July 25, 2019 11:25AM

What Senator Hawley Gets Wrong about American Identity

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) thinks America has an identity problem. Or, more accurately, that the nation suffers from a lack of an identity problem. In a speech last week at the National Conservatism Conference, he blamed the nation’s ills on an elite “political consensus [that] shows little interest in our shared way of life.” He excoriates cosmopolitans who, he says, reject the idea of Americanness in favor of being “citizens of the world.” According to Hawley, progressives, classical liberals, and libertarians “distrust patriotism and dislike the common culture left to us by our forebearers.” For the nation to prosper, it needs to re-embrace shared identity, which for Hawley means small towns, “traditional” values, recognizing the centrality of Christian faith to the American project, and returning to an economy built on manufacturing “the kinds of things a normal person without a fancy degree can build with his hands.”

I fear the senator from Missouri is confused about identity, and his confusion has led him to see a lack where there is instead mere difference. America is not operating without an identity or a shared way of life. Rather, America simply stands for something other than what Hawley and his fellow nationalist, populist conservatives wish it would. We have a shared way of life. It’s just one Hawley doesn’t much like. And where conservatives of his sort blame this shift on oppression and suppression--by Big Tech or Big Media or elites controlling governing institutions--the more likely story, or at least the greater portion of it, is that his preferred values and tastes have lost in America’s liberal and tolerant marketplace. When given the opportunity to vote with their feet and their wallets, the majority of Americans don’t much care for Hawley’s halcyon days.

When Hawley gripes that “the cosmopolitan elite look down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith,” we can clearly see his mistake. The culture of pluralism, openness, globalism, and, yes, cosmopolitanism, isn’t about rejecting the idea of America or of America as a place. Rather it’s about recognizing that America is great because of our pluralism and openness and our capacity to welcome any and all who want to partake in this grand and ongoing experiment in liberty. That’s what sets this country apart from so many others. Our identity isn’t about soil or ethnicity, as it largely is in Europe. Rather, it’s about the idea of America, and so anyone can become an American just by coming here and embracing that idea. 

That American idea, that “national feeling,” is widely shared, but it happens to be one of openness and pluralism and an enthusiastic embrace of diverse ways of life. That’s why Trump lost the popular vote, why he remains historically unpopular, and why his party last year suffered the worst congressional electoral shellacking since Watergate. It’s why 64% of Americans want to see immigration levels increased or at least kept the same, while only 35% would like to keep more people out. And America is still a deeply religious place. But it’s one that recognizes and celebrates people of all faiths, even those traditionally sneered at or feared by so many of the people Hawley sees as embodiments of America’s true values.

That’s the America we celebrate and the one we feel patriotism for. America has a strong identity and a common culture, evidenced in the polls and ballot box, in revealed preference and behavior, in protests at ICE detention centers and the majorities who view the president’s rhetoric as conflicting with American values. Maybe Senator Hawley can some day better understand this great nation and come to appreciate what makes it great.