Nearly two centuries ago the United States of America experienced a change of government. Not literally so, but in terms of how it imagined itself. True, in a world of monarchies which still stank of the corpse of feudalism, the US was founded as a democratic republic, leveling the distinctions between the high and mighty and the low and humble which had been taken for granted for thousands of years. But that egalitarian leveling had its limits both legally and culturally, with the populist democracy we’ve come to accept becoming the norm decades after the founding. Due to a confluence of social and historical circumstances, we are witnessing a great reversal of the egalitarian order we’ve taken for granted these last two centuries. 2040 might resemble 1790 far more than it does 1840.
In the Federalist era before 1800 the United States of America the government’s republican aspect was emphasized over its democratic one. Learned aristocrats and burghers of virtue and character guided the polity, themselves elected by men who could meet substantial property qualifications. The founding generation looked to republican Rome, not democratic Athens. George Washington imagined a governing class above faction and party.
At least that was the theory and the aim. In the years around 1800 a great debate roiled American politics, personified by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and embodied by the parties which they respectively led, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The intense political conflicts after the presidency of George Washington are often depicted as human rivalries between great men, but they also reflected emerging ideological tensions, and a conflict of visions which would persist for a generation.
The Democratic-Republicans held within them a radical populist strand that sympathized with the French Revolution, and which would eventually give rise to the Democratic party (a less populist faction coalesced around John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to form the National Republicans and their successors, the Whigs). The Federalists were a conservative faction of a more traditional sort, an over-the-sea Tory party.
The Federalists were fated to be a memory so exotic that their name resonates more than its ideology to modern Americans. In some ways they were conservative in a manner we would still recognize. Strongly associated with the Congregationalist church in New England, Federalists were suspicious of the free-thinking tradition in early American religion exemplified by Jefferson and Thomas Paine. They relied upon institutional and economic elites to be the bedrock of the republic. International commerce, in particular with Britain, would bind American elites with Europeans.
In contrast, Jefferson and his populists believed that the yeoman farmer was the foundation of the republic. Rather than commerce and national institutions guided by elites the Jeffersonian vision was one of decentralization, local control, and popular sovereignty. What Jefferson began, Andrew Jackson completed in the generation after the founders. By turns squalid and populist he threw open the government to those with more ambition and aspiration than breeding or attainment. He destroyed the second National Bank of the United States, blocked federal projects, and continued the Madisonian tradition of separating church and state.
At the same time as the Democratic populist ascendancy came to Washington D.C., changes were sweeping the local level. The last established churches of New England lost their special status with the decline of the Federalists. And the early wealthy electorate faded into memory as the individual states removed property qualifications, opening up voting to all free white men.
The turn was from Rome to Athens. But just as Athenian democracy was broad and exclusive, so was American democracy to be. Democratic ruled states in the North also stripped free black Americans of their voting rights. In 1838 Pennsylvania ratified the right of whites to vote regardless of wealth, but revoked it from any blacks. Just as the Athenian democratic state was built on the backs of slaves and the productive labor of non-citizen artisans and merchants, so the age which saw the dominance of the populist Democratic party nationally also witnessed a hardening of racial exclusion and the rise of the “Slaveocracy.”
Mass democracy as the unifying theme of our government came to maturity at the same time as a formal and muscular ideology of white supremacy. The whiteness of the republic had been mostly implicit and taken for granted at the founding. The Naturalization Act of 1790 memorably limited the process to “free white persons of good character”, indicating that a racial component was present in the republic’s earliest years. And yet Columbia, the female personification of the United States of America, was often depicted as a Native American. Andrew Jackson himself adopted a Native American boy. Martin van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, had had a common-law wife who was a woman of color (and he recognized his daughters by this woman).
Such ambiguities and complexities faded in the retelling over the decades. America was reimagined as a white man’s republic, and North America as the promised land for expansionist settlers who were superior stewards of the land in comparison to the indigenous people. The US became a racial nation which was seen as provided to the white man by the hand of God and fate. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 marked the apogee of the idea that to be American was to be necessarily white. Though the Senator from South Carolina John C. Calhoun died in 1850, when it came to race and the republic his racialist vision was gaining ascendancy by the end of his life and would only gather strength after his death.
With minor deviations such as Reconstruction, this idea of the US as a land of whites persisted deep into the 20th century. Though the Civil War saw the advent of a dramatic racial egalitarianism, ultimately that would prove only a minor correction against the general trend toward viewing the nation as a democracy for and by white people. The reconciliation between North and South in the years leading up to 1900 coincided with a heightened racial awareness reinvigorated by the inheritors of Darwinian thought.
But in the wake of the Civil Rights movement a new multiracial and multicultural vision of America took hold. This counter-narrative rapidly became orthodoxy; it held that the nation belongs to people of all races and cultures, not just whites. That it always belonged to other peoples, even if they had not enjoyed recognition by the white majority.
Civil rights and the enfranchisement of black Americans as part of the electorate coincided with the eventual repeal of immigration restrictions which were passed in 1924. In 1940 the proportion of white Americans peaked at 90 percent of the population. Today the figure is 70 percent, and that includes Hispanic Americans who identify as white, as well as people from the Middle East and North Africa.
The 1924 act was a synthesis of the populism of the Democratic party with the immigration restrictionism long prominent in the Republican party. Whereas in the 19th century the Democrats had maintained a libertarian stance on immigration, the racial and cultural concerns which had become explicit in the early 20th century, exemplified by books such as Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant, had spread broadly enough among the white electorate to change the policy stance which had defined the United States since its foundation. The American melting pot was most definitely a white one.
After World War II the United States emerged as the dominant power on the world stage, both politically and economically. And it was self-consciously egalitarian in its ethos. The 1950s represent the apotheosis of the populist white America which was envisioned in the early decades of the 19th century, even if it had accrued to itself a more expansive government apparatus than any Jacksonian would have been comfortable with.
That old America is gone, replaced by many different Americas. Books like David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed have long traced fissures in Anglo-America, between North and South, the East and the West. But modern multicultural America is further differentiated along many fractures of race, religion, and language, so that it is no longer defined by any cohesive ethnic identity.
At the founding, Europeans were skeptical about the prospects of a republic which spanned vast swaths of a continent. Successful republics, ancient and modern, had been of narrow geographic scope, and reflected the will of small and cohesive peoples. The English colonies of the eastern seaboard were neither small nor cohesive. But as observed by Frenchmen such as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur and Alexis de Tocqueville, a new people was emerging in North America, ethnically and regionally diverse in origin, but uniformly white and English-speaking. Though fractured during the Age of Sectionalism, and again during the period of immigration in the 19th and early 20th century, this identity was cohesive and robust enough to absorb multitudes.
This was the melting pot, an aspirational identity of white Protestants, which explicitly excluded racial minorities. In the wake of the 1960s, such a model seems antiquated, and the regnant order speaks of a rich mosaic or a salad bowl. Disparate peoples bound together in the United States, distinct and unique.
But just as the rise of white supremacy waxed with democratic populism, so the emergence of a more complex racial and cultural mix will almost certainly herald the return of the less democratic and liberal republic. Roman civic participation declined as a coherent Roman people grew less central to the apparatus of the state, which eventually coalesced around explicitly monarchical autocrats by the third century A.D.
As an identity as a common people, a common nation, and not just a common government, fades, so will the cohesion and values which allow for the emergence of cross-class democratic populism. Politicians who came from privilege, or obtained that privilege of their own toil, nevertheless attempt to display the affect of the common man. So it has been since Andrew Jackson.
But what is the common man today? There is no common man; there are many peoples, with different values and aspirations. Such cross-purposes short-circuit the cultural synchronicity necessary for a populist mass democracy, where the aristocracy of attainment and inheritance must bow before the will of the people.
The Federalist and later Whig vision of a strong federal government ultimately returned in the 20th century. Though we do not have a National Bank, we do have a Federal Reserve. The President of the United States is now a monarch in all but name. The proportion of Americans who are farmers is only a few percent, and only about one in four lives in rural areas.
In What Hath God Wrought Daniel Walker Howe argued that the Whig vision of coordinated national improvements, despite being soundly defeated by the Jacksonian Democrats, eventually came to dominate the life and culture of our republic. But polities are not defined solely by material and economic considerations. The development of interstate highways did not transform American citizens’ identity as part of a mass populist democracy, even if large institutional actors and political figures took more active guiding roles.
American identity changed because of cultural and demographic forces, not economic ones. To a great extent the 1965 immigration reform act laid the groundwork for contemporary multiculturalism, which in turn spawned the complexity of modern identity politics. This demographic change occurred at the same time that the broader American culture was going through rapid and shocking changes. From civil rights for black Americans, to women’s rights and gay rights, as well as a wholesale challenge to bourgeois American norms, the 1960s was the beginning of the end for the old consensus.
American society had been subject to a very diverse and exotic stream of migration around 1900, with immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. But during these decades the white Protestant culture of the United States was assimilative. Through various means, both legal and cultural, the new migrants were absorbed into the broader polity (which still excluded blacks on racial grounds).
The post-1965 wave of migrants came into a culture which did not demand assimilation. Rather, American society in the 1960s and 1970s was subject to anomie, with crime waves in the streets, and oppositional ideologies in the universities. Those marginal to the American mainstream were not exhorted to assimilation, they were encouraged to liberate themselves, and affirm their uniqueness and difference from the mainstream.
This environment which celebrates and cultivates difference creates a mindset which is primed to be open to a critical take on the history of the nation which immigrants have chosen to migrate to. It is no surprise that in the wake of the cultural change of the 1960s we have seen the rise of a group of highly educated and cosmopolitan hyphenated Americans who may take a dim view of the white republic and the founding generation. Their assimilation has been toward a counter-culture which discourages broad social conformity, and this has driven a further wedge between Americans of different races and political orientations.
America as a multicultural polity is not an aspiration, but a simple description of fact. We are today a coalition of different factions bound together legally, but rapidly dissipating any cultural unity.
History is rife with stable multicultural societies: the ancient Roman Empire, the territories of the Ottomans, the Mughal Empire. These diverse states maintained harmony through a hierarchy. Understandings and accommodations among elites of the various peoples smoothed tensions and allowed for the operation of government despite animosity simmering beneath the surface. Populist mass movements are functionally impossible within a diverse medley of cultures, because politics in these societies develop into byzantine games of balance, or coalitions of coercion. No social consensus takes hold, preventing any unanimity of purpose.
In these culturally diverse systems there emerge tribunes of the peoples. The plural is key here, for the various people brought together under an empire represent the interest of sub-nations within the greater whole. In the Ottoman Empire Christian sects were led by their clerics, whether Greek Orthodox, Jacobite or the Coptic pope. In the Roman Empire federates were administered under their own law and led by their own warlords. The British Raj at its peak was a coalition of peoples and monarchs, with the queen or king at the apogee of the system.
Of course, this has always been true of the United States of America in some sense. Blacks were subordinated through coercion, and so excluded from a white body politic which could identify lines of common feeling on the grounds of race. The price of democratic populist consensus was the extreme subjugation of black Americans.
The foregrounding of the colorful diversity that always was, and its amplification through immigration, combined with the abdication of national leadership so long the province the Eastern Establishment, will facilitate the emergence of new power brokers. Whereas in the twentieth century we saw a few token Al Sharptons and George Wallaces appealing nakedly to the ids of their people, we now stand on the cusp of a new era that risks being plagued by a whole class of such ethnic demagogues.
Donald Trump as President of the United States is not a world-historical aberration. His ethno-nationalist vision of the Republican party is to be expected as a reflection of the white American population which is now becoming as racially conscious as minorities have been of late. Facing their own demographic marginalization they are reasserting their own uniqueness. In Europe the rise of ethno-nationalist right-wing parties is a phenomenon that can be attributed to economic distress. But recessions come and go. Rather, demographic and cultural changes are producing men and women who channel the reactionary impulses of a populace who see the world they knew fading away. The National Front, Freedom Party, and Alternative for Germany, are symptoms of a broader phenomenon which won’t be a passing phase.
But the reality is that demagogues cannot turn back time. They can only delay the inevitable. Sans mass ethnic cleansing, accommodations between peoples must occur. And when these accommodations come they will operate as understandings between elites of disparate peoples, and the political units which emerge to foster stability will resemble the ramshackle oligarchies and monarchies. When the people are too many dissonant voices, conductors must come on stage and enforce harmony and suppress individuality. In an age of diversity there will come the oligarchy.
Razib Khan is a geneticist. He blogs at Gene Expression.