By Darim al-Bassam
In the past few years, the area of politics and culture has moved from the margins of cultural inquiry in Sociology. “Politics and culture” suggests that each term constitutes an autonomous social realm; whereas “political culture” suggests the boundaries of cultural action within which ordinary politics occurs.
Bourdieu’s emphasis on boundary making, Foucault’s disciplinary mechanisms, and Habermas’s conception of the public are setting the research agenda of scholars who focus on macro-level social change.
Four sub-areas have crystallised: first, political culture, which refers to the state of mind, values and political conduct of individual or collective agents; second, institutions, which includes law, religion, the state, and citizenship; third, political communication and meaning; and fourth, cultural approaches to collective action.
All four areas can serve as a frame of reference in this article to analyse the new movement of “national conservatives” attempting to reshape the American right . For them culture matters — and it matters quite a lot.
Jost et al (2003) developed a model of conservatism as motivated social cognition. The model asserts that feelings of uncertainty, fear, and threat stimulate existential, epistemic, and ideological social-cognitive motives, which in turn lead to political conservatism in the forms of resistance to change and endorsement of inequality.
Cultural values might also be influential in the manifestation and shaping of conservative political ideologies. Situational factors such as the role of a hierarchical cultural dimension (Vertical Individualism) play a role in constructing conservative beliefs and in influencing societal norms as potential ideological social-cognitive motives (eg, cultural acceptance of white -based dominance.)
These types of attributes of societal hierarchy, and consequent power differentiations, can be perceived as being more or less acceptable based on corresponding cultural values.
The current cultural war launched by president Trump is a case in point. He is making the Muslim American congresswoman Ilhan Omar one of the bogeywomen of his campaign for re-election to the White House in November - and by proxy her country of birth, Somalia.
In his most recent attack, at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he tore into the 37-year-old alleging that she wanted to bring the “anarchy” of Somalia to the US.
“She would like to make the government of our country just like the country from where she came - Somalia. No government, no safety, no police, no nothing, just anarchy. And now, she’s telling us how to run our country. No, thank-you.” ( BBC,6 July 2020)
On other occasions he told the four House Democrats American women of colour to “go back” to their own countries . He said: “I have a suggestion for the hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down that if they don’t like it, let them leave, let them leave, let them leave.”
Yet at a conference a year ago, attended by some of the most important figures on the American right like John Bolton the then National Security Adviser, participants argued for a new, non-racist “conservative nationalism” that could bring together a divided nation.
National Conservatism is “a new vision for the right that “inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together.” (Zack Beaucham ; 2019 )
The inaugural National Conservatism conference, was an attempt to build a new vision of conservatism less wary of state power and more focused on addressing American social ills like fraying family ties and the hollowing out of small towns.
Speakers took great pains to draw distinctions between the conference’s ideals and those of the alt-right. During an opening night speech, David Brog, one of the conference organisers, pointed out the exit door and told any racists in the audience that they should head out of it. Yet the speakers also overwhelmingly agreed that a central part of “national conservatism” involved opposing allegedly divisive cultural change wrought by mass immigration.
There’s an obvious tension in this project of building a conservatism that is simultaneously sceptical of cultural change caused by immigration and, somehow, inclusive of the largely nonwhite immigrants who are responsible for changing it. At times, it became too much to bear. (Zack Beaucham; 2019 )
In a panel on immigration in that conference, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax claimed that immigrants are too loud and responsible for an increase in “litter.”
She explicitly advocated an immigration policy that would favour immigrants from Western countries over non-Western ones; “the position,” as she put it, “that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” (She claims this is not racist because her problem with nonwhite immigrants is cultural rather than biological.) It is the right and only the right, she argues, that is willing to talk unsentimentally about the harms from mass immigration.
The idea is that a shared American identity is essential to maintaining a common sense of purpose, trust, and community. A large influx of immigrants, she explains, especially from nations that do not share our cultural values and understandings, will undermine citizen morale, unity, and solidarity as well as the integrity of our institutions.There are two nationalist schools of thought on immigration and assimilation, she said.
The first is an inclusive (creedal) nationalism, which posits that immigrants from any background can assimilate into American culture and take on an American identity, provided that they are willing to declare, in her words, “fealty to abstract ideas, concepts, and principles such as human rights, property rights, the rule of law, honest government, capitalism, et cetera.”
This was derisively called the nationalism of “magic dirt” — a put-down of the implication that immigrants can transform themselves simply by living on American soil.
If the inclusive/creedal nationalism is flawed, what’s the alternative in her opinion? It is “the second type of nationalism ... she wants to concentrate on: she terms it Cultural Distance Nationalism,”. “According to this view, America is better off if the 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.”
This is a more sensible school of thought, she argued, which presumes the unsuitability of certain immigrants “based on the insight and understanding that people’s background culture can affect their ability to fit into a modern advanced society.”
Some inclusive/ creedal nationalists maintain that because it is open to anyone, at least in principle, to believe and support these ideas, there is no reason to favor immigrants from one background or another.
“I don’t think that conclusion necessarily follows,” Amy Wax said. “Many, indeed most, inhabitants of the Third World don’t necessarily share our ideas and beliefs. Others pay lip service but don’t really comprehend them. There are exceptions of course, but most people are not exceptional”.
Wax believes that “Third World” countries are chronically poor and that this poverty is the result of the poor cultural habits of the people who reside in it. If they are allowed into the United States, the country will start to develop the dysfunction she sees in “Third World” economies.
Quoting Larry Mead, in his new book The Burdens of Freedom, Amy Wax argued that individualism — a key source of Western and American order, dynamism and strength — is a distinctly First World attribute that is difficult to impart to outsiders and that it is key to maintaining our freedoms and prosperity,” she said. “These insights are supported by the European experience with Muslim immigration ... and by the multigenerational trajectory of Hispanics in the United States.”
But then we get to the part where she explicitly addresses the issue of race. I want to quote her entire discussion of the issue, though it’s long, to make sure we have the proper context:
“Perhaps the most important reason that the cultural case for limited immigration remains underexplored has to do with that bête noire, race. Let us be candid: Europe and the First World, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly white for now. And the Third World, although mixed, contains a lot of nonwhite people. Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism, means in effect taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites”.
To Wax, this means “being honest about the homegrown conditions and failures that hold countries back: kleptocracy, corruption, lawlessness, weak institutions, and the inability or unwillingness of leaders to provide for their Citizens basic needs. (Osita Nwanevu, The New Yorker, July 21 2019)
Embracing cultural-distance nationalism means, in effect, as she emphasised, taking the position that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites”.
“Well, that is the result, anyway. So, even if American immigration philosophy is grounded firmly in cultural concerns, it doesn’t rely on race at all. And, no matter how many times the mantra is repeated that correlation is not causation, these racial dimensions are enough to spook conservatives.”
So the argument is this: Wax believes it would be better for the country if the proportion of white citizens were higher than the proportion of nonwhite citizens. And she believes America needs an immigration system that keeps immigrants from non-Western countries to a minimum.
This is not racist, in Wax’s view, because the system only discriminates against nonwhites “in effect” — it is based on national origin rather than race, and her problem with nonwhite immigrants is cultural rather than biological. Thus can someone who says “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites” say this isn’t racism with a straight face?
Let’s recap: Wax believes that nonwhite immigrants are flawed by virtue of who they are, and nothing can be done to change their character and allow them to assimilate. She admits that she is making blanket judgments about nonwhite populations and is using those judgments to endorse policies that would disadvantage them and ensure that America’s white population outnumbers its nonwhite one. She comes to these conclusions, in part, based on a political doctrine — cultural distance nationalism — that she herself identifies with the alt-right.
During the Q&A after the speech, Wax was asked what would happen if conservatives lose the immigration fight (thus leaving rates relatively high). Her prediction is dire:
She clearly believes that the country would be improved if the immigration system admitted more whites and fewer nonwhites — not because nonwhites are biologically inferior, but because they are culturally inferior. This is just the plain meaning of the words in context. It also argues that immigration policy must not be allowed to “compromise the dominance” of “European and Anglo-Protestant” people in the United States and Europe.
This is the problem with any attempt to build conservative nationalism in a nutshell. At a very abstract level, it’s possible to make non-racist arguments for a more restrictive immigration policy and a more broadly nationalist ethos.
But when you get to the level of actual policy and politics, these ideas nearly inevitably end up devolving into attacks on minority groups.
Once you understand this, the fact that very few people at the conference wanted to talk about President Trump — despite him being the most prominent self-identified “nationalist” in the country — starts to make a lot of sense. If all this isn’t racism, I have no idea what is.
In the United States and many other countries, nationality is defined by a set of legal parameters. It may involve birthplace, parental citizenship or a circumscribed set of procedures for naturalisation.
Yet, in the conservative Americans’ minds, these more objective notions of citizenship are a little fuzzy around the edges, as social and developmental sociologists have documented in their research. Sociologically, some people may just seem a little more American than others, based on unrelated factors like race, ethnicity or language.
Reinforced by identity politics, this results in differences over who is welcome, who is tolerated and who is made to not feel welcome at all.
How race affects who belongs ? Many people who explicitly endorse egalitarian ideals, such as the notion that all Americans are equally deserving of the rights of citizenship regardless of race, still implicitly harbour prejudices over who’s “really” American.
In conclusion, the study of racism and nationalism is replete with dualistic distinctions between two broad modes of nationalism with different mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion. The first mode of inclusion/exclusion is on ethnic terms. This mode, which is followed by the conservatives, is considered to be premised on sentiments that are illiberal, emotional and ‘organic’, and is contrasted with a multi-cultural liberally orientated, rational and voluntarist model of national cohesion often labelled civic nationalism (Spencer and Wollman 2002).
Members of ‘ethnic nations’, as expressed by Amy Wax are held to ‘belong’ together on the basis of a shared language, culture, traditions and history (Gellner 1996), and solidarity is based on presumed intrinsic, primordial, affective connections between compatriots. Civic nationalism, on the other hand, is premised on an ideological commitment to a common destiny and government through shared civic institutions. Its basis includes commitment to ‘procedures for the legitimate enactment of laws and . . . exercise of power’ (Habermas 1994).
Civic and ethnic nationalism are generally not seen as equally valid modes of cohering the national population.
As Brubaker (1999) writes, ethnonationalism has been associated with the worst excesses of racism, abuse of state power and intolerance, whereas civic forms have been associated positively with liberal values; the result is a distinction between ‘good and bad nationalisms’. (Spencer and Wollman 2002).
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