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Individual Rights Define the American Identity

Niall Ferguson, the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Senior Faculty Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, discusses becoming an American, the definition of the American identity, and how a dynamic market economy assimilates immigrants.

Interview with Niall Ferguson, the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution February 23, 2021 //   15 minute read

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Senior Faculty Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. The historian has written extensively on issues related to immigration and national identity. The author of 16 books, he is also an award-winning documentarian and a Bloomberg columnist. Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Ferguson now holds both American and British citizenship. 

In this conversation with Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, Ferguson discusses his own process in becoming a dual citizen. The Oxford University graduate delves into the meaning of the American identity. And, among other issues, he explains how a dynamic market economy can assimilate immigrants.

Let’s start with this broad question: How do you define “we the people”?

The answer must be the adult citizens of the United States. That’s what's meant. And I underline citizens because citizenship is fundamental to the idea of a republic. 

“We the people” can't include people who are non-citizens, but it can include citizens abroad. The fundamental notion of a republic is inseparable from the notion of citizenship. And there must be a consensus about who is a citizen, as well as a formal legal definition.

How, then, do you create a common narrative in democracies that have a diverse population?

We know the answer to that. It's called American history. And what's remarkable about the history of the United States is that this problem has been solved again and again, even in defiance of critics and skeptics, who said it couldn't be.

The fundamental notion of a republic is inseparable from the notion of citizenship. And there must be a consensus about who is a citizen, as well as a formal legal definition.

In the 19th century, the republic saw great influxes of people who were not from the English-speaking countries of Great Britain and Ireland. That might have posed a challenge considering how deeply rooted the culture of the United States was in British culture and thinking. But despite all the fears that people had, especially in the late 19th century, about immigrants from Poland or southern Italy or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the assimilation of those different groups into the body politic was hugely successful.

That's continued to be true in the 20th century and into the 21st century. Again, there's been skepticism. But the United States has an amazing track record of turning people into Americans, no matter where they have come from. And the wider the geographical net has been cast, the more the system has continued to work. 

Now, you used the word narrative. I prefer history. We're really talking here about a historically- formed idea of what it is to be American, that defines our identity, not in terms of color, creed, or country of origin, but in terms of an oath to the Constitution.

Identity is constructed in the American case so that anybody can become an American. I became an American a couple of years ago, so I've been through this fascinating transformation. As I stood in a rather large and superannuated cinema in Oakland, California, I looked around and there were people from all over the world. The largest single group were, in fact, Chinese. And we all went through the same transformation into Americans. 

People born in the United States who don't go through this process take much of it for granted. They don't realize the magic that is almost unique to the United States, that you can become an American.

But the United States has an amazing track record of turning people into Americans, no matter where they have come from. And the wider the geographical net has been cast, the more the system has continued to work.

Those of us who've become Americans through naturalization actually have a better handle on the peculiar history of American citizenship. And I do wish that civics hadn't withered as it has withered in our education system. If it hadn't, maybe native-born Americans would understand this better.

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If you could, talk about the thought process you went through in moving from being a son of Scotland and a British citizen to an American. 

Because of a nice arrangement that exists between the United States and the United Kingdom, I didn't have to give up my British citizenship. So, I'm both British and American, which is a great combination, reflecting our common origins.

I didn't need to become an American citizen. I could have stayed as a British citizen with a green card entitling me to permanent residence here but not the right to vote. That struck me as anomalous. I certainly was paying my taxes here, but I wasn't a full participant in the democratic process. Taxation without representation is a bad idea.

In a recent lecture, you said that a sudden surge of immigration is a key contributor to the rise in populism, which we've seen not just in the United States, but in other places. So how can democratic societies both welcome immigrants and yet ease the fears that more immigrants will only change the culture of their country?

When you look back over American history, you quickly realize that it's not quite true to say that we've always been a nation of immigrants. The last great peak before our own time was in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the foreign-born population reached about 14% of the total. It fell steeply from that level in the mid-20th century, and only relatively recently have we gotten back up to around that 14% level. The key point is, in those periods when there has been large-scale migration, there has also been a reaction to it.

For example, the populism of the late 19th century, which produced the 1882 Exclusion Act against Chinese immigrants, has a lot in common with the populism of the Trump era. It combined a nativist desire to limit or even halt immigration with a suspicion of liberal elites and a preference for easy money. We have had a classic populist backlash to globalization now, just as happened after 1873. 

But populism has a relatively short half-life, partly because it tends not to deliver quite what its supporters hope for. If you look back in the late 19th century, populism ultimately fizzled out. 

In the debates about national identity in the early 20th century and mid-20th century, populists said that you can’t construct a national identity from a very diverse population. So, you have to reduce the diversity, which is in fact impossible. And the radical left said, "The only way we can hold this together is with the massive welfare state and a complex of entitlements." That’s wrong too, because history tells us that a dynamic free-market economy with easy access to the labor market and good access to education will do the assimilation much better than a European-style welfare state. 

We know this because of the European experience. Large-scale welfare states were built particularly after World War II. One consequence of those structures is that it's much harder for immigrants to get employed. The unemployment rate in northern Europe for non-native born workers is roughly double that of native-born workers. 

The answer to this question you raised is, get people into the economy, get them working, get their kids educated, and then you will find that assimilation happens more or less by itself. There is enough that is attractive about American culture for resistance to it to be pretty difficult. 

Building enclaves where traditional cultures hold out is what immigrants always try to do. But pretty quickly by the second generation, people have become American. That’s the way this works.

As long as we keep understanding our history, which we're not doing a good job of, we'll realize that this isn't so tricky and it doesn't require walls, and it doesn't require welfare states. The American way, with its extraordinary combination of individual freedom and patriotism based upon the Constitution, does the job.

In a free society how do people maintain an identity without weaponizing their racial, religious, ethnic, or national identity against someone else?

When I grew up in Glasgow in the 1970s, the most frightening question you could be asked by a boy bigger than you was, "What are you?" And "What are you?" was a coded question for, "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic? Are you a Rangers or a Celtic supporter?" That was the culture I grew up in, where sectarian divisions often spilled over into violence. 

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But this was absurd. Any visitor from another country couldn't tell a Rangers fan from a Celtic fan. Moving to England, which was the first of my migrations, I began to realize that identity couldn't possibly be so simplistic. I was certainly a Glaswegian and we have our own peculiar identity in Glasgow, but I was also a Scot and a Briton.

Then, on reflection, part of my childhood having been spent in Kenya, I was part of what was left of Britain's Empire. And my identity in religious terms was complicated because my parents had left the Church of Scotland in protest against sectarianism. 

So, the more one unpacks one's own identity, the more one realizes that it can't be simply defined. And the key thing that we have gotten wrong, particularly in the universities in the last 20 or so years, is that we bought into notions of identity that are very absolute. They produce a ranking of people by their minority status, by how much historical mistreatment a particular minority has experienced.

Sorting people into distinct ethnic or other identity silos is completely the wrong way to think about identity. Rather, we should recognize that each individual has a curious kaleidoscopic identity – that identity depends on family circumstances, on place of birth, on things over which we have absolutely no control, even sexual orientation.

We need to remind ourselves that the core animating idea of the United States is that “we the people” are a collection of individuals and our individual liberties set the United States apart from its geopolitical rivals. They invariably attach more importance to collective rights than to individual rights. And that's as true today, as we face China as a strategic rival, as it was when we faced the Soviet Union or, for that matter, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. 

Sorting people into distinct ethnic or other identity silos is completely the wrong way to think about identity. Rather, we should recognize that each individual has a curious kaleidoscopic identity.

What makes the United States distinctive is the emphasis on the individual's rights. And that includes the individual's right to choose and shape his or her own identity. It's not set in stone. There’s nowhere in the world quite like the United States for allowing you to develop your identity in whichever direction you wish to go. And that's the key idea for me. 

How might leaders in democratic societies create the kind of culture you're talking about, where ethnicity is not used as a weapon against someone else or another group of people? 

The most important thing that a leader can do is make clear that he or she can identify with all citizens and can recognize that all citizens have a common claim to American values and rights. A president should not attach any special importance to his ethnic or religious or other origins. 

The trick is to have at least an attempt at universalism. Don’t go overboard with woke notions of identity. Rather, say that all Americans are equal before the law, regardless of their origins or their religious orientation. A fundamental equality before the law defines this country, as well as the idea of individual over collective right.

How would you take what you were just talking about and apply it to the situation in Europe? Some of these challenges have been acute there.

The European problem isn't entirely different from the American problem. But there has been much larger-scale immigration from Muslim-majority countries into Europe than into the United States. Those Muslim-majority countries instill in people who grow up in them ideas that are quite at odds with the ideas of Western societies. For example, the equality of the sexes is not something that is enshrined in Islam. This has been and still is a huge challenge for European countries.

How do you get societies that once saw diversity as a threat to their national identity to see diversity instead as an advantage?

If you look at global surveys, the United States is much more inclined to see diversity as an advantage than almost any other country. The U.S. is still comparatively one of the most tolerant countries of diversity. 

What makes the United States distinctive is the emphasis on the individual's rights. And that includes the individual's right to choose and shape his or her own identity. It's not set in stone.

There’s been something of a backlash against the notion of diversity in the last few years, as part of that populist backlash that I talked about earlier. But the problem has been the way in which the left has sought to weaponize the issue of identity in its own way. This is potentially a huge tactical mistake. It underestimates the extent to which people choose their political affiliations in the United States and the way they choose other things. They're not baked, as it were, in the cake of one’s country of origin.

The good news is that the American electorate doesn't behave as those two different models imply. We are wonderfully confusing and perplexing.

 

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