed, Samuel Huntington, who argued forcefully that America is a “creedal” nation in American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (1983), took a very different view in his final work, Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2005). There, he maintained that our creed is a byproduct of the Anglo-Protestant culture — with its English language, Christian faith, work ethic, and values of individualism and dissent. These, in his view, form the essence of who we are (or were) as a people.
We need not go that far to agree with David that Obama’s creedal definition, as well as the more complete creedal definition I propounded (per Huntington), is only a partial answer to the question of who we are. David finds the middle ground:
America, in other words, is both particular and universal. We are particular in our own way, just as Lesotho, Lithuania, and Laos are particular in their own ways. But we are exceptional in making certain universal ideals a constitutive component of our national identity (many countries today affirm these ideals too, but only we make them an inextricable part of who we are).
For some reason, intellectuals on the Right and the Left are uncomfortable with recognizing these two dimensions of Americanness. The neocons and the progressives would reduce us to a propositional nation; the paleocons and the traditionalists to a particular nation. The Founders, by contrast, did not see the need to choose between the two.
David’s analysis of our national identity may not provide a definitive answer to the narrow question of DACA. However, it has plenty of relevance to the overall immigration debate. As he explains:
By excluding America as a distinct and sovereign country from his definition of America, Obama can suggest we should admit as citizens all those who subscribe to our creed. By his definition, they already are Americans in all but legal status. The distinction between Americans and non-Americans who share our ideals is but accidental.
America the idea has no borders. But America the country does—and must. And it has the sovereign right to control its borders. Regardless of what one thinks about immigration, DACA, and the so-called “dreamers,” there is nothing un-American about upholding the rule of law or affirming the fundamental political distinction between one’s fellow citizens and foreigners—no matter how long they have lived in our country.
One of Obama’s signature achievements was his ability to convince otherwise sensible people that such basic acts of Americanness might somehow be un-American. If Trump breaks that spell, it will one of his signature achievements.