We're Americans, too.                                                                           Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg
We're Americans, too.                                                                           Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg

These days, many people tend to dismiss anything Pat Buchanan says. But in a recent column in WorldNetDaily, Buchanan raises an important point: America could use a bit of nationalism. By “nationalism,” I don’t mean jingoistic sentiment and aggressive militarism. I mean a sense of national cohesion, of being one unified people instead of just a collection of unrelated individuals who happen to live in the same geographical space. Here’s Buchanan:

Will America remain one nation, or are we are on the road to Balkanization and the breakup of America into ethnic enclaves?...

We were not a nation of immigrants in 1789. They came later. From 1845-1849, the Irish fleeing the famine. From 1890-1920, the Germans. Then the Italians, Poles, Jews and other Eastern Europeans...From 1925 to 1965, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants were assimilated, Americanized. In strong public schools, they were taught our language, literature and history, and celebrated our holidays and heroes. We endured together through the Depression and sacrificed together in World War II and the Cold War.

By 1960, we had become truly one nation and one people...But we are no longer that “band of brethren.” We are no longer one unique people “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.”

We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion and roots.

We no longer speak the same language, worship the same God, honor the same heroes or share the same holidays. Christmas and Easter have been privatized. Columbus is reviled. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are out of the pantheon. Cesar Chavez is in...

If a country is a land of defined and defended borders, within which resides a people of a common ancestry, history, language, faith, culture and traditions, in what sense are we Americans one nation and one people today?

Buchanan is right to be worried about American people’s sense of national unity. A famous 1999 paper by William Easterly, Reza Baqir, and Alberto Alesina documented that in places with more ethnic divisions, the government was worse at providing public goods -- things like infrastructure, public health and other goods and services that the government is usually the best at providing. A substantial body of research supports this conclusion. Although people still argue about the reason, it seems clear that when the people of a country don’t consider themselves to be “one people,” the government becomes less effective.

America may be suffering somewhat from this problem. Since the '70s, elements of the Republican Party have exploited ethnic divisions to reduce support for government spending, especially in the South where racial tensions run high. Basically, a large number of poor and middle-class white people seem to have become (wrongly) convinced that government spending only benefits black or Hispanic people. In practice, cutting government spending usually doesn’t mean cutting redistributive transfers like Medicare -- it means cutting things that offer small benefits to large numbers of people, such as infrastructure and scientific research.

Has immigration exacerbated this problem? Maybe, but I think Buchanan is seriously overstating the danger. If Hispanic immigration led to the Southwest turning into a Spanish-speaking region -- America’s version of Quebec -- then there might be cause for alarm. But that is just not happening. Hispanic immigrants are becoming English speakers even faster than the earlier waves of European immigrants that Buchanan cites. Hispanics are rapidly increasing their educational attainment, and mixing socially with other groups at high rates. Intermarriage between Hispanics and other races is extremely high. And all of these trends are even more pronounced for Asian immigrants, who have recently taken over from Hispanics as America’s biggest group of new immigrants.

So on the language, education and marriage front, there is nothing to worry about. But what about the cultural and historical front? The continued existence of anti-immigrant sentiment on the political right is reminiscent of the “know-nothings” who resisted German and Irish immigration in the 1800s. Are lower-class conservative Americans going to continue to refuse to see the new immigrants as their fellow countrymen?

Buchanan suggests that the Depression and the World Wars, along with a unified history curriculum in public schools, were responsible for the assimilation of the last immigrant wave. Well, we are just now emerging from the closest analogue to the Depression that we are (hopefully) likely to see. And our history curriculum, while it has changed in substance, doesn't seem to vary from state to state more than it used to – in fact, it may vary less, given the influence of national tests like the advanced-placement history test. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, for their part, probably don’t mind being written out of the “pantheon” of the nation from which they fought so hard to secede.

As for world wars -- well, let’s just hope that those aren't necessary for national unity.

Overall, things look good for immigrant assimilation. The main threat to Buchanan’s cherished ideal of national unity comes from nativist elements of the political right, and their refusal to accept Hispanic immigrants as legitimate Americans. Let's hope the pro-immigration wing of the conservative movement, typified by Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Marco Rubio, will win out.

To contact the author of this article: Noah Smith at noahsmith.bloomberg@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.