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Michael Anton’s Defense of Civic Nationalism

[1]2,300 words

Michael Anton is one of a handful of American conservative intellectuals who is pro-Trump, pro-nationalist, and pro-populist. He is the author of the much-discussed 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election [2].” For a time, he was a national security official in the Trump administration. His new book, The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return [3] is a powerful case for re-electing Donald Trump as the last chance to avoid America’s decline into a one-party Leftist banana republic like California.

There’s a lot to say about Anton’s book. Part of his agenda is to respond to the concerns of people to his Right, including White Nationalists like me. He has clearly done his homework. He approvingly cites Sam Francis’ concept of anarcho-tyranny, notes that the Spanish missionary founders of California were “ethno-nationalistic,” dismisses political “LARPing,” talks about the distinction between “high-trust” and “low-trust” societies, and devotes a good chunk of his second chapter to defending civic nationalism from critics on the Right (without, however, naming the critics). I want to focus on this defense of civic nationalism. I’ll discuss his case for Trump in another article.

Civic nationalism is the idea that a racially, ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and religiously diverse collection of people can be unified into a functional society simply by adherence—or professed adherence—to a common civic creed, like “Americanism.” In Anton’s words:

“Civic nationalism” . . . is the idea that a shared commitment to common citizenship—typically including principles, ideas, goals, and a body of laws, above all a constitution—can be a sufficient basis for binding a people together even absent ties of kinship, ethnicity, language, religion, or tradition. (p. 62)

Anton thinks there is something “beautiful and noble” about human beings from diverse backgrounds “coming together to work toward a shared goal” (p. 62). So why not structure a polity that way? This argument overlooks a crucial distinction between what Michael Oakeshott calls “civil association” and “enterprise association.” Enterprise associations are directed toward common ends. Civil association is how people live together while pursuing different ends. If you are putting together a team to blow up the enemy’s bridge or win a spelling bee, why not have a color-blind meritocracy?

I am not a classical liberal. I believe that the common good of a society is a meaningful idea and the foundation of political legitimacy. I also believe that there are circumstances, such as wars and disasters, when everybody needs to pitch in for the common good.

But there’s more to living together than pursuing common goals, and if people are unified only by common goals, then when they pursue private interests, what is to prevent a sharp-elbowed scramble for advantage that ends up in Hobbes’ war of all against all? Obviously, if people are to pursue divergent ends in peace and harmony, they need to have something else in common. The more they have in common, the better, including race, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, etc.

Anton argues that the American Founders were civic nationalists because they recognized the necessity of constructing a “new common political identity after deliberately throwing off the only such identity Americans had every known: subjects of the English Crown” (p. 63). I object to the idea that American identity had previously amounted to mere subjection to the British Crown. The Founders had a much thicker conception of American identity, as John Jay points out in a passage from The Federalist No. 2 quoted by Anton:

. . . Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. (pp. 63–64)

The Founders did not think that the American people was a construct of the Constitution. The Constitution—like the various declarations of independence, state constitutions, and the Articles of Confederation before it—was a construct of the American people, an experiment in self-government. The American Revolution and Constitution became necessary because a distinct American people had already emerged on this continent over more than 150 years, and it wanted to govern itself.

Anton points out that while the founders’ America was “far more homogeneous than it is today, it was also far from monolithic.” Not all Americans came from the British Isles, for instance. Yes, but many such groups had already intermarried and assimilated with Anglo-Americans. And the unassimilable groups like Jews and Anabaptists were too few and too small to present any problems.

Anton goes on to say that because of America’s diversity, “some basis for common American citizenship other that shared ethnicity or faith had to be found—not to replace either but to bolster, support, and extend them” (p. 65). This is good, insofar as Anton seems to recognize that diversity in one area is never an argument for more diversity. In fact, it is an argument for even more zealously holding on to what is common. All forms of diversity—racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural—are political problems that need to be managed. The fact that America had diversity from the start is not an argument for borrowing trouble.

Anton continues:

The founders did not intend civic nationalism to take the place of any greater sense of fellow feeling based on a common American identity. To the contrary, they well knew that a defining task of the young country would be to create such fellow feeling to take the former colonists and make them into a new nation, the “Americans.” Mere fealty to principle or parchment—to abstractions—would not suffice. To truly become one people and survive—and thrive—as a nation, Americans would have to develop the same sense of inner kinship, loyalty, and sameness that defines the English or French our countless other peoples—but without the benefit of centuries or even millennia of proximity and shared experience whose beginnings are forgotten in the mists of time. (p. 65)

I find this all very puzzling. This reads like an attack on civic nationalism—“Mere fealty to principle or parchment—to abstractions—would not suffice”—rather than a defense. Where we differ is that I think that the process of ethnogenesis Anton discusses had already largely taken place by the time of the founding. English, Scottish, Welsh, Swedish, German, Irish, and Dutch stocks had already largely merged into a single people. Yes, Americans were attached to their states in ways that seem odd to us now. Yes, there was the regional difference between North and South, free and slave states, that would fracture America in a few generations. There were Jews and Anabaptists who held themselves aloof from the mainstream. There were black slaves and Indian tribes. But at the center of it was an American people.

One root of our disagreement may be definitional. When Anton speaks of ethnicities, he speaks only of Old-World ethnic groups, for instance, English, Scottish, Irish, Italians. When he speaks of “Americans,” he seems to speak of a civic identity. But I argue in “American Ethnic Identity [4]” that Americans are a distinct ethnic group, derived from European roots to be sure—since American has always been a “normatively white” identity—but blended into a new people with a language (American English), customs, and consciousness different from both England and other Anglo colonial peoples with similar origins, e.g., Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. Furthermore, this ethnic identity was already real before the creation of the United States, and it proved capable of assimilating progressively more heterogeneous European stocks.

Indeed, the only way in which it makes sense to speak about the “construction” of an American or a “civic” identity is in terms of immigration and naturalization laws. But that is not a matter of creating a new people. It is about incorporating strangers into an already-existing nation.

Everybody recognizes that societies can absorb foreigners, but genuine assimilation is difficult. Indeed, it is only possible if the immigrants are already quite similar. This is why the Naturalization Act of 1790 offered citizenship only to “free white person[s] . . . of good character” who had resided in the United States for at least two years and who were willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution.

Obviously, such an oath was only the beginning of an immigrant’s journey to becoming part of the American people. Indeed, the very concept of “naturalization” indicates that being a part of a society is more than just a matter of conventions. It is a process of incorporation into a new biological and cultural community, a process that only really comes to fruition in the children of immigrants who are born and raised in America. But only if they are raised as Americans.

It is the height of folly to think that one can maintain the civic creed but remove all other criteria of citizenship, but this is exactly what was done when immigration and naturalization were opened to all the races of the world and the United States embraced multiculturalism which is the opposite of assimilationism. If all it takes to be an American now is swearing an oath to a civic creed, what does that mean when we allow in Muslims, whose religion prohibits secular constitutions but commands lying and oath-breaking as tools of jihad?

The only reason a society would entertain the idea of a purely civic unity is if it has lost or thrown away its racial, cultural, and religious homogeneity and is grasping at straws to prevent itself from dissolving completely. However, when such a society is stress-tested–like America is being today–it does not have the cohesion to survive.

To his credit, Anton sees many of the problems of civic nationalism.

In his section on “Limits of Civic Nationalism,” he argues that just because the Founders spoke of universal natural rights, “any social compact, and hence any political community, is inherently particular” (p. 67). All men might have rights, but that does not mean that all men have the right to be Americans. Furthermore, “Because mutual consent is an indispensable foundation of political legitimacy, membership in the political community must be invitation only” (p. 68). Uninvited “immigrants” are simply invaders and should be treated as such.

Anton also argues that “equal natural rights do not demand a single regime type for all mankind. On the contrary, form must always fit matter” (p. 68), meaning that American democracy is not a good fit for some peoples, which is a rebuke to “invade the world” neoconservative democracy-builders.

By the same token, some foreign matter does not fit the American form:

while the incorporation of newcomers into the social compact is possible and even salutary in certain circumstances, great care must be taken in selecting whom to admit. Our founders knew that stability in any society requires a measure of commonality in customs, habits, and opinions. Thus the prioritized assimilation . . . Our founders also knew that the greater the distance—be it cultural, linguistic, historical, or religious—between native and immigrant, the more difficult assimilation is. There is no assimilative magic bullet that can take millions from anywhere and everywhere and instantly transform them into a different people. (p. 70)

Of course even if there were such an assimilative magic bullet, firing it goes against the whole point of multiculturalism.

Anton simply steps over the founders’ “free white person[s]” clause. But given how wise he thinks the founders were on other matters, perhaps he should have paused to consider its merits. As I argue in “What’s Wrong with Diversity? [5]” scientists like J. Philippe Rushton and Frank Salter have argued convincingly that the deepest source of social harmony is genetic similarity. An appreciation of genetic similarity theory would immensely strengthen Anton’s case against “invite the world” immigration policies.

Anton also argues that “when it comes to admitting new members to the social compact, numbers are of the essence. The large the influx, the more disruptive the process” (p. 70). Assimilation is possible, rarely, with difficulty, and with small numbers. Dispensing with assimilationist policies and opening the borders to all comers is simply national suicide.

Anton sums up his defense of civic nationalism by saying:

For the founders, the purpose of civic nationalism was not to erase or replace ties of kinship and commonality but to create and augment them. Their goal was to meld together a population not necessarily descended from the same ancestors or professing exactly the same religion and to ensure that they all spoke the same language, were attached to the same principles of government, practiced their faiths freely and without sectarian strife, and were or would become similar in manners and customs. If the precise circumstances Jay described in Federalist No. 2 were never strictly true, the goal of all immigration and naturalization law should be to approximate as closely as possible that idea.

That, in a nutshell, is “civic nationalism.” Not “Anyone who yesterday embarked at JFK or snuck across the border at Nogales is every bit as American—even more so—than a Daughter of the American Revolution.” (p. 71)

At this point, I feel that our only disagreement is verbal. For what Anton defends as “civic nationalism” is in substance indistinguishable from what I would describe as an American ethnonationalism with a selective and assimilationist naturalization policy. And what Anton rejects is, in substance, the civic nationalist consensus of the whole political establishment. Thus if Anton’s arguments can convince normie conservatives to make the jump to his version of civic nationalism, he will make our work a whole lot easier.

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