On Political Nihilism: The Census, Citizenship, and Civic Pride

Not long ago, the White House announced that the 2020 census would include a question that asks respondents whether they are legal U.S. citizens. Such a question was a mainstay on the census until the mid-twentieth century. Of course, President Trump has very specific reasons for reinstating the question — he clearly hopes that the data will serve to validate his agenda, which includes measures to drastically reduce illegal immigration. But the president’s opponents on the left have similar motives for wanting the question removed from the census — operating with the assumption that all census-responders are citizens is a crass means to give their states a disproportionately large representation in Congress. Further, masking non-citizens who take the census would also provide data that supports a multiculturalist agenda that primarily serves Democratic electoral interests. So elected officials on the left set themselves to attacking the President and his decision.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that “The census, written about and hallowed in the Constitution, is being distorted by this administration for political purposes. President Trump and Secretary Ross should be ashamed of themselves. Hopefully the courts will correct this glaring abuse.” Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said that “politics has no place in the census, but this administration will stop at nothing to push its anti-immigrant agenda.”[i] Durbin and Schumer claim that adding a census question to confirm citizenship would be “political” and assert that the census should be apolitical.[ii] They are right about the former — the new question is political. But they are wrong about the latter: properly understood, the census is a political endeavor. And it should be.

Our word politics derives from the ancient Greek word polis — a term that can mean “city” or “state,” but is typically used as a metonym for the collective of citizens. Put differently, the city or state is the people who live there (the demos). This means that “politics” is really a branch of ethics. It is an activity in which we pursue the good of the collective, the good of the polis. The reason we take a census is that the size and make-up of the demos is crucial information for knowing how we might pursue the good. In other words, the census is nothing but political. And even if Schumer and Durbin were right that it should not be, it is shocking that they are ignorant enough to believe that not asking about citizenship status is not a political choice. Turning a blind eye to who has citizenship and who does not is to assert that the needs of the non-citizen are a national concern that is equal to the needs of citizens — a political assumption that negates the very foundation of the political enterprise itself.

Leftists who agree with Schumer and Durbin might argue that if “the city or state is the people who live there,” then to privilege respondents who are citizens is to undermine the very existence of the non-citizen.[iii] Non-citizens, they would say, live among us and therefore must be part of our political consideration. It is here that we encounter the critical question of the debate: if politics is the pursuit of the good of the collective, who belongs (and who does not)? Belonging is the central issue. The concept of the polis requires an “outside.” This means that the idea of the nation can operate only alongside the idea of the outsider. If everyone belongs — if the needs of the non-citizen are as binding upon the state as the needs of the citizen — then there is no way to delineate the border of the nation as a geographic, governmental, or ideological entity. If everyone belongs, then properly speaking, there is no outside. If there is no outside, then there is no nation.

The ideological embodiment of this political nihilism is globalism: an idea that entails a radical restructuring of citizenship and advocates a dissolution of borders (geographic and cultural). As Spencer P. Morrison notes in a recent essay on globalism, the term should not be used only as a derogatory epithet, and he is right that globalism has some benefits. But there are different globalisms: there is economic globalism, technological globalism, cultural globalism, and more. Ideologues like Schumer and Durbin are promoting an ethico-political globalism that asserts a moral duty to non-citizens. But if a Nicaraguan living without citizenship in Chicago is entitled to some political agency in the United States, why is the Nicaraguan citizen living in Nicaragua outside the scope of our concern? This moralized globalism is an attack on the idea of the nation-state: an idea that since the late Middle Ages has been viewed in the West as the best means to serve the needs of the collective.

On both the right and the left, there is concern about the decline of civic pride in the U.S. I agree that it does seem to be in decline: Americans seem to know less about America than they used to. They seem to care less about America as a shared democratic project in which we pursue a collective good. But critics never seem to consider the basis of civic pride. It is citizenship. It is belonging. Historically, the reason that citizenship is valued by people is that it entitles one to cultural benefits and privileges that are denied to outsiders. A major goal of the political left has been an expansion of those benefits and privileges to those outside the polity. Citizens hear of non-citizens receiving in-state college tuition. They hear of grants and loans available to people in the country illegally. Some cities are considering granting non-citizens the eligibility to vote. Non-citizens can get state identification and drivers’ licenses. The result of these trends is that there are fewer and fewer benefits to citizenship. Given that reality, is it any surprise that people value citizenship less? When the last remaining benefit of citizenship is paying federal income tax, then citizenship has become a hindrance.

The concept of the nation itself relies on the status of citizenship. This is not to say that the non-citizens among us do not deserve our respect, love, or tolerance. Hatred of illegal immigrants is despicable. We only have ourselves to blame for the problem of illegal immigration. Over the last fifty years, the United States has signified in every way possible that we will work to accommodate those who enter the country illegally. It is positively silly to demonize the citizens of other nations who took us up on that offer. And when the United States can provide greater prosperity than almost any other nation in the world, it is hard to blame people who will do whatever it takes to achieve more opportunity for themselves and for their families. No: it is not the illegal immigrant who threatens the dual concepts of the nation and the citizen. It is us. We, the insiders, are to blame. Not only is it puzzling that men who have served in government for as long as Schumer and Durbin don’t understand this; it is stupefying that they actively work to undermine the democracy. The census is the means by which we apportion congressional representation. It is the means by which we assess how we will pursue the good of the collective as a polity. The census is political. It must be. Let’s keep it that way.

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[i] Note Durbin’s shameless suggestion that concern about illegal immigration is “anti-immigrant.”

[ii] Tellingly, Schumer and Durbin didn’t voice similar criticisms when Obama exerted greater control over the census in 2010.

[iii] Of course, the census does not “privilege” citizens. Even with the new citizenship question, non-citizens are still allowed to participate in the census — a fact that illustrates the care that America has for the non-citizens in our midst. The new question simply aims to know what percentage of respondents are non-citizens and where those people tend to reside.

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston — Downtown, where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. He can be reached at ellwangera@uhd.edu

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