Donald Trump, during a recent stop on his “Anarchy in the UK” tour, argued that the mass influx of immigrants into Europe is causing Great Britain and other nations to “lose their culture.” The fear of cultural dilution and transformation as a consequence of shifting demographics is widespread, and it resonates in the United States, too, especially among those who support the current president.
Stephen Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and other popular right-wing figures have warned of threats to national identity in an American context, contending that Mexicans will not assimilate and that Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy and secular governance. Liberals and libertarians often respond by recalling the long tradition of assimilation in American history, along with the outrage that often accompanies new arrivals. Nearly every ethnic group, from the Italians to the Chinese, has been the target of political and social hostility. It is an old story, but one worth telling, and it is an old debate, but one worth having. Border sovereignty, even to someone like me who probably favors more liberal immigration laws than most TAC readers, is a legitimate issue and not to be easily dismissed.
The current conversation about traditionalism, national identity, and cultural preservation, however, is so narrow to render it counterproductive and oblivious. For those truly worried about the conservation of traditional culture, to focus solely, or even primarily, on immigration is the equivalent of a gunshot victim rushing to the barber for a haircut.
Rather than asking whether American culture is at risk of ruination, it is more salient to inquire, after decades of commercialization, Madison Avenue advertising onslaughts, the erasure of regional differences, and the “Bowling Alone” collapse of community, whether America even has a culture.
In 2004, the historian Walter McDougall concluded that as early as the Civil War, America was a “nation of hustlers.” During Reconstruction, Walt Whitman wrote that “genuine belief” seemed to have left America. “The underlying principles of the States,” Whitman said, “are not honestly believed in, nor is humanity itself believed in.”
Prophesizing with his pen that democratic structures and procedures would prove insufficient to cultivate a truly democratic culture, Whitman likened the American obsession with commercial conquest and pecuniary gain to a “magician’s serpent that ate up all the other serpents.” Americans, Whitman warned, were dedicating themselves to creating a “thoroughly-appointed body with no soul.”
When Whitman wrote the essay in question—“Democratic Vistas”—the United States had open borders and immigrants freely entered the “new world” for reasons of freedom and financial ambition. Even if they attended churches in their native languages and lived in ethnic enclaves, they often found that they could matriculate into the mainstream of Americana through pursuit of the “American dream,” that is, hope for monetary triumph. Accumulation of capital is the dominant, even definitional, American idea, which is why Calvin Coolidge famously remarked, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Capitalism is a formidable engine, enabling society to advance and allowing for high standards of living. But to construct an entire culture around what Coolidge identified as “buying, selling, investing, and prospering,” especially when capitalism becomes corporate and cronyist, is to steadily empty a culture of its meaning and purpose.
Few were as celebratory over the potential for meaning and purpose in American culture as Whitman, who drew profound inspiration from America’s natural beauty and regional diversity. So what force was most responsible for the widespread desecration of America’s own Garden of Eden? All arguments about immigration aside, changing demographics did not transform the country into the planetary capital of asphalt and replace its rich terrain with the endless suburban sprawl of office complexes, strip malls, and parking lots. The reduction of the American character to a giant Walmart and the mutation of the American landscape, outside of metropolitan areas, to the same cloned big box stores and corporate chains is not a consequence of immigration.
The degradation of the American arts and the assault on history and civics in public school and even higher education curricula is not the result of immigrants flooding American streets. Amy Chua has argued quite the opposite when it comes to America’s increasingly imbecilic and obscene pop culture. Many immigrant families try to keep their children away from the influence of reality television, the anti-intellectual reverence for celebrities, and the vigilant commercialization of every aspect of life.
The same cultural killer is responsible for all the assaults on American identity visible as daily routine, from environmental destruction to the endangerment of independent retailers and “mom and pop” shops. That culprit is corporate capitalism. It is a large entity that, like any killer, justifies its death toll with dogmatic claims of ideology. “Progress,” everyone from the owner of the local diner to the out-of-work art teacher is told, has no room for you.
In his song “The West End,” John Mellencamp gives an angry account of the disappearance of a small town:
For my whole life
I’ve lived down in the West End
But it sure has changed here
Since I was a kid
It’s worse now
Look what progress did
Someone lined their pockets
I don’t know who that is
Progress, as Mellencamp succinctly captures in song, often comes at someone else’s expense, and translates to enrichment for the few who benefit.
Christopher Lasch had a slightly more prosaic way of measuring the pain of progress. “The triumph of corporate capitalism,” he wrote, “has created a society characterized by a high degree of uniformity, which nevertheless lacks the cohesiveness and sense of shared experience that distinguish a truly integrated community from an atomistic society.”
The irony Lasch describes is tragic. A culture of corporate capitalism demands conformity, and most people cooperate. But because its center is hollow, few people feel any sense of connection to each other, even as they parrot the same values. It is no wonder that most forms of rebellion in the United States are exhibitions of stylized individualism—inspiring theater and often enlivening to observe, but politically fruitless.
Rather than a “marketplace of ideas,” the United States is a mere marketplace, and just like at any store in the shopping mall, whatever fails to sell is removed from the shelves. Today’s trend is tomorrow’s garbage.
Those concerned about tradition and cultural longevity can lament immigration and condemn “open borders.” But if they are serious about American identity, they should begin and end with the villainous corporate enterprise that has waged war on it since the late 19th century.