The end of multiculturalism

The US must be a melting pot – not a salad bowl.

Future generations may look back on Iraq and immigration as the two great disasters of the Bush presidency. Ironically, for a conservative administration, both of these policy initiatives were rooted in a multicultural view of the world.

Since the 1960s, multiculturalism has become a dominant feature of the political and intellectual landscape of the West. But multiculturalism rests on a frail foundation: cultural relativism, the notion that no culture is better or worse than any other – it is merely different.

When it comes to democratic continuity, social justice, and prosperity, some cultures do far better than others. Research at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, summarized in my recent book, "The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It From Itself," makes this clear.

Extensive data suggest that the champions of progress are the Nordic countriesDenmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – where, for example, universal literacy was a substantial reality in the 19th century. By contrast, no Arab country today is democratic, and female illiteracy in some Arab countries exceeds 50 percent.

Culture isn't about genes or race; it's about values, beliefs, and attitudes. Culture matters because it influences a society's receptivity to democracy, justice, entrepreneurship, and free-market institutions.

What, then, are the implications for a foreign policy based on the doctrine that "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society"? The Bush administration has staked huge human, financial, diplomatic, and prestige resources on this doctrine's applicability in Iraq. It is now apparent that the doctrine is fallacious.

A key component of a successful democratic transition is trust, a particularly important cultural factor for social justice and prosperity. Trust in others reduces the cost of economic transactions, and democratic stability depends on it.

Trust is periodically measured in 80-odd countries by the World Values Survey. The Nordic countries enjoy very high levels of trust: 58 to67 percent of respondents in four of these countries believe that most people can be trusted, compared with 11 percent of Algerians and 3 percent of Brazilians.

The high levels of identification and trust in Nordic societies reflect their homogeneity; common Lutheran antecedents, including a rigorous ethical code and heavy emphasis on education; and a consequent sense of the nation as one big family imbued with the golden rule.

Again, culture matters – race doesn't. The ethnic roots of both Haiti and Barbados lie in the Dahomey region of West Africa. The history of Haiti, independent in 1804 in the wake of a slave uprising against the French colonists, is one of corrupt, incompetent leadership; illiteracy; and poverty. Barbados, which gained its independence from the British in 1966, is today a prosperous democracy of "Afro-Saxons."


Hispanics now form the largest US minority, approaching 15 percent – about 45 million – of a total population of about 300 million. They're projected by the Pew Research Center to swell to 127 million in 2050 – 29 percent of a total population of 438 million. Their experience in the United States recapitulates Latin America's culturally shaped underdevelopment. For example, the Hispanic high school dropout rate in the US is alarmingly high and persistent – about 20 percent in second and subsequent generations. It's vastly higher in Latin America.

Samuel Huntington was on the mark when he wrote in his latest book "Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity": "Would America be the America it is today if it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil."

In "The Americano Dream," Mexican-American Lionel Sosa argues that the value system that has retarded progress in Latin America is an impediment to upward mobility of Latino immigrants. So does former US Rep. Herman Badillo, a Puerto Rican whose book, "One Nation, One Standard," indicts Latino undervaluing of education and calls for cultural change.

The progress of Hispanic immigrants, not to mention harmony in the broader society, depends on their acculturation to mainstream US values. Efforts – for example, long-term bilingual education – to perpetuate "old country" values in a multicultural salad bowl undermine acculturation to the mainstream and are likely to result in continuing underachievement, poverty, resentment, and divisiveness. So, too, does the willy-nilly emergence of bilingualism in the US. No language in American history has ever before competed with English to the point where one daily hears, on the telephone, "If you want to speak English, press one; Si quiere hablar en español, oprima el botón número dos."

Although border security and environmental concerns are also in play, the immigration debate has been framed largely in economic terms, producing some odd pro-immigration bedfellows, for example the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Among the issues: whether the US economy needs more unskilled immigrants; whether immigrants take jobs away from US citizens; to what extent illegal immigrants drain resources away from education, healthcare, and welfare; and whether population growth, largely driven by immigration, is necessary for a healthy economy.

But immigration looks very different when viewed in cultural terms, particularly with respect to the vast legal and illegal Latino immigration, a million or more people a year, most of them with few skills and little education. To be sure, the US has absorbed large numbers of unskilled and uneducated immigrants in the past, and today the large majority of their descendants are in the cultural mainstream. But the numbers of Latino immigrants and their geographic concentration today leave real doubts about the prospects for acculturation: 70 percent of children in the Los Angeles public schools and 60 percent in the Denver schools are Latino.

In a letter to me in 1991, the late Mexican-American columnist Richard Estrada captured the essence of the problem:

"The problem in which the current immigration is suffused is, at heart, one of numbers; for when the numbers begin to favor not only the maintenance and replenishment of the immigrants' source culture, but also its overall growth, and in particular growth so large that the numbers not only impede assimilation but go beyond to pose a challenge to the traditional culture of the American nation, then there is a great deal about which to be concerned."

Some recommendations

If multiculturalism is a myth, how do we avoid the woes that inevitably attend the creation of an enduring and vast underclass alienated from the upwardly mobile cultural mainstream? Some policy implications, one for Latin America, the others for the US and Canada, are apparent.

We must calibrate the flow of immigrants into the US to the needs of the economy, mindful that immigration has adversely affected low-income American citizens, disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, as Barbara Jordan stressed as chair of the 1990s Immigration Reform Commission. But the flow must also be calibrated to the country's capacity to assure acculturation of the immigrants.

We must be a melting pot, not a salad bowl. The melting pot, the essence of which is the Anglo-Protestant cultural tradition, is our way of creating the homogeneity that has contributed so much to the trust and mutual identification – and progress – of the Nordic societies.

As with immigration flows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an extensive program of activities designed to facilitate acculturation, including mastery of English, should be mounted. A law declaring English to be the national language would be helpful.

The costs of multiculturalism – in terms of disunity, the clash of classes, and declining trust – are likely to be huge in the long run. All cultures are not equal when it comes to promoting progress, and very few can match Anglo-Protestantism in this respect. We should be promoting acculturation to the national mainstream, not a mythical, utopian multiculturalism. And we should take care that the Anglo-Protestant virtues that have brought us so far do not fall into disrepair, let alone disrepute.

Lawrence E. Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he also teaches. This article is adapted from a longer essay in the January-February 2008 issue of "The National Interest."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.