Relocations: Defining the nation

August 4, 2022

‘African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans’ (Mitch McConnell at a press conference June 19, 2022)

By Herbert Rothschild

In “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum concentrates primarily on four nations. Two of them, Poland and Hungary, have already forfeited the democracies they adopted after the end of Soviet control. The other two, England and the United States, in her view are headed in the same direction.

Herbert Rothschild

At the heart of these cases, Applebaum says, are the questions, how is the nation defined and who gets to define it? One leading definition is the “native folk” — those who lay claim to being the true countrymen — versus “aliens.” The other leading definition is a distinctive history and character and values that anyone residing within the nation’s borders might claim and embody.

Given that the three European countries Applebaum discusses can plausibly think of themselves as having “native” populations, that first definition is readily available to their residents. But in the case of our country, it wouldn’t seem to be. One reason is that, to the extent there are any people who can claim to be natives, namely those we now usually call Native Americans, they are too few in number and too marginalized to succeed in claiming any power their native status might confer. Indeed, they weren’t even given citizenship status until 1924. Another reason is that the waves of immigration from other lands have never stopped, so that, every few decades, those who were newcomers become “natives.”

Notwithstanding these historical realities, Applebaum’s questions are as relevant to what the U.S. is now experiencing as they are to the three European nations. People like me may say to those who stigmatize immigrants at our southern border that we are all immigrants, but that observation has no effect. Somehow, groups find ways to think of themselves as native and others as alien.

In the 1840s, the Irish accounted for half of all immigrants to the U.S. They increased enormously the number of Catholics in this country, and their religion furnished the main pretext for regarding them as less than American. Jews had immigrated to the U.S. prior to 1880, but between 1880 and 1914 our numbers increased eight-fold, adding another two million to the quarter million already here. In our case as well, religious prejudice had a field day. Anti-Catholicism no longer has much currency in the U.S., and anti-Semitism has abated (although it never dies), but Muslim immigration has given new legs to a nativism based on religious differences.

Prejudice based on national origin, principally by western and northern Europeans against southern and eastern Europeans as well as those from other continents, was at one time also a staple of nativist narratives. That bias was built into the landmark Immigration Act of 1924, which practically slammed shut “the golden door.”

But the most frequent basis for deeming some Americans as American and some others as Other is race. Regarding African Americans that way is particularly ironic, first because they were originally brought in chains to this country, second because the ancestors of almost all blacks now living here arrived before the ancestors of most whites who claim to be natives.

In the place and time in which I grew up, blacks were a very large underclass with no power to define America. But the possibility that they would come to have a say was always on the minds of white Southerners. So, they were denied their voices throughout Dixie by disenfranchisement, economic subordination, legal segregation and terror. Northern and Midwestern whites weren’t as alert to the possibility that peoples of color would challenge their monopoly on defining America, so a much smaller percentage of them used to define the U.S. in terms of race. They mostly thought of America in terms of the ideals enshrined in our founding documents and our history as a land of opportunity and a global defender of freedom.

But their monopoly has been broken. With Americans of European ancestry rapidly losing majority status, America as a melting pot (which was meant to produce, if not WASPs, at least people who wouldn’t challenge WASP hegemony) has been replaced by America as a collection of peoples who proudly own their racial and ethnic identities and their place in U.S. history. That demographic collectivity can only be bound together by a shared character and values. Even a shared history may no longer be an option, because those hitherto suppressed voices are insisting that we revisit, and revise, the morally triumphant narratives on which white Americans were breast-fed.

In sum, all of America is now facing the choice that the pre-Civil Rights South faced — either we will commit to an identity based on character and values and a chastened history of both embodying and betraying that character and those values, or we will impose by force an identity that is white and Christian and elected by God to lead the world in His paths.  

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Email him at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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