White American ethno-nationalism is on the rise. Why?

Connor Wood

Burning flag with prison bars

Step onto Steinway Street in Queens, New York, and instantly you’ll be immersed in the sights, languages, and restaurant aromas of some of the world’s most ethnically diverse urban neighborhoods. But while big American cities like New York are attracting more immigrants than ever – and thriving because of it – the United States at large is suffering from growing discord over race and culture. As critics have often alleged, the United States has often historically relegated members of non-white groups to second-class status. If we want this to change, we have to understand why it came to be in the first place. Sociology, history, and cultural psychology can help.

A while back, I wrote that the United States didn’t have a single shared ethnicity that bonded it together. That’s not quite true. In historical terms, there has been an element of ethno-national identity to the American Republic: the “white” tribe. This quasi-ethnicity (“quasi” because its borders are fluid, encompassing new immigrant groups, like Irish Catholics and European Jews, over time) is an odd amalgam of European, Judeo-Christian influences, tethered to a British cultural and linguistic legacy. Throughout America’s history, members of this group have comprised a dominant, fairly cohesive subculture. The social cohesion was useful: it helped the U.S. to accomplish big projects like laying down the transcontinental railroad tracks. But it excluded outsiders (particularly black Americans and American Indians) by definition – a heritage of tribal exclusion that has produced immeasurable pain and conflict.

Ethnogenesis and War

The growing field of cultural evolution – the multidisciplinary study of how human cultures change and interact over time – suggests some reasons why the “white” ethnicity arose, and why it was so cohesive. One of the most important cultural evolutionary arguments is that cohesive societies are often a function of conflict against other societies. When your tribe is all alone in the peaceful forest, its members don’t need adamantine bonds with each other. But in the face of violent conflict, your tribe becomes more cohesive because it has to.

Now, let’s say that both your tribe and your enemy share similar languages and customs. And let’s say you both get invaded by a very different group that shares no common language or heritage. You and your former enemies probably band together to fight the invaders. If the conflict goes on long enough – generations, say – your two tribes might even merge into one new culture, united in its opposition to the outsiders.

This process is what University of Connecticut historian and systems scientist Peter Turchin calls “ethnogenesis,” or the creation of a new cultural group. In his book War and Peace and War, Turchin describes how violent conflict often produces new ethnic identities. For example, centuries of intense conflict against Muslim Tatars forced disparate Slavic tribes in the Ural region of eastern Europe to band together. After centuries, these tribes came to think of themselves as members of a new culture: Russian. Similarly, ancient German tribes were forcibly united by constant military pressure from the powerful Roman Empire to the south. There wasn’t a cohesive “Russian” ethnicity before conflict against the Tatars. There was no “German” people before the Romans invaded.

So what about white Americans? Where did that identity come from?

According to Turchin, conflict with American Indian tribes gelled the new white American ethnic category. The United States began as a ragtag cluster of British colonies, but by the Revolutionary War era immigrants were already arriving from across Europe. In the old country, the English, Irish, Germans, and Swedes weren’t a single tribe – in fact, they often despised each other. But in fighting a shared outgroup for centuries, European-Americans came to stress their mutual similarities (that is, light skin, Christian cultural background) and to de-emphasize their differences. If your frontier town was attacked by Comanche, you didn’t care whether your neighbor was German, Irish, or Anglo. If he picked up a rifle and fought alongside you, he was your ally.

If you’re skeptical, you might not realize how profoundly intense and horrifying the fighting really was. The historical record recounts more than sixteen thousand major atrocities committed by both Europeans and Indians against each other over nearly three centuries of conflict. This works out to a major bloodbath or atrocity once per week. Turchin writes,

Imagine hearing on CNN that yesterday yet another American town was wiped out…You would hear a story like this once a week throughout your life, and the same state of affairs was in place when your parents and grandparents grew up. Without doubt, any society subjected to such pressures for generations would be transformed.

Religion Catalyzes Social Change

Of course, the settler wars were even more destructive and earth-shattering for American Indians – and equally formative for American Indian identity. Before Europeans invaded, the hundreds of aboriginal tribes in North America were as likely to attack each other as to trade; there was no “American Indian” ethnicity. But in the face of centuries of genocidal pressure from European-Americans, a sense of unity – or at least of shared destiny – often emerged between tribes.

Maybe the most dramatic example was Tecumseh’s confederation. In the early years of the 19th century, Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa brought together warriors from many different tribes to Indiana and Michigan to fight the U.S. government. Tribes that had historically fought against each other now stood side-by-side in opposition to European-American settlers, forging bonds across old tribal boundaries. A new sense of “us” was born.

Crucially, Tecumseh’s revolution was sparked by an ecstatic religious revival. Tenskwatawa – “the Prophet” – saw mystical visions that convinced him the time had come to defeat white Americans in combat. These spiritual convictions proved contagious, and Indians from many tribes flocked to him to join in his new religion.

At the same time, the Protestant Second Great Awakening was spreading across white America. Settlers and townspeople from New York State to the Gulf Coast were attending Methodist and other Protestant revivals, worshipping enthusiastically and being “saved.” The convergent timing of Tenskwatawa’s new Indian religion and the Second Great Awakening probably wasn’t coincidental. Big religious revivals and new religious movements often occur alongside – and even catalyze – profound social changes. At one point in the early 19th century, two very different religious revivals were helping to forge a new sense of “us” both for Indians and for white settlers.*

The American Ethnic Landscape Today

So: converging military, cultural, and religious pressures brought a solidified “white” ethnic category into existence in the early years of the American Republic. People who would have been mutually hostile back in Europe developed a shared understanding and alliance with each other. Even today, people who belong to this category often feel unconsciously as if the country is “for” them, sort of the way that a condo owner feels that the grounds and weight room and swimming pool of her building are “for” her.

As a result, black Americans and American Indians often feel excluded from the body politic of the United States – because they literally have been excluded, tacitly as well as legally. For most of American history, ethnic white Protestants really did constitute the majority mainstream. You could even say that mainline Protestant churches were a de facto state cult – after all, the word “culture” comes from the Latin “cultus,” or religious practice. Other ethnicities and religions, though often tolerated, held a subordinate position. For instance, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once bluntly told a Jewish cabinet member, “You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”

But now some aspects of that legacy are changing, and fast. America’s remarkable openness to immigrants from all over the world has transformed places like Queens into oases of incredible diversity. White Protestantism is declining, both in numbers and in cultural influence.

Of course, one appalling result of the change in the country’s cultural and religious demographics is the recent increase in white ethno-nationalism, as exemplified in, oh, the Trump campaign. Ethnic white Americans accurately see that a country that has been theirs for centuries is changing, and they’re scared.

But instead of wringing our hands about the ugly rise of white nationalism, maybe we should try being cautiously optimistic about the potential for desirable change. As the older American order walks off stage right, will it be possible to envision a new order that at last includes everyone – black, white, and everything in between? Could America be induced to live up to its founding ideals?

There’s certainly precedent for such a thing. During and after World War II, Protestants actually did give up some of their monopoly on American identity, making way for Catholics and American Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. Today, European Catholics and Jews are near-universally considered “white.” Previously, they weren’t. Many members of these groups even belong to the ranks of conservative pundits and thinkers (for better or worse, a sure sign of membership in the mainstream).

Can we imagine something like this happening for American Indians or African-Americans in the future – not assimilation into some exclusionary “white” identity, but rather invitation into the core group that feels that America is “for us?” How could we make it more likely?

For one thing, we’d probably have to twist revolutionary and conservative impulses together into one thread, one rope. Why do I say this? The integration of Catholics and Jews into the American mainstream was spearheaded by the military, social clubs, and neighborhood organizations. In other words, some of the nation’s most conservative social institutions took the lead in opening up the culture’s boundaries – but only after decades of agitation and advocacy on the part of Jewish and Catholic groups. In this case, revolution and conservation worked in tandem.

To rectify the injustices of today, we’d need a similar balance. Conservative social forms like the armed forces, religious groups, and formal social organizations often serve as gatekeepers of the exclusionary status quo. But, paradoxically, they’re also places where people come into contact with utter strangers and rub elbows. In the right contexts, they can be beneficial pressure cookers – combining people from different backgrounds into something new.

So, if we were wise, we’d target and groom these institutions rather than rejecting them as outdated. When traditionally marginalized ethnicities are integrated into boundary-keeping institutions, the polity opens up and the country becomes more just. The American mythos becomes meaningful to more than just white Yankees. That, friends, is a good thing.

What Does the Future Hold?

In a monarchy, dictatorship, or empire, you don’t always need a ton of social cohesion or consensus in order for society to work. The king or emperor decides what’s going to happen, and that’s what happens. Bam. But in a democracy, you need a huge amount of social consensus. Enough of the populace has to agree on policy that the majority can rule effectively and without resorting to despotism. Like it or not, ethnicity is one engine for producing this level of social consensus. When everyone in a country feels they share the same culture, language, and traditions, it’s a lot easier to get people on the same page about policies.

This is partly why modern democracies only really started to flourish in most of Europe after the disasters of the World Wars – the old multi-ethnic empires collapsed, and single-ethnicity nation-states came on the scene. These new, smaller, homogenous countries were easier to govern democratically by consensus (relatively speaking). It’s also, in part, why Scandinavian-style social democracy was pioneered in the ethnically homogeneous nations of Northern Europe rather than spectacularly diverse, ethnically varied countries like Brazil. When everyone feels like they belong to the same “us,” people are more willing to contribute to the common pool.

But of course, ethnic homogeneity has its own, often luridly bad, consequences. The desire for ethnic homogeneity can lead to violent ethnic cleansings or – as in the case of the U.S. – generations-long political oppression of minority groups. But although ethnic unity isn’t an option for the United States for both moral and practical reasons, we do need a shared sense of American identity. Imagine how much easier it would be to tackle our big problems – crumbling infrastructure, climate change, a stagnating economy – if we felt connected by a shared understanding and common symbols, instead of cordoning ourselves off into Blue and Red tribes or ethnic silos.**

Peter Turchin would argue that it’s difficult to attain such a sense of shared belonging without an outside enemy. And maybe he’s right – maybe American identity won’t ever expand to fully include all black and brown people unless a major war forces us to band together, melting us into a new, truly “American” ethnicity. (After all, World War II was the major catalyst for the integration of Jews and Catholics into the polity.) Or maybe, as Ronald Reagan once quipped, we need a good, old-fashioned alien invasion to bring us together.

But maybe there are ways of pulling people together into a greater whole that don’t depend on a common enemy – or require a new ethnogenesis. America has always been an experiment. If any society could find new ways to forge a shared identity without fighting against an outgroup, we could. Research in cultural evolution suggests that violent conflict is a powerful tool for catalyzing ingroup cohesion, but it also indicates that humans are behaviorally plastic. We can try new things. And sometimes those innovations are successful.

It’s tragic that American identity first emerged out of conflict against erstwhile outsiders such as American Indian tribes. But that identity has since shifted and opened, showing that it can be flexible. If we want to solve our biggest problems in the 21st century, we need to walk the line between that flexible justice on one hand, and strong social cohesion on the other. As moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has often pointed out, the Blue tribe understands the first of these mandates, while the Red tribe understands the other. With increased scholarship and attention paid to how human culture works, we might understand both.


* Unfortunately, the Second Great Awakening didn’t do much to mitigate the disparities between ethnic groups – though not just for lack of trying. Many Great Awakening leaders reached out to black communities, and countless black Americans joined and even led the revivals. But, due in part to racism on the part of white Christians, black revivalists tended to eventually found their own churches and denominations rather than become part of extant (white) religious communities. It was – and still is – very difficult to unite different races under one church roof.

** Could American Indians – the original outgroup that catalyzed the formation of the white ethnicity – be part of a hypothetical shared American identity? Well, many members of native tribes would argue that they already are. American Indians serve in the military at higher rates than any other group in the country. And it’s not uncommon for American Indians in the U.S. to associate their tribal identity with a sense of Americanness, even patriotism. But it’s still true that unjust treatment of American Indians shamefully continues to this day, even despite their disproportionate contributions to the nation’s defense. One possible ray of hope is that the increased social liberalism over the past decade – which in other contexts I’ve often complained about, because in its neo-Jacobin forms it can be really annoying – might end up softening the American social structure to the point where new alignments become possible. Like melting a hunk of gold in order to reshape it, we may be molding a new polity.