Book Roundtable: American Identity in the Face of Globalization

by Peter Spiro

Thanks to my fellow co-bloggers here at Opinio Juris for the chance to discuss my book Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization. It’s been an honor (and a lot of fun) to be a part of this project with all of them in this ever-changing young medium. Thanks also to Julian for introducing the discussion on Thursday. I’ll look forward to comments on the book from our guest bloggers and readers over the next couple of days.

I thought I’d lead off with three developments each of which poses a serious challenge to American identity going forward.

1. The declining salience of territorial location. This is a truism of globalization. But it poses a particular threat to the institution of U.S. citizenship. In the face of a contested identity, territorial location has done a lot of work as a proxy for measuring organic membership. Citizenship has been mostly about being here. This is most obviously the case with birthright citizenship: if you are present in the US at the moment of birth, you get citizenship for keeps. In the past, that might have made sense, to the extent that location at birth evidenced a life trajectory. Today, that’s less the case. Think Yaser Hamdi.

Likewise, at the core of naturalization requirements — since 1790 — has been the durational residency requirement. Today it stands at five years. The theory here is that whatever it means to be American, you’ll pick it up through the contacts of everyday life. That seems less true today. One can live a life disconnected from one’s national surroundings like never before, especially in the insulated communities of the new diasporas.

2. The transnational dispersion of democratic values and popular culture. America used to be distinctive in its constitutional values. That bolstered civic notions of American identity. In the absence of religious, ethnic, even linguistic definitions of American identity, we were forged together in our constitutional faith, and that distinguished us from most everyone else.

That of course is no longer true today. Not everyone’s a democrat, but democracy is now a global phenomenon. It’s no longer enought say that Americans are bound together — and set apart from everyone else — by their system of government.

As for cultural definitions of American identity, they don’t work very well either today, if they ever did. There’s no dataset that’s shared only by the national community. When it comes to historical knowledge, it’s been shown that students even at elite colleges like Harvard and Brown would miss the kinds of questions asked on the naturalization exam. When it comes to popular culture, arguably a more broadly shared iconography, the problem is that everyone else shares it, too. There are a lot of people who live in France, Japan, and for that matter Venezuela and Iran (where Baywatch enjoys top ratings) who know much more about American popular culture than I do. Once everyone’s an American, no one is an American.

3. The increasing prominence of transnational memberships in identity composites. Americans have always enjoyed a wealth of memberships in associations other than the state, something noted by observers dating back at least to Toqueville. It’s central to the notion of pluralist democracy. A core tenet of the pluralist ethic is that non-state memberships will be subordinated to membership in the state, which as an umbrella organization supplies the social glue. As Michael Walzer observes, “A citizen, we might say, is a [person] whose largest or most inclusive group is the state.” Most Americans would buy this characterization without giving it much thought, as a matter of reflex.

But it doesn’t work in a world of genuinely transnational affiliations. Many Americans now belong to organizations that are not exclusively or even primarily American in composition. Take an American who is also a member of Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and the Catholic Church, is an employee of Toyota and a woman. For good measure, one might throw in an additional nationality, so that the individual is also a citizen of, say, the Dominican Republic. That is not an exceptional profile, as parts of which the transnational elements are significant. Can we say of this person that her “largest and most inclusive group” remains America?

Yes, the United States remains the most inclusive of these groups in the sense that it will include anti-environmentalists and those for whom human rights are not important, members of other religions, employees of other companies (as well as the unemployed), and men. But that is totally circular – these other groups are all more inclusive than the United States insofar as they are not limited to U.S. citizens. In other words, America is no longer the most inclusive group that many Americans belong to, or at least it is no more inclusive than many others groups of which we are members. That brings citizenship down off its normative pedestal.

I argue in the book that these developments spell the irreversible decline of citizenship and national identity. We’re already seeing that to the extent that citizenship hardly makes a difference any more, in the sense that there’s almost no differential in the rights and responsibilities of citizens and noncitizens. Much as Americans might like to reinscribe the meaning of citizenship, out of a powerful sense of nostalgia, if nothing else, globalization will overwhelm efforts to revive national community.

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