The 2016 election’s unprecedented nastiness provided House Speaker Paul Ryan yet another opportunity to pontificate on his “positive” conservative vision.
Lamenting the “disheartening” state of the current election, Ryan offered his alternative Wednesday — a politics focused on ideas.
According to the Republican leader, “America is the only nation founded on an idea — not an identity. That idea is the notion that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. Our rights are natural. They come from God, not government.”
Ryan then decided to give a history lesson on the idea-obsessed founders and how America’s greatest leaders have always come together through compromise and debate.
With that lesson in mind, he called upon America’s modern politicians to return their focus to “ideas” and instead of pandering to their respective bases.
The speech is obviously a rather gooey attempt to bridge the political divide, but there’s one line that stands above the platitudes and cliched allusions — America is a nation founded on an idea, not an identity.
It’s a popular notion to think that our nation was created in a vacuum and created solely to uphold abstract principles. That line of thinking believes there’s no cultural basis to the American proposition, and there’s no real national identity outside of the belief in meritocracy.
That’s pretty quaint — and largely untrue.
If Ryan had probably read the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s indispensable tome “Who Are We?” he’d know that America’s founding ideas are actually an outgrowth of the nation’s Anglo-Protestant identity. Put another way, that unique identity gave birth to the unique ideas that made us the nation we are.
America’s belief in individual rights, liberty and equality of opportunity could only come about from the specific culture and institutions that were brought to the New World by British settlers, as Huntington notes. That culture — which placed a premium on liberty and representative government — was unique to Anglo-Protestants and provided the worldview from which our Founders forged a nation.
If the 13 colonies were primarily settled by another people — such as the French or Spanish — we would almost certainly not be the country we are today.
Our Anglo-Protestant culture also bequeathed the nation’s strong commitment to hard work and the adoption of English as the all but official language of the land. Ryan endorsed that last quality by delivering his speech in that particular language, not French or Spanish.
It is true that our Founding Fathers were very much animated by ideas, but they also didn’t conjure up our country out of thin air. The reason many of them wanted to separate from the British crown and start a new country was over the feeling they were being denied their rights as Englishmen, not that they one day suddenly thought it’d be better to found a country on the idea that “the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.”
And our Founders were keen to emphasize the cultural identity the citizens of the new country would share.
As John Jay wrote in the Federalist No. 2, “With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice, that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence.”
Sounds like Jay believed America was founded upon a clear identity — one that was shaped by war, history and blood.
The opening line of our Constitution gives credence to the idea that the citizens of this country share an identity which gave us our unique rights as Americans.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The heavy emphasis on “we” and “our” reveals a document that sees its people as more than a random collection of people who believe in meritocracy.
The sentiment expressed by Paul Ryan Wednesday, in contrast, makes it seem like our country was formed out of a void by that random collection of people. The fact is that America, while exceptional in its accomplishments and character, is not so different from other nations. It is based on an identity — one shaped by a shared culture, history and language among its citizens.
To think that a nation can be founded on the sole idea that every person can have a successful job no matter what their station in life is not enough to sustain unified body of citizens. Of course, many Americans do cherish the idea just described, but there is so much more to our country than that.
Assimilation is such an arduous, yet necessary task for immigrants to perform because it requires the new arrivals to imbibe the culture and values of Anglo-Protestantism. If assimilation only required you believe that you can do something different than what you were born into, over half the world could become an American overnight.
No wonder Congressman Ryan is arguably the GOP’s biggest fan of mass immigration.
It’s clear that America is much more than an idea. Without our long-established identity, America would cease to be a unified nation and would instead become devolve into a continental strip mall, populated by people with nothing in common.
The form of identity politics plaguing this country is certainly deplorable, but that doesn’t mean we need to shed the specific culture which gave our nation meaning.