President Donald Trump routinely calls the media “the enemy of the American people,” and his view seems to have currency in his party. In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Republicans said that the freedom of the press “to criticize politicians” was “very important” to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States. In other 2017 surveys, more than half of Trump supporters said the president “should be able to overturn decisions by judges that he disagrees with,” and more than half of Republicans said they would support postponing the 2020 presidential election if Trump proposed delaying it “until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote.” If these views became reality, that would be the end of constitutional democracy as we know it.
The problem runs deeper still. Since the 2004 publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We?—which argued that America’s “Anglo-Protestant” identity and culture are threatened by large-scale Hispanic immigration—there have been calls on the mainstream right to define America’s national identity in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, whether as white, European, or Judeo-Christian. According to a 2016 survey commissioned by the bipartisan Democracy Fund, 30 percent of Trump voters think European ancestry is “important” to “being American”; 56 percent of Republicans and a full 63 percent of Trump supporters said the same of being Christian. This trend runs counter to the Constitution’s foundational ideal: an America where citizens are citizens, regardless of race or religion; an America whose national identity belongs to no one tribe.
As professors specializing in constitutional law and comparative politics, we’re often asked whether there’s another country that could serve as a model for the United States as it attempts to overcome its divisions. We always respond no—America is the best model.
For all its flaws, the United States is uniquely equipped to unite a diverse and divided society. Alone among the world powers, America has succeeded in forging a strong group-transcending national identity without requiring its citizens to shed or suppress their subgroup identities. In the United States, you can be Irish American, Syrian American, or Japanese American, and be intensely patriotic at the same time. We take this for granted, but consider how strange it would be to call someone “Irish French” or “Japanese Chinese.”
Most European and all East Asian countries originated as, and continue to be, ethnic nations, whose citizens are overwhelmingly composed of a particular ethnic group supplying the country’s name as well as its national language and dominant culture. Strongly ethnic nations, such as China and Hungary, tend to be less embracing of minority cultures. But even a diverse, multiethnic democracy like France differs markedly from the United States. France has a powerful national identity but insists that its ethnic and religious minorities thoroughly assimilate, at least publicly. (Many believe that France’s attempts to force assimilation, including its infamous “burkini” ban, have backfired with the country’s Muslims, contributing to social unrest and radicalization.) As former French President Nicolas Sarkozy put it in 2016, “If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French, and you don’t try and change a way of life that has been ours for so many years.”
America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.
There are lessons here for both the left and the right. The right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. If millions of people believe that, because of their skin color or religion, they are not treated equally, how can they be expected to see the Constitution’s resounding principles as anything but hollow?
For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying that America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying that those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. They were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what would become the most inclusive form of governance in world history.
This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “The Threat of Tribalism.”