Recently, Pew conducted a survey examining the attitudes of Americans toward immigrants and non-whites. 77% PERCENT of Republicans (the Republican party is now 90% white) responded that immigration threatens American customs and values. More and more, we hear about threats to the “America way of life.”
Earlier this month, Pew conducted a survey asking Americans what it takes for them to consider someone to have a shared national identity with them – other words, to be a genuine American. Less than 50% said that “shared customs and traditions” were very important, and only about 30% said that being Christian was very important. The different responses of different age groups were dramatic. Among Americans 50 and older, 55% said that shared customs and traditions were very important. But among Americans 18 to 34, only 28% said that customs and traditions were very important.
There is a clear association between such opinions and education levels. Among Americans with only high school or less, about 55% said that shared customs and traditions were very important in being an American, and 45% said that being a Christian was very important. By contrast, among those with college degrees, only about 30% said that shared customs and traditions were very important, and less than 20% considered being a Christian to be very important.
But what is truly shocking is when we look at how Republicans responded. Among Republicans, a whopping 60% said that customs and values were very important, and more than 40% said that being a Christian was very important. By contrast, only 40% of Independents and 38% of Democrats considered customs and values to be very important. Only 29% of Independents and 26% of Democrats considered being a Christian to be very important.
Think about that. There are about 6 million Jews in the U.S., 1.1 million in New York City. Almost 1 out of 3 Americans do not identify themselves as Christians. Almost 1 out of 4 Americans claim no religious affiliation. Yet more than 4 OUT OF 10 Republicans believe that being a Christian is not just important, but VERY IMPORTANT to being a genuine American. Such a result should instigate an enormous national soul-searching. Of course it won’t. But the fact is, it has never really been about religion. Religion is merely a marker, a guidepost for something broader. “Customs and traditions.” It’s about culture.
What is American culture? There are some cultural phenomena that are uniquely American, at least in their origins. Baseball, hot dogs, and jazz, for example. Are Republicans concerned that immigrants aren’t going to baseball games, eating hot dogs, or listening to jazz? I don’t think so. How about Mickey Mouse? That’s uniquely American. Are Republicans concerned that immigrants aren’t going to Disney World? I don’t think so.
The truth is, America doesn’t have a well-defined culture, not the way intellectuals think of culture – a distinct language, a well-defined musical tradition, a well-defined cuisine, and so on. That’s not to say that America doesn’t have a cultural legacy. Just look at our national holidays. We have Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, among others. These are fundamentally Christian holidays, although Easter and Christmas incorporate many pagan traditions. But Americans celebrate other holidays too – Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Halloween for example. Halloween is a particularly interesting case. It was not widely celebrated in America in the early 19th century. When Irish Catholic and other immigrant communities arrived in the mid 19th century, it was largely restricted to those immigrant communities. Gradually, over the next 50 years, it became integrated into mainstream American society.
Although there are a small minority of American Christians who refuse to celebrate Easter and Christmas in the usual way, rejecting customs that have pagan origins, most American Christians embrace these customs. The same is true of many other cultural elements – food, music, architecture, and so on. All of these borrow from a variety of cultural sources. And Americans, even Republicans, have long embraced the new and different, whether it be rock and roll, Jewish humor, or Mexican food. So what are the “customs and values” that Republicans think are in danger?
The answer lies in examining the focus of much conservative propaganda. There has long been a veiled reference to the white Protestant work ethic, a glorification of the “hard-working” white person, with an implication that others are parasitizing or impeding his efforts. In the 19th century it was white settlers and entrepreneurs who were glorified, and the “savage” Native Americans who were the impediment. In the early 20th century it was Catholics and Jews who were vilified, spreading communism and lacking the strong moral character of the white Protestant. And in the late 20th century it became the African-American who was the villain, who was now parasitizing hard-working white America with the help of the liberal elite.
The message has sunk in, generation after generation, to the point that it is now highly internalized by many white Americans, particularly white American males. They are the ones who are supposedly disadvantaged now. Non-whites and women get preference in everything. The hard work of “real” Americans is being siphoned off to support lazy people. Immigrants and brown people in general just want handouts. The work ethic is dying.
This is what the 77% of Republicans are really talking about when they say immigration threatens “customs and values.” This is the “American way of life” that is supposedly under threat. As the middle class is increasingly squeezed, white working class America has been relentlessly propagandized with exactly what it wants to hear – that it is not trickle-down economics that has failed them, but Washington liberals who stay in power by providing handouts to lazy parasites. It is not the virtual destruction of labor unions and the rise of automation that is to blame for job loss and stagnant wages, it’s burdensome regulation and taxation. This message has suited corporate America, at least the part of corporate America that relies on cheap labor and low taxes.
On the other hand, the new economy of technology relies on well-educated workers of various cultures, and from all over the world. Not surprisingly, the big movers and shakers in this economy have reacted quite negatively to immigration bans and attacks on multiculturalism. The current CEO of Google is Indian-American. 31% of its workforce and 20% of its leadership is Asian-American. And in virtually every major tech company, the percentage of non-white employees is growing. That’s the future. The growth industries of America require well-educated, diverse workforces. There are no excuses and no cultural favorites. America isn’t going back. But Republican America doesn’t want to go forward either.