Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity

By Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster. 428 pp. $27
Monday, May 17, 2004

Chapter One

The Crisis of National Identity

Salience: Are the Flags Still There?

Charles Street, the principal thoroughfare on Boston's Beacon Hill, is a comfortable street bordered by four-story brick buildings with apartments above antique stores and other shops on the ground level. At one time on one block American flags regularly hung over the entrances to the United States Post Office and the liquor store. Then the Post Office stopped displaying the flag, and on September 11, 2001, the liquor store flag flew alone. Two weeks later seventeen flags flew on this block, in addition to a huge Stars and Stripes suspended across the street a short distance away. With their country under attack, Charles Street denizens rediscovered their nation and identified themselves with it.

In their surge of patriotism, Charles Streeters were at one with people throughout America. Since the Civil War, Americans have been a flag-oriented people. The Stars and Stripes has the status of a religious icon and is a more central symbol of national identity for Americans than their flags are for peoples of other nations. Probably never in the past, however, was the flag as omnipresent as it was after September 11. It was everywhere: homes, businesses, automobiles, clothes, furniture, windows, storefronts, lampposts, telephone poles. In early October, 80 percent of Americans said they were displaying the flag, 63 percent at home, 29 percent on clothes, 28 percent on cars. Wal-Mart reportedly sold 116,000 flags on September 11 and 250,000 the next day, "compared with 6,400 and 10,000 on the same days a year earlier." The demand for flags was ten times what it had been during the Gulf War; flag manufacturers went overtime and doubled, tripled, or quintupled production.

The flags were physical evidence of the sudden and dramatic rise in the salience of national identity for Americans compared to their other identities, a transformation exemplified by the comment on October 1 of one young woman:

When I was 19, I moved to New York City.... If you asked me to describe myself then, I would have told you I was a musician, a poet, an artist and, on a somewhat political level, a woman, a lesbian and a Jew. Being an American wouldn't have made my list.

[In my college class Gender and Economics my] girlfriend and I were so frustrated by inequality in America that we discussed moving to another country. On Sept. 11, all that changed. I realized that I had been taking the freedoms I have here for granted. Now I have an American flag on my backpack, I cheer at the fighter jets as they pass overhead and I am calling myself a patriot.

Rachel Newman's words reflect the low salience of national identity for some Americans before September 11. Among some educated and elite Americans, national identity seemed at times to have faded from sight. Globalization, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, immigration, subnationalism, and anti-nationalism had battered American consciousness. Ethnic, racial, and gender identities came to the fore. In contrast to their predecessors, many immigrants were ampersands, maintaining dual loyalties and dual citizenships. A massive Hispanic influx raised questions concerning America's linguistic and cultural unity. Corporate executives, professionals, and Information Age technocrats espoused cosmopolitan over national identities. The teaching of national history gave way to the teaching of ethnic and racial histories. The celebration of diversity replaced emphasis on what Americans had in common. The national unity and sense of national identity created by work and war in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and consolidated in the world wars of the twentieth century seemed to be eroding. By 2000, America was, in many respects, less a nation than it had been for a century. The Stars and Stripes were at half-mast and other flags flew higher on the flagpole of American identities.

The challenges to the salience of American national identity from other-national, subnational, and transnational identities were epitomized in several events of the 1990s.

Other-National Identities. At a Gold Cup soccer game between Mexico and the United States in February 1998, the 91,255 fans were immersed in a "sea of red, white, and green flags"; they booed when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played; they "pelted" the U.S. players "with debris and cups of what might have been water, beer or worse"; and they attacked with "fruit and cups of beer" a few fans who tried to raise an American flag. This game took place not in Mexico City but in Los Angeles. "Something's wrong when I can't even raise an American flag in my own country," a U.S. fan commented, as he ducked a lemon going by his head. "Playing in Los Angeles is not a home game for the United States," a Los Angeles Times reporter agreed.

Past immigrants wept with joy when, after overcoming hardship and risk, they saw the Statue of Liberty; enthusiastically identified themselves with their new country that offered them liberty, work, and hope; and often became the most intensely patriotic of citizens. In 2000 the proportion of foreign-born was somewhat less than in 1910, but the proportion of people in America who were also loyal to and identified with other countries was quite possibly higher than at any time since the American Revolution.

Subnational Identities. In his book Race Pride and the American Identity, Joseph Rhea quotes the poetry recited at two presidential inaugurations. At President John F. Kennedy's in 1961, Robert Frost hailed the "heroic deeds" of America's founding that with God's "approval" ushered in "a new order of the ages":

Our venture in revolution and outlawry Has justified itself in freedom's story Right down to now in glory upon glory. America, he said, was entering a new "golden age of poetry and power."

Thirty-two years later, Maya Angelou recited a poem at President Bill Clinton's inauguration that conveyed a different image of America. Without ever mentioning the words "America" or "American," she identified twenty-seven racial, religious, tribal, and ethnic groups - Asian, Jewish, Muslim, Pawnee, Hispanic, Eskimo, Arab, Ashanti, among others - and denounced the immoral repression they suffered, as a result of America's "armed struggles for profit" and its "bloody sear" of "cynicism." America, she said, may be "wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness." Frost saw America's history and identity as glories to be celebrated and perpetuated. Angelou saw the manifestations of American identity as evil threats to the well-being and real identities of people with their subnational groups.

A similar contrast in attitudes occurred in a 1997 telephone interview by a New York Times reporter with Ward Connerly, then the leading proponent of an initiative measure in California prohibiting affirmative action by the state government. The following exchange occurred:

Reporter: "What are you?"

Connerly: "I am an American."

Reporter: "No, no, no! What are you?"

Connerly: "Yes, yes, yes! I am an American."

Reporter: "That is not what I mean. I was told that you are African American. Are you ashamed to be African American?"

Connerly: "No, I am just proud to be an American."

Connerly then explained that his ancestry included Africans, French, Irish, and American Indians, and the dialogue concluded:

Reporter: "What does that make you?"

Connerly: "That makes me all-American!"

In the 1990s, however, Americans like Rachel Newman did not respond to the question "What are you?" with Ward Connerly's passionate affirmation of his national identity. They instead articulated sub-national racial, ethnic, or gender identities, as the Times reporter clearly expected.

Transnational Identities. In 1996 Ralph Nader wrote to the chief executive officers of one hundred of the largest American corporations pointing to the substantial tax benefits and other subsidies (estimated at $65 billion a year by the Cato Institute) they received from the federal government and urging them to show their support for "the country that bred them, built them, subsidized them, and defended them" by having their directors open their annual stockholders meeting by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands. One corporation (Federated Department Stores) responded favorably; half the corporations never responded; others rejected it brusquely. The respondent for Ford explicitly claimed transnational identity: "As a multinational ... Ford in its largest sense is an Australian country in Australia, a British company in the United Kingdom, a German company in Germany." Aetna's CEO called Nader's idea "contrary to the principles on which our democracy was founded." Motorola's respondent condemned its "political and nationalistic overtones." Price Costco's CEO asked, "What do you propose next - personal loyalty oaths?" And Kimberly-Clark's executive asserted that it was "a grim reminder of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s."

Undoubtedly the vociferous reaction of American corporate leaders was in part because Nader had been hounding them for years and they could not resist the opportunity to castigate him as a latter-day Joe McCarthy. Yet they were not alone among American elites in downgrading or disavowing identification with their country. Prominent intellectuals and scholars attacked nationalism, warned of the dangers of inculcating national pride and commitment to America in students, and argued that a national identity was undesirable. Statements like these reflected the extent to which some people in American elite groups, business, financial, intellectual, professional, and even governmental, were becoming denationalized and developing transnational and cosmopolitan identities superseding their national ones. This was not true of the American public, and a gap consequently emerged between the primacy of national identity for most Americans and the growth of transnational identities among the controllers of power, wealth, and knowledge in American society.

September 11 drastically reduced the salience of these other identities and sent Old Glory back to the top of the national flag pole. Will it stay there? The seventeen flags on Charles Street declined to twelve in November, nine in December, seven in January, and five in March, and were down to four by the first anniversary of the attacks, four times the number pre-September 11 but also one-fourth of those displayed immediately afterward. As an index of the salience of national identity, did this represent a modified post-September 11 normalcy, a slightly revised pre-September 11 normalcy, or a new, post-post-September 11 normalcy? Does it take an Osama bin Laden, as it did for Rachel Newman, to make us realize that we are Americans? If we do not experience recurring destructive attacks, will we return to the fragmentation and eroded Americanism before September 11? Or will we find a revitalized national identity that is not dependent on calamitous threats from abroad and that provides the unity lacking in the last decades of the twentieth century?

Substance: Who Are We?

The post-September 11 flags symbolized America, but they did not convey any meaning of America. Some national flags, such as the tricolor, the Union Jack, or Pakistan's green flag with its star and crescent, say something significant about the identity of the country they represent. The explicit visual message of the Stars and Stripes is simply that America is a country that originally had thirteen and currently has fifty states. Beyond that, Americans, and others, can read into the flag any meaning they want. The post-September 11 proliferation of flags may well evidence not only the intensified salience of national identity to Americans but also their uncertainty as to the substance of that identity. While the salience of national identity may vary sharply with the intensity of external threats, the substance of national identity is shaped slowly and more fundamentally by a wide variety of long-term, often conflicting social, economic, and political trends. The crucial issues concerning the substance of American identity on September 10 did not disappear the following day.

"We Americans" face a substantive problem of national identity epitomized by the subject of this sentence. Are we a "we," one people or several? If we are a "we," what distinguishes us from the "thems" who are not us? Race, religion, ethnicity, values, culture, wealth, politics, or what? Is the United States, as some have argued, a "universal nation," based on values common to all humanity and in principle embracing all peoples? Or are we a Western nation with our identity defined by our European heritage and institutions? Or are we unique with a distinctive civilization of our own, as the proponents of "American exceptionalism" have argued throughout our history? Are we basically a political community whose identity exists only in a social contract embodied in the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents? Are we multicultural, bicultural, or unicultural, a mosaic or a melting pot? Do we have any meaningful identity as a nation that transcends our subnational ethnic, religious, racial identities? These questions remain for Americans in their post-September 11 era. They are in part rhetorical questions, but they are also questions that have profound implications for American society and American policy at home and abroad. In the 1990s Americans engaged in intense debates over immigration and assimilation, multiculturalism and diversity, race relations and affirmative action, religion in the public sphere, bilingual education, school and college curricula, school prayer and abortion, the meaning of citizenship and nationality, foreign involvement in American elections, the extraterritorial application of American law, and the increasing political role of diasporas here and abroad. Underlying all these issues is the question of national identity. Virtually any position on any one of these issues implies certain assumptions about that identity.

So also with foreign policy. The 1990s saw intense, wide-ranging, and rather confused debates over American national interests after the Cold War. Much of this confusion stemmed from the complexity and novelty of that world. Yet that was not the only source of uncertainty about America's role. National interests derive from national identity. We have to know who we are before we can know what our interests are.


© 2004 Samuel P. Huntington