In a stirring manifesto for the Claremont Institute, Ryan P. Williams assails “multiculturalism” as the greatest threat facing the United States. The essay is the first in what is to be a series that Claremont calls a political campaign makes some very salient points about the excesses of the modern left. It describes in familiar fashion the divisive nature of identity politics and judging by the group instead of the individual. But what is curious (and unclear) is why Claremont’s political philosophy places these excesses at the feet of foreign cultures.
Williams is clear that by multiculturalism he does not merely mean the presence in the United States of persons from other cultures. He praises the virtues of the melting pot, and makes a compelling case that adherence to the core American values of justice and equality under the law create the conditions under which diverse populations can coexist peacefully.
But then he goes on to write this: “America’s most important politico-cultural virtue, though, has been the insistence to its current—and especially potential—citizens that they assimilate to a certain view of justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence and safeguarded by our state and national political institutions, first and foremost the U.S. Constitution.”
There is a paradox at work in this paragraph. Williams is demanding, especially of potential citizens that they assimilate into American culture, and yet the principle document that he uses to define what safeguards American culture is the Constitution, which is itself, a prohibition on forced cultural assimilation.
In fact, the very founding of America was in many cases based upon the desire of religious communities to live as they saw fit, not in accordance with the cultural norms of England. The Puritans and Quakers didn’t want to assimilate, so they created places where that wouldn’t happen. Later the Mormons would strike out and do this, today some Jews and Muslims live simultaneously according to their customs and to the law of the land.
The fundamental error in Williams and Claremont’s approach here is the focus on culture. This framing makes the problems of political correctness and identity politics appear to be an external threat, and it most decidedly is not. Ideas such as privilege theory and cultural appropriation aren’t flooding over the southern border; they spring from deep and very old wells well within the existing and historical framework of America.
Williams addresses the choice of multiculturalism as the focus of attack by saying, “We have decided to use the term “multiculturalism,” instead of “identity politics” or a similar term, because despite its limitations and current usage “multiculturalism” is more comprehensive. It is a new system of truth and justice that seeks to revolutionize and transform the American way. Identity politics is the coalitional strategy of multiculturalism and political correctness its enforcement arm.”
This is a very apt description of modern progressivism, but it’s not clear what it has to do with culture. Progressivism is not bounded by race, or language, or custom. Importantly, progressivism is not even particularly multicultural. Although it nods and virtue signals to the wonders of diversity, progressivism is monocultural—its “scientific facts,” and proper pronouns must be accepted by all. The danger of progressivism is not that it accepts too much diversity, but that it accepts too little.
It is also progressivism, not multiculturalism that best explains the hierarchies of oppression and the group ranking systems that Williams quite rightly criticizes. As Jordan Peterson recently pointed out in a debate with Slavoj Zizek, identity politics and privilege theory are the result of a postmodern neo-Marxism. It is called cultural Marxism because it replaces the concept of class with the concept of identity. But cultural Marxism is not the same as multiculturalism. The former imposes a single set of rules and norms while the latter embraces a more relativistic view of morality.
There is some overlap here. When progressives equate the evils of the modern United States with those of dictatorial regimes, they are engaging in a dangerous relativism. But in an important sense it is less relativism than it is self-flagellation. The point isn’t is that the foreign set of values or norms are good, it’s that ours are bad.
The best way to fight this is to show that our values and norms are good. Chief among those values is pluralism. In choosing to attack multiculturalism rather than progressivism, conservatives at least rhetorically throw away one of conservatism’s greatest virtues. Williams’ essay does not include the word “freedom,” and refers only once to “liberty,” referring to it as an abstraction. But if freedom and liberty are not the cornerstones of American culture and civic life, what is? For Williams, the answer is patriotism.
Even if we accept the dangerous idea that patriotism is more important than liberty, we can still clearly see that the undermining of patriotism is not the result of some foreign force invading the collective consciousness of America, but of an internal group of Americans who are convinced that our nation is a curse, not a blessing to the world. In this sense, Williams’ approval of Trumpism as a political philosophy that essentially tells Americans not to be ashamed of themselves makes sense and is compelling. But it does not address the process of restoring a positive view or pride in America among those who lack it.
All in all, Williams and the Claremont Institute are to be applauded for engaging in this effort. In the public square, conservatism has been on its back heel for at least three decades and it’s good to see Claremont leaning in. But of course, unlike the progressives arrayed against us, conservatives can brook disagreements; as Williams points out, conservatives use reason and deliberation, not will and force.
What conservatives must understand is that the forces aligned against us come from within. More importantly, conservatives have no more of an a priori claim on what is and isn’t American than progressives do. And that is ultimately the fight—not to show that progressivism is wrong, but to show that conservatism is right.