Who are we? This existential question is being asked with increasing intensity throughout the Western world.
In Spain, people are taking to the streets over it; the region of Catalonia’s attempt to break away has awakened patriotic sentiment. In France, some third-generation descendants of North African immigrants say they have no attachment to their country of birth.
In Hungary, the government says the electorate comprises all Hungarians, no matter where they reside. And so, ethnic Hungarians who have been in what today is Romania since time immemorial are now encouraged to vote in next year’s Hungarian election.
Here in America, since the late 1960s, we have seen a rise in identity movements based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Such identity groups rob the nation-state of the pre-eminent loyalty to which it is entitled.
Over the past few years, however, we have begun to see a backlash against identity politics. Sociologist Samuel Huntington wrote a bestseller, “Who Are We?” in 2003. Last year, a backlash against identity politics helped propel Donald Trump to electoral victory.
Defining the nation has thus taken on new urgency. Yet the U.S. Census Bureau, a federal agency that exists largely to help us understand who we are, has subdivided us into official — though artificial — groups for decades. And now it is asking to subdivide us further.
The attempts to divide the American policy started in the late 1960s, when a coalition of activists with separatist tendencies, bureaucrats and private foundations — funded by the liberal Ford Foundation — sought to create pan-ethnic groups based in neither anthropology, biology, culture nor language.
The two leading examples of pan-ethnic entities were Hispanics and Asians, which were finally codified in the 1980 census. Today the census wants to add yet another ginned-up pan-ethnic group: MENA, or Middle East North Africa. This designation would encompass Americans with ancestors hailing from Morocco to the Iran-Afghan border, people as varied as Arabs and Berbers, Persians and Kurds.
But there’s good reason to do the opposite. Democracy, which is rule by the people, needs a demos. The nation-state here in America — defined not ethnically, but through attachment to American values and institutions, and geographically confined within strong borders — has been the vehicle for that democracy.
Since antiquity, governments have organized regularly scheduled censuses to determine not just who the electorate is, but to answer the more fundamental question of who exactly the people are. Ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, created a census. It was one of the first things the statesman Solon did after abolishing the Draconian Laws in the early 6th century B.C.
That first census made participation in Athenian politics dependent on wealth, a requirement that rightly makes our 21st Century eyes wince. But prior to Solon’s innovation, participation in civic life was based on birth. Solon’s census allowed for social and economic mobility.
The Roman Republic also introduced a census in the 6th century. The Roman census included an important innovation: it promoted virtue, civics and patriotism, by asking citizens questions on these matters. This adherence to virtue propelled Rome to its greatest successes.
In America, the Founders created the census in 1790 to help democracy function. As the Census Bureau tells us:
The Founders of our fledgling nation had a bold and ambitious plan to empower the people over their new government. The plan was to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress. Is it wise for our government to divide us according to artificial categories designed to foster identity politics?
As George Washington put it:
“We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending to it.”
This piece originally appeared in Tulsa World