Abraham Lincoln used to say that the test of one’s Americanism was not one’s family tree; the test of one’s Americanism was how much one believed in America. Because we’re like a religion really. A secular religion. We believe in ideas and ideals. We’re not one race, we’re many; we’re not one ethnic group, we’re everyone; we’re not one language, we’re all of these people. So what ties us together? We’re tied together by our belief in political democracy, in religious freedom, in capitalism, a free economy where people make their own choices about the spending of their money. We’re tied together because we respect human life, and because we respect the rule of law.
Those are the ideas that make us Americans. And those are the ideas that I leaned on when it was time to lead, both after September 11 and long before.
This is a useful quote. Giuliani begins by rejecting, as liberal moderns do, the traditional basis for a national identity, namely a shared ethnicity.
Why reject a shared ethnicity? Part of the reason, as I've argued before, is that there is a strand of liberalism based on the principle that to be fully human we must be self-defining.
Ethnicity isn't something we can define for ourselves. It's something that we're born into, that we inherit. Therefore, it has come to have negative connotations within liberalism, as something limiting or restricting to the individual.
If, though, ethnicity is thought to be illegitimate as a basis for national identity, what is to replace it?
According to Giuliani, an American identity is to be based not on ethnicity, but on ideas and ideals. In particular, it is to be based on the ideals of democracy, religious freedom, free market capitalism, respect for human life and respect for the law.
So is this a realistic replacement for a traditional nationalism? I think there are reasons to believe it isn't. I'll let Lawrence Auster explain one important defect in Giuliani's model of national identity:
having told us the things that don’t make us Americans, he tells us the things that do make us Americans: belief in democracy, freedom, capitalism, and rule of law. But other countries believe in those things too. So how is America different from those other countries? If a person in, say, India believes in democracy, freedom, capitalism, and rule of law, how is he any less an American than you or I or George Washington? And how are we any more American than that Indian? Giuliani has removed everything particular and concrete about America and defined America as a universal belief system, not a country.
The Giuliani view of what makes someone American potentially makes everyone an American. This has a number of consequences. First, it means that being an American is not such a distinctive thing. There can be (and are) many different countries claiming much the same basis for their identity.
Second, it means that being an American is not really a "national" thing - it's not about being part of a nation, since the ideals defining Americanism exist in many different places.
Third, the Giuliani view makes the concept of a "nation" unstable. It is likely to lead to an open borders policy, in which the existing population is tranformed by mass immigration, as anyone can be thought of as successfully adopting an American identity.
Similarly, there is nothing to fix the borders of America. If Canada or Mexico were sufficiently committed to a free market, democracy and the rule of law, then there's no reason, under the terms set out by Giuliani, why these countries shouldn't merge into a larger entity.
(If you think this is an unlikely consequence, think of what is happening with the European Union, or even the proposal to set up a Pacific Union comprising Australia, New Zealand, PNG and a dozen smaller Pacific nations.)
The Giuliani view of national identity has other dangers. In effect, Giuliani is defining America as a political ideal. Politics, therefore, rises above its natural place, and becomes, as Giuliani himself puts it, a kind of secular religion.
The casting of politics as secular religion hasn't had a happy history. It tends to lead to mistaken attempts to impose abstract political ideals on unwilling recipients. Politics becomes the primary morality by which we are supposed to live, and (if understood to be universal) by which others are supposed to live.
Finally, I doubt if people really feel as closely tied together by a shared commitment to political democracy as they are by ethnicity.
The depth of a traditional identity has been described by Professor West of Suffolk College as follows:
... the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it.
The Canadian liberal Michael Ignatieff has conceded that this "psychology of belonging" of traditional nationalism has "greater depth" than its modern, civic replacement.
Similarly, two academics from the University of Melbourne, Brian Gallagan and Winsome Roberts, have written a book titled Australian Citizenship in which they describe an Australian identity defined solely in terms of shared political institutions and values as "hollow, lacking in cultural richness and human content."
Similarly they complain of,
an empty and flaccid citizenship based on abstract principles that lack the inspirational power to represent what it means to be Australian.
So, if you think through the Giuliani concept of identity, it doesn't hold. It can't adequately define a nation which is distinct and stable in its character or deep in its identity.
It cannot successfully replace what came before.
What happened to nationalism?
A hollow identity?