Culture matters—and it matters quite a lot. This is the recurring theme within the new movement of “national conservatives” attempting to reshape the American right. One of their most controversial thinkers is the University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who recently drew controversy by saying the United States should consider “cultural distance” in deciding which immigrants to admit or reject.
The premise, as Wax put it during the inaugural national conservatism conference earlier this month, is that “many, indeed most, inhabitants of the Third World don’t necessarily share our ideas and beliefs; others pay lip service, but don’t really comprehend them. There are exceptions, of course, but most people are not exceptional.” Based on that premise, she concludes that “embracing cultural distance, cultural-distance nationalism, means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites. Well, that is the result anyway.”
Yet Wax is making a major assumption: that people from European countries hold the same “ideas and beliefs” Americans do. When President Donald Trump states a preference for Norwegian immigrants over those from developing countries, he is—by a very charitable reading of his remarks—presuming the same thing. Yet there are two basic problems with this assumption: First, Americans don’t even agree on what American culture is. Second, the United States and European democracies have historically defined their national cultures in rather different ways.
Since Wax’s remarks became public, other conservatives have defended her against accusations of prejudice. Yet the debate over whether what she said technically qualifies as racist obscures the bigger issue: What she said was incoherent, even on its own terms.
In European democracies, the idea that immigration presents unique challenges for cultural solidarity has the attraction of being somewhat coherent. There is something called “Danish culture” or “Dutch culture” that cuts across partisan divides and that mainstream center-left and center-right parties accept as broadly representative. This usually involves some commitment to liberal ideals such as gender equality, sexual freedom, and a neutral or “rational” public space. Accordingly, right-wing populist parties—and mainstream parties to various degrees—ask recent or prospective immigrants to accept, and even embrace, this national culture. Restrictionists in western Europe have, for instance, portrayed Muslim immigrants as hostile to gay people and sought, in the name of women’s rights, to limit a woman’s right to wear the head scarf. This aggressive, sometimes even coercive, insistence on liberal values leads right-wing populists to adopt illiberal positions—a sort of illiberal liberalism.
In the United States, conservatives see a liberal political order—privileging nonnegotiable rights, personal freedom, and individual choice—as a threat to a historically imagined culture that no longer exists. If anything, the only consensus is that there is a lack of consensus over how to define the American creed. This complicates any new approach to immigration: In the absence of a shared understanding of American culture, whose conception of it would we privilege?
Many national conservatives are either illiberal or anti-liberal. If the United States is a liberal country—in the classical sense of elevating a liberal constitutional tradition—then should we make it more difficult for supporters of right-wing populist parties, such as Italy’s League or Austria’s Freedom Party, to immigrate to the United States? Across Europe, whites, being an ethnic majority, are more likely than nonwhites to hold to an ethnonationalist conception of the state. Accordingly, under a “cultural distance” immigration regime of the sort that Wax proposes, a Democrat could reasonably argue that white Europeans are more likely to believe in things that are contrary to American ideals. One of those ideals is unrestricted birthright citizenship, which is enshrined in the Constitution and, I would argue, is central to Americanness and the American idea. If a white European says he or she doesn’t support birthright citizenship—not a single European country currently has birthright citizenship—should that affect his or her chances of immigrating to the United States? Perhaps.
The irony is that even supporters of Donald Trump would acknowledge that he is somewhat outside American cultural norms. For many, his flouting of norms and traditions is crucial to his appeal. (For opponents such as myself, it is perhaps his only appeal.) He is not like most of the Americans they know. Conservatives stress the importance of cultural cohesion, and pluralism, taken to extremes, can in fact undermine trust and produce civil conflict. But if a hypothetical white Swedish male with Trump’s exact views on Islam (“I think Islam hates us”), the internment of Japanese Americans, and sending minority congresswomen “back,” then that person would be more of a threat to U.S. cultural cohesion than, say, a nonwhite Ghanaian with views closer to those of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Or, to put a finer point on it, if Trump himself tried to (legally) immigrate to the United States, an immigration policy prioritizing culture—or, at least, what is currently the dominant culture—would probably have to reject his application.
In a recent paper, Amy Wax favorably cites the late Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We?, a sort of founding text for nationalist conservatives, but one that was pilloried upon its release in 2004. In Culture Matters, a volume that he co-edited, Huntington defines culture “in purely subjective terms as the values, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, and underlying assumptions prevalent among people in a society.” Culture is subjective, which is part of the problem. We know cultures change, but less exactly how they change. Americans still do agree that Americanness is important. But they no longer agree, if they ever did, on what American culture or the American idea entails. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to measure any potential immigrant’s “cultural distance.” We cannot be a “who we are” nation if we don’t agree on who we are.