“We’ve gotta be able to keep great people in the country,” Donald Trump told Steve Bannon on the latter’s radio show in November 2015, “We’ve gotta [keep] job creators. One man went to—I think it was Harvard […] did well, good student, wanted to stay in the country, wasn’t allowed to, went back to his home in India, started up a company [and] now it’s a very, very successful company with thousands of people. He wanted to do that here. We have to be careful about that, Steve—we have to keep our talented people in this country.”
Bannon, who was recently named as President-elect Trump’s chief strategist, replied, “Umm.”
“I think you agree with that,” Trump said, “Do you agree with that?”
“Well…” Bannon hesitated, “You know, when two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia…” Here Bannon is interrupted by Trump, who sees where this is going. Bannon presses on, “My point […] is that a country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
The exchange highlights the slippery use of that much-used and rarely-defined term “civic society” in our public discourse. For Bannon, American civic society is based on blood and soil; those from “South Asia or from Asia” or, indeed those from any number of other foreign origins, somehow don’t fit into “our” civic society. There’s something about these people, for Bannon, that prevents them from full participation in our national identity.
Trump, in this exchange at least, represents an alternative view of American civic society, one based on aspiration and productivity. America civic society on this second understanding isn’t tied to any particular racial or ethnic identity, but has more to do with an idea. The exact content of that idea—whether it’s economic productivity or patriotic loyalty or cultural tolerance or some mixture of the three—can be argued over, but it’s at least very clearly different than Bannon’s genetic definition. And if you agree to this idea—if you pledge your loyalty to the concept of “American-ness”—then there’s no-one who can say you’re not American.
When localists and conservatives and fans of Tocqueville talk about civic society, they most often mean it as a shorthand for all those “intermediary institutions” between the individual and the state that together serve as a buttress of political liberty. The church, the volunteer association, the local government, the press, the professional guild and even the sports team—all these groupings help carve out a buffer space in which a person can live and move according to his or her particular interests, passions, and skills. And—distinctively—American civil society features a prominent role for groups premised on a particular ethnic identity or national origin: The Sons of Italy and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, for instance, donate their time to charitable causes and socialize together; while groups like the Uyghur American Association and the Hungarian American Coalition advocate politically on behalf of mother-countries around the world; organizations like the Goethe Institute sponsor educational programs and language instruction that reach millions of Americans each year. These groups all have a place in American civic society not in spite of their particular ethnic or national identities, but because of them.
American civic society is thus necessarily the realm of difference and diversity, juxtaposed to the unanimity and universalism of the national political community. And indeed it must be so, since ours is a propositional republic, not a tribe or kingdom based on blood or race. And therefore Steve Bannon’s conception of “civic society” poses a danger to the continued vitality of American identity. To exclude Asians or Mexicans or whomever from participation in American civic society—and therefore to deny them the fullness of “American-ness”—is simply to upend the idea of principled assimilation that has traditionally sustained this country.
So which conception of civic society currently resonates with Americans? It’s a question that’s only going to acquire new urgency in the Trump era, in which figures like Bannon will have a real hand in shaping the presidency’s overall tone and program. And despite his disagreement with Bannon in 2015, Trump’s much-discussed rhetoric from the campaign, especially about foreigners or those he (wrongly) perceived to be foreigners, already suggests that the narrow conception of civil society will have an advocate in the Oval Office.
But American civic society rightly understood has always been about addition, not subtraction. It’s this process of addition that gives us our unique vibrancy and energy. Let’s hope that those reservoirs of civic energy are deep enough to last through the dry-spell we’re about to undergo.
---- Photo Credit: recombiner via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0