During his presidency, Barack Obama was fond of hectoring the American people with the condescending refrain “that’s not who we are.” He would trot it out regularly to disparage as un-American anyone who disagreed with his predictably progressive policy views on immigration, refugees, health care, or Islamic terrorism.
Who we are, it turns out, is a statist country defined by whatever platitudes are found in the latest iteration of the Democratic Party platform. Who we are, pace Reagan, is an (almost) open borders country of hyphenated Americans with an unwavering faith that “a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Obama’s America, lo and behold, is the real America.
Citizen Obama was at it again this week in a Facebook post slamming President Trump’s decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (never mind that while in office, President Obama admitted on more than 20 occasions that he had no constitutional authority to create a DACA-like program).
“This action is contrary to our spirit,” Obama wrote. “Ultimately, this is about basic decency. This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we’d want our own kids to be treated. It’s about who we are as a people—and who we want to be.”
Obama concluded his sermon by trying to define who it is that we are. The mistaken assumptions that inform his definition are common among elites on both ends of the political spectrum. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) probably could have offered the same definition (and has in the past come close). As such, his words are worth examining more closely as they are indicative of a particular mindset.
“What makes us American,” Obama first correctly observed, “is not a question of what we look like, or where our names come from, or the way we pray.” Indeed, America’s founding documents affirm the natural equality of all human beings, allow for the full naturalization of immigrants, forbid the establishment of a national religion and guarantee the free exercise of religion for all. In principle—though not in practice of course—anyone can become an American.
“What makes us American,” Obama then added, “is our fidelity to a set of ideals—that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation.”
As a statement of American national identity, this is partially true. It is true insofar as we are indeed a nation dedicated to certain ideals—the truths we hold to be self-evident. America, alone among the nations of the world, defines itself by a commitment to a set of universal ideas.
We are not, however, a mere “propositional nation,” defined only by abstract ideals and shorn of any ties to its past, its culture, its ancestors, its language, and its land. We are also a particular people bound by “the mystic chords of memory” and shaped by our way of life. Our Declaration of Independence, after all, does not begin with the self-evident truth of human equality, but with “one people”—that is, we Americans—assuming our separate and equal station in the world.
What makes us American is not just “our fidelity to a set of ideals”—but also that we speak English; that we honor our war dead; that we inhabit a land that stretches “from California to the New York island; from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”; that we naturally love our country and our countrymen more than we do the foreign nations and foreign peoples of the world.
Our dedication to the idea that all men are created equal does not detract from our rootedness in our own history and land. Nor ought it to weaken our attachment to our fellow citizens or erode our national sovereignty.
America, in other words, is both particular and universal. We are particular in our own way, just as Lesotho, Lithuania, and Laos are particular in their own ways. But we are exceptional in making certain universal ideals a constitutive component of our national identity (many countries today affirm these ideals too, but only we make them an inextricable part of who we are).
For some reason, intellectuals on the Right and the Left are uncomfortable with recognizing these two dimensions of Americanness. The neocons and the progressives would reduce us to a propositional nation; the paleocons and the traditionalists to a particular nation. The Founders, by contrast, did not see the need to choose between the two.
By excluding America as a distinct and sovereign country from his definition of America, Obama can suggest we should admit as citizens all those who subscribe to our creed. By his definition, they already are Americans in all but legal status. The distinction between Americans and non-Americans who share our ideals is but accidental.
America the idea has no borders. But America the country does—and must. And it has the sovereign right to control its borders. Regardless of what one thinks about immigration, DACA, and the so-called “dreamers,” there is nothing un-American about upholding the rule of law or affirming the fundamental political distinction between one’s fellow citizens and foreigners—no matter how long they have lived in our country.
In this regard, it is telling how Obama’s definition of who we are does not include the idea that we are a law-abiding people. However difficult it may be to define America, it should be readily apparent that the rule of law is embedded in our DNA. It undergirds our Constitution, it forms our character and it allows for the extraordinary levels of prosperity and freedom we enjoy. As President Trump noted in his statement explaining his decision: “We must also recognize that we are a nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”