Restoring Civics and Patriotism to American Life

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This article is an excerpt from the “2020 Mandate for Leadership: A Clear Vision for the Next Administration.” It looks back at policy decisions made by the Trump administration over the past four years. You can purchase your copy of “Mandate 2020” here.

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric admittedly can be ambiguous at times and thus lead to different interpretations, but an objective reading of the record over the past four years that is free of animus would reveal that his administration has tried to renew a sense of national identity and common vision.

The administration began by rejecting a last-minute Obama-era recommendation to create, through the census, one more subnational ethnic group and list “Hispanics” among the racial categories rather than as an ethnicity.

Similarly, a Middle East and North Africa group would have brought under one umbrella Americans with ancestries between Morocco and Iran. Under this abstraction, Americans from New Hampshire’s John Sununu to Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and California’s Darrell Issa would have been considered members of a marginalized minority group.

Placing the Hispanic entity along the same category as biological races would have perpetuated the view that this heterogeneous group is another race. Currently, Americans of Hispanic descent can choose to identify as either Hispanic or non-Hispanic and can also choose a race. Research revealed that they would be less likely to do the latter under the proposed Obama changes.

The administration instead asked that a question on citizenship be included in the 2020 census. This places the onus correctly not on subnational identity, but on national belonging, which the Hidden Tribes study rightly identifies as a force that can overcome polarization.

Instead of supporting these decisions, the activist interest groups that claim to speak for ethnic and racial blocs met them with withering criticism. Several groups sued the Trump administration in courts around the country.

Using typically hyperbolic rhetoric, Make the Road New York, one of the activist groups that successfully sued the administration, denounced the citizenship question as a “racist attempt to intimidate, undercount immigrants.”

The Supreme Court took up one of the cases, deciding in June 2019 that although the citizenship question was constitutional, the justification the administration had provided did not suffice, leading the administration to walk away from the question.

Similar overstatements met the administration’s decision with respect to the Middle East and North Africa grouping. The Arab American Institute said it was “an egregious rejection of stakeholder interest that impedes the possibility of an accurate count.”

The reference to “stakeholder” was a useful reminder of the extent to which agency capture has built into activist groups’ high expectations of getting their way on policymaking.

The administration has shown equal vigilance in dealing with racial preferences in admissions to universities and K–12 programs.

Racial preferences detract from the goal of building a common national purpose, not only because they create resentment among groups, but also because they offer incentives to Americans to identify with subnational groups in exchange for benefits. Because they focus only on outcomes, they fail to address the practices and cultural reasons that explain why members of some groups may statistically lag behind others.

Under the current administration, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has thus looked at the legality of racial preferences in admissions from Harvard on the East Coast to Texas Tech in the Southwest.

  • In April 2019, after the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation, Texas Tech’s medical school agreed to end consideration of race in selecting candidates for admission.
  • The same Office for Civil Rights also launched a similar investigation into whether the Montgomery County, Maryland, public schools were discriminating against Asian American applicants for the magnet program at the county’s middle schools.
  • Finally, the administration sided with Asian American students suing Harvard University over its admissions practices, which plaintiffs said discriminate against them. The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest opposing Harvard’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

The Trump administration also included an emphasis on “patriotic assimilation” in the immigration plan that it rolled out on May 16, 2019. Though it generally went in the right direction by making demonstration of an active interest in patriotic assimilation a requirement of the would-be immigrant, the plan left itself open to system-gaming and, worse, not advancing the agenda of Americanization.

Once prospective immigrants demonstrate such an interest and are admitted to citizenship, they can pursue whatever course they want—most likely by responding to the incentives to balkanize that our system continuously provides. What we need is a return to the old system of cultural instruction.

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