By Dr. Joseph Chuman
It seems as if Donald Trump is digging his base deeper but no wider. The Democratic constituency, by contrast, has become increasingly diverse. Over 87 percent of Republicans are white, while minorities, racial and ethnic, are finding a home in the Democratic Party. Moreover, 56 percent of women identify as Democrats, with more women “leaning toward” the Democratic Party. As has often been mentioned, the composition of Congress after the last election is beginning to look more like the constituencies it represents, again, with more minorities and an unprecedented number of women; 17 Democratic women now serve as senators and 89 as representatives in the House.
I am not presenting this occurrence to make a partisan point, but to underscore the reality that the United States is assuredly changing demographically. Trump exploits the fears generated by this transformation by invoking a past that no longer exists. His appeals are to a provincialism, a parochialism and tribalism of mostly older, white males, who for the most part feel shut out of the new economy.
But America is inexorably moving in another direction, which sets the stage for a different ideology, a different understanding of American society and American identity.
Since its founding, the United States has gone through noticeable changes in its self-understanding of what it means to be an American. Since almost the beginning until the late 1960s, the prevailing ideology of identity was the melting pot. The idea was that people came from all different parts of the world and would “melt” into a new American identity, leaving their cultures of origin at home. In the late 1960s, initially through the reaction set in motion by the Black Power Movement, which militantly purported that blacks could never melt into the mainstream, and which unmasked the melting pot as a front for Anglo-dominance, multiculturalism emerged as a new way to understand American identity.
Multiculturalism, however, is not without its problems. One’s specific identity, whether racial, ethnic, or gender, has become a powerful basis for proclaiming one’s political interests, and with it has spawned “identity politics.” But by itself, multiculturalism does not necessarily require that those comprising a specific group engage productively or harmoniously with others of different groups. Multiculturalism doesn’t provide an overarching vision that speaks to all members of society and those outside of it. It empowers, it brings people within groups together, but potentially divides them from outsiders.
Cosmopolitanism is another way of under-standing one’s identity, especially in the current moment. What is cosmopolitanism? The word comes from the Greek language and connotes being a “citizen of the world.” In this sense, it is readily contrasted with the tribalism and nationalism that is ascendant in many countries and has been embraced by our president. Defining cosmopolitanism in this way seems to exacerbate the differences between those who are in the president’s camp and those whom they oppose as “liberal elites.” The former are concerned with local allegiances, while cosmopolitans are more preoccupied with the welfare of those who are different, with strangers, with being a global citizen, perhaps even being a citizen of nowhere rather than affirming bonds with one’s own.
But this way of understanding cosmopolitan-ism as embracing global concerns at the expense of local ones may be too shallow of an understanding of the concept. According to the philosopher Anthony Appiah (some may recognize him as the writer of The Ethicist column in “The New York Times” magazine), “The cosmopolitan task…is to be able to focus on both far and near. Cosmopolitanism is an expansive act of the moral imagination. It sees human beings as shaping their lives within nesting memberships: a family, a neighborhood, a plurality of overlapping identity groups, spiraling out to encompass all of humanity. It asks us to be many things because we are many things.” I think Appiah is right–we are many things.
Though itself not without problems, I personally find the cosmopolitan outlook very appealing. In fact, given the global problems we confront, I find it necessary. I will explore this idea further in my platform address on March 3, which I have entitled “Loving Our Neighbor and the World: Cosmopolitanism and the American Future.” I hope you can join me then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.