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.