In 1971 my father was on a Pakistani kill list. Today the place he used to live in is known as Bangladesh, but at the time it was called East Pakistan: borne out of the partition of India following independence from the British Empire. Separated from West Pakistan by over a thousand miles of the Indian landmass, the East Pakistani desire to break away from the rest of Pakistan and create a nation for Bengali people started early on. East Pakistan had a language and culture very distinct from West Pakistan and because both halves were geographically isolated, union between East and West Pakistan was all but impossible. Assimilation was not achieved, and abstract notions of nationalism became very real as my father’s side of the family was forced to go into hiding with the onset of violent conflict in the beginning of the 1970s.
Failure to assimilate and subsequent breakup is a common theme throughout history, though the details are unique in each case. From the beginning, the Soviet Union was envisioned as a union of freely associating states (though reality was anything but), and as a result, early on, Moscow worked to build national identities in constituent republics while simultaneously preaching Soviet unity. Reinforcing regional identities and assimilation into the Russian-led USSR proved to be incompatible goals, and thus the relaxation of authoritarian control led to the Soviet empire’s swift implosion in 1991. Even the United States has had a similar experience, though as a beneficiary. After Americans emigrated to what was northeastern Mexico, into what we know today as Texas, the failure to assimilate proved too much for the immigrants. A conflagration ensued that led to the independence of Texas, and a few years later, the United States came to absorb what is today the American Southwest.
Assimilation and social cohesion are critical components of a nation’s success. For a country to remain intact, its citizens must share a common affinity for one another. That is nationhood. Societies like those in Europe which do not have a recent history of immigration, where national identity is inseparable from ethnic identities and ancestral ties to the land, are at a fundamental disadvantage to the United States. Compared to their American counterparts, Muslims in European nations are more likely to be informally segregated, and as a consequence, the continent sees more Islamist violence. Part of American exceptionalism rests largely in our ability to assimilate foreigners. There is a reason more Islamic State fighters have come out of Europe than the United States.
Recently, two anti-assimilation trends have transpired that cast the long-term stability of the United States into doubt. First is the rise of the regressive left on college campuses, a thoroughly illiberal movement that seeks to assign different levels of rights to different identity groups. This is the group that obsesses over “microaggressions,” “cultural appropriation,” and the exercise of benign personal freedoms that infringe on subjective notions of political correctness. Much attention has been given to college students with the authoritarian impulse to regulate everything from Halloween costumes to broader First Amendment freedoms on campuses. Unsurprisingly, the same group is also the one that blames America for the world’s problems. Patriotism, according to this group, is a deadly sin that is the cause of the world’s turmoil. The denigration of the only identity that binds our nation together, our common American identity, is a destructive trend.
To this movement there is now a backlash that is more insidious than the regressive leftists. That is not altogether surprising; it has always been foolhardy to expect that one segment of the American population could be perpetually blamed for the world’s ills without an equal and opposite reaction. This movement, the so-called “alternative right” that Secretary Clinton spoke about at length in a speech in late August, is one that carries virtually no resemblance to traditional American conservatism.
Whereas American conservatives seek to promote our nation’s interests and security through strength, the alt-right wants America to retreat from the world. Whereas American conservatives promote economic liberties to free people to pursue their dreams, the alt-right regularly rails against capitalism. Whereas many American conservatives believe the United States ought to be a friend and an ally of Israel, anti-Semitic attitudes abound in the alt-right. Perhaps most consequentially, whereas traditional American conservatives wish to build national unity and promote social cohesion around our shared identity as Americans, the alt-right seeks to divide based on racial identity politics.
Not only is the alt-right anti-conservative, but it is anti-American. America is an embodiment of the Enlightenment, based on ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that all peoples are equal, endowed with sacred inalienable rights that no government is entitled to strip. What the alt-right and the regressive leftists in college campuses share is their exaltation of identity politics; the low illiberal Old World tribalism where ethnic identities set the boundaries on human freedom. Of course the United States in its history has failed repeatedly to protect the rights of minorities, but the trend has always been an inexorable march towards greater freedom and equal opportunities. The alt-right, on the other hand, wishes that America would retreat from much of its progress.
Regressive leftist boundaries on human freedom come in the form of political correctness, while the alt-right’s racial nationalism is exclusionary and seeks to restrict America’s identity by race. Perhaps most concerning are the demographics of both of these destructive trends. Regressive leftism is prevalent in American college campuses. Upcoming generations of Americans are socialized in a victimhood culture that plays a racial blame game. The alt-right is also a largely young movement; it is driven by younger white men. This latter group is vehemently opposed to assimilation: the adoption of American culture by racial minorities sullies, in their view, the purity of America’s racial composition. Ironically, alt-rightists also bemoan “cultural appropriation” when they see non-whites integrate cultural features into their lives that can be traced to Europe. Likewise, regressive leftists are also opposed to the “melting pot” that has characterized America for so long; cultural purity based on racial category is of the utmost importance, even if it comes to children’s Halloween costumes.
Experience from history demonstrates that failure to assimilate runs counter to social cohesion and jeopardizes national unity. For anyone who is a patriotic American and proud of our nation’s tradition of being able to assimilate newcomers around the shared principles of freedom and democracy and then engage in constructive cultural exchange, be it the Christmas tree or Chinese food, both trends ought to be a cause for concern. America has benefited tremendously as a result of its diversity from the proliferation of new ideas that have enriched our nation, something the alt-right opposes, but also from our ability to set aside smaller groups in favor of our common American identity, about which regressive leftists are uncomfortable.
Progressives and conservatives may argue which policies and to what extent specific programs need to be used to ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to fulfill their potential and contribute to the nation’s prosperity. Ultimately both groups understand that for our imperfections and past mistakes, America seeks to live up to its lofty ideals. While there are no perfect nations, America always has and continues to strive to become a more perfect union. That is something regressive leftists in their nihilistic hatred of the United States cannot understand, and that is something the alt-right in their surrender to tribalism cannot embrace.
Conservative and progressive patriots alike must come to understand that while it may be necessary to create specific policies to close gaps, in our culture we must adopt a mentality of colorblindness where we cherish our common humanity and our American identity before all else. Superpowers do not last forever, and it may very well be that America fragments over an inability to reconcile racial identities. That would be the death of an Enlightenment era dream and confirmation that we cannot escape the bounds of our worst impulses. It would be a tremendous shame if, for the first time since 1776, we step backwards and consign ourselves to defeat on the question of expanding our boundaries for who qualifies for membership in our national community.
A nation that can emerge victorious from the two world wars, defeat communism, and fulfill a dream as old as humanity itself by landing men on the moon is better than the vision that both cancerous anti-assimilation trends have to offer. America is a beacon of freedom and tolerance and America continues to be exceptional by defying challenges other nations struggle to overcome. People who believe in America and the American project ought to come together to reject both strains of tribalism so we may be the best versions of ourselves and continue to be leaders for the very best of what humanity has to offer.
This article was written by Fairooz Adams. Click here to see more of Fairooz’s work.