The Associated Press’s recent poll on America’s identity reveals a serious and disturbing trend among Republicans. The poll tells us:
A new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds Republicans are far more likely to cite a culture grounded in Christian beliefs and the traditions of early European immigrants as essential to U.S. identity.
Democrats are more apt to point to the country’s history of mixing of people from around the globe and a tradition of offering refuge to the persecuted.
While there’s disagreement on what makes up the American identity, 7 in 10 people — regardless of party — say the country is losing that identity.
Take that in for a while. Despite the central ethos dating to the country’s founding and real expression after a bloody civil war and the postwar constitutional amendments, Republicans seem to reject the premise that no religion should have primacy over another and no race or ethnicity should have a preferred position. They have become convinced that an essential part of being American is being white and Christian.
Dress it up however you like, but this is racialism, if not all-out racism. When race and religion are inherent in your definition of American identity, by definition you reject a colorblind society. Republicans used to say that America is not based on who you are, what class or what race, but on the idea that all men are equal before God and endowed with those inalienable rights. Republicans, at least a majority of them, don’t embrace that fully.
Republicans seem not to realize that their racialized and sectarian view of America is at odds with some of their other core beliefs. “There are some points of resounding agreement among Democrats, Republicans and independents about what makes up the country’s identity. Among them: a fair judicial system and rule of law, the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, and the ability to get good jobs and achieve the American dream.” Well, of course, implicit in all that is a rejection of racial and religious favoritism. There is some extreme cognitive dissonance going on here.
Members of one of our major parties reject the immigrant experience that has proved essential to American vitality, dynamism and economic growth:
About 65 percent of Democrats said a mix of global cultures was extremely or very important to American identity, compared with 35 percent of Republicans. Twenty-nine percent of Democrats saw Christianity as that important, compared with 57 percent of Republicans.
Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say that the ability of people to come to escape violence and persecution is very important, 74 percent to 55 percent. Also, 25 percent of Democrats said the culture of the country’s early European immigrants very important, versus 46 percent of Republicans.
Forget a “shining city on the hill”; this is the fear of being “swamped,” “overrun” and marginalized by people who look and worship differently.
For years opponents of immigration reform have argued they were only against illegal immigration. In the Trump administration and among immigration exclusionists who see the attorney general as their standard bearer, we see clearly that restricting legal immigration has been the goal as well. They are in fact “anti-immigrant” insofar as they think immigrants mar their idealized version of America. (“Republicans overwhelmingly viewed immigrants who arrived in the past decade as having retained their own cultures and values rather than adopting American ones.”) They reject the centuries-old adage that anyone can become an American. As the poll finds:
Among the areas seen as the greatest threats to the American way of life, Democrats coalesce around a fear of the country’s political leaders, political polarization and economic inequality. Most Republicans point instead to illegal immigration as a top concern. . . . Democrats appear to be reinforcing their belief that the country’s range of races, religions and backgrounds make the country stronger. About 80 percent made that assessment in the new poll, compared with 68 percent eight months earlier.
There are several troubling takeaways from this.
First, whether Trump heightened the white Christian of cultural and economic primacy or merely saw an opportunity is open to question. The support for Trump (voters on average were wealthier than Clinton voters) and the views reflected in the poll do, however, suggest that more than economic complaints about jobs and wages, Trump’s base fears that white Christians are no longer running the show. (This is precisely the premise of “The End of White Christian America,” a must-read in the era of Trump.)
Second, America already is a racially and religiously diverse society. (“The U.S. immigrant population stood at more than 42.4 million, or 13.3 percent, of the total U.S. population of 318.9 million in 2014, according to ACS data. Between 2013 and 2014, the foreign-born population increased by 1 million, or 2.5 percent. Immigrants in the United States and their U.S.-born children now number approximately 81 million people, or 26 percent of the overall U.S. population.”) The effort to recreate a whiter, more Christian America is fruitless — we are the multicultural nightmare they’ve feared.
Third, we don’t know if this mind-set is permanent or an attempt to adapt to and defend the mind-set of a president of their own party. If, for example, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had been the nominee, the Republican responses might have been quite different.
And finally, the inherent conflict in the Republicans’ belief system — defense of white Christian America and reverence for the Constitution — isn’t sustainable over the long haul. You either see America in racialist terms or you see it as the embodiment of an idea. You either see every immigrant (legal or not) as taking us farther away from the “ideal” America or you see every immigrant as a vote of confidence in the United States and an affirmation of the American idea.
Americans who hold a pluralistic vision of America and those who don’t can, of course, oppose illegal immigration and want lower levels of legal immigration for reasons having nothing to do with national identity. But certainly some Americans — the majority of one political party — are out to defend “threats” to white Christian America. As we said, the poll is deeply disturbing.