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Obama’s Americans


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Tablet Magazine

Is the United States a nation-state, in which there is an “American people” whose members have more in common with each other than merely being subject to the jurisdiction of American federal, state, and local governments? Or is the United States just a random agglomeration of tribes and individuals who share nothing except an agreement to abide by certain minimal rules? The answer is the latter, according to Barack Obama. In a plutocratic fundraiser for the reelection campaign of Joe Biden, the former president declared:

But what has always made America exceptional is this radical idea that you can get people from every corner of the globe—don’t look alike, don’t have the same name, worship differently, speak different languages, have different cultural traditions—and somehow they’re going to come together under a set of rules and we’re all going to pledge … that’s our creed …

It may seem pedantic if not cruel to dissect boilerplate political rhetoric like this. Obama is merely saying the same thing that countless Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, say in contemporary Fourth of July speeches and other orations. This kind of talk combines a historical assertion—the United States has always welcomed people from every background—with a political theory—the mere existence of a set of legal rules and political institutions can “somehow” generate a national community out of people who otherwise share nothing in common, including the language in which they communicate. While it doubtless serves the purpose of discouraging xenophobia and encouraging toleration of differences in a diverse society, it is bad history and bad political science.

Let’s start with the history. You don’t need to be a left-wing opponent of “settler colonialism” to see that Obama’s account of American history is, well, whitewashed: “What has always made America exceptional is this radical idea that you can get people from every corner of the globe.” This is true, if you are referring to the United States from 1965 to the present. It is not true of the U.S. before 1965.:snip:

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