Saturday, July 24, 2004

Huntington on the Anti-American Left

A few months ago Samuel Huntington released a paper, which only recently came to my attention, entitled Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite. (I believe that highlights, underlines, and inflamatory comments in brackets were added by whoever posted it there. It was the only place I could find the full text on the internet.) In it he argues that American elites have become increasingly isolated from popular opinion on the subject of America's national identity, and, absurdly, that in doing so, their souls have died. It's a paper that contains a lot of data and raises many interesting points, but makes far too many broad-reaching, unsupported, and unintuitive assertions.

Huntington identifies three main categories of denationalized elites. There is the universalist who believes that America has become the universal nation and that all other societies have become, or are in the process of becoming, Americanized. This, to me, sounds a bit like neo-con philosophy. There is the economist who sees transnational business transcending and usurping national governments. And the moralist who believes international systems are morally superior to national systems. Into this group Huntington lumps intellectuals, academics, and journalists. While two of these three groups (the universal and the economic) appear to be substantially or primarily conservative, Huntington zeroes in on the unpatriotic left for most of the rest of the paper.

Some of the more interesting content in the article is in the "Unrepresentative Democracy" section, where Huntington surveys various polls that show large gaps between highly educated American elites (including policy leaders) and the public on a variety of foreign policy topics. He makes a convincing case that the public is considerably more isolationist, protectionist, and, interestingly, pacifist than the nation's political leadership.

In terms of interacting with the world, Huntington writes that the US is faced with three options: they can open themselves to other cultures and peoples, they can try to remake other cultures and peoples in our own image, or we can strive to maintain our own distinct culture. The first, he says, would lead to the replacement of national identity by other cultural and economic identities. In the second, America loses its national identity to become the "dominant component of a supranational empire". Only the third will maintain America's national identity.

Huntingon then proceeds to define what exactly America's national identity is, which I imagine is quite similar to what he has written in his recent book Who Are We? on the topic of immigration. According to Huntington the core of the American identity is that we are Anglo-Protestant with a strong religious commitment. He makes the case, similar to the book excerpt published in Foreign Policy Magazine, that previous immigrants have been assimilated and compelled to adapt to this Anglo-Protestant culture. Should this culture be lost, he warns, America will no longer be America.

I find this all rather confusing as Huntington fails to ground his basic values and assumptions with any compelling arguments. Besides the historical argument that America has, in fact, had an Anglo-Protestant culture, Huntington makes no arguments as to why this as opposed to, say a capitalist-democratic value system, is the core of the American identity. Nor does he make any substantial argument as to the inherent value of nationalism, although his language makes clear that he thinks there is one. Huntington also spends some time establishing how much political participation has declined in the US, only to make the completely unsupported assertion that the national identity gap between the public and politicians is a primary cause for this decline. And finally, although he repeatedly makes reference to the denationalized elite having lost their souls, he never gives any explanation as to what he means by this. Some of these lapses may be due to the limitations of the format, but if so, perhaps he should have set more modest goals for this paper which could have been accomplished within the bounds of the format.

Additionally the paper is filled with infuriating cheap-shots and inconsistencies. Some of his broad generalizations as to the intentions of moral transnationals, such as the desire to replace federal and state laws with a customary international law "not set forth in either statutes or treaties", appear to me to be the opinion of a small subset of moral transnationals, but Huntington is quite content to attribute these views to the group as a whole. Of course, he contradicts that position by asserting that the same group promotes the creation of institutions like the International Criminal Court, which it's true would supercede national laws, but would do so under a specific set of statutes laid out in the treaty. Similarly at one point Huntington attacks the moral transnationals for promoting actions taken through international systems such as the UN as being superior to those of individual nations. At another point Huntington contradicts this by stating that transnationals have a much higher preference towards the US acting alone (as opposed to acting with support from allies) in international crises than the public. At another spot, Huntington takes a shot at liberals by implying that they crassly use patriotism to achieve their own ends. In view of the last few years, to target such criticism at liberals seems ironic. There's a bit of irony as well in the poll numbers Huntington presents answering whether various people would be willing to fight for America. Whites scores much higher in their responses than blacks or hispanics. I would bet that the demographics of the US military would show the opposite trend. Huntington levels the charge that the end of the Cold War allowed liberals to engage in foreign policy goals such as nation building, as he calls it "foreign policy as social work" which compromised national security. But is our national security not most threatened by failed states, precisely the sort of states targeted by "foreign policy as social work"? It seems to me that the foreign policy objectives of liberals have been vindicated by the current security climate, and now even the consummate anti-nation builder, George Bush, has been forced to recant. Near the end, Huntington presents the absurd, but unfortunately common, idea that because America is a nation with stronger religious tendencies than other nations, its actions are more moral.

In all, it is an unfortunately weak effort by Huntington. However, while it is almost certainly the most shoddy piece I've read by him, it does share tendencies I've observed in his other writing. He does an excellent job of finding interesting topics, and finding strong research points to set the table for an insightful discussion. Unfortunately, all to often he abandons that discussion before it even starts to launch an unsupported attack on liberals.

Certainly there are points worth discussing here. I agree with Huntington's thesis that elites, academics, and intellectuals are becoming less nationalist over time. I'm willing to buy his assertion that this is opening up a gap between them and popular sentiment on nationalist issues. A fascinating discussion could be had as to the merits of the various views of the transnationalists and in analyzing why the sentiments of the public have not changed along with those of the elites. On the topic of national identity, what exactly is it that has made America great, and why? Where are the cultural boundaries beyond which we might see our greatness decline? Are there ways in which our culture might be improved or are we supposing that its historical state has been ideal? Huntington seemed to be approaching many of these points in his paper, but each time, at the last moment, diverted into something far less interesting or relevant. Well, at least he has provided some food for thought.

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