Citizens of Nowhere

Is American citizenship a thing of the past?

On November 7, many at Stanford would likely have answered this question with a resounding “yes”. More libertarian than nationalist, more multicultural than homogenous, Stanford students likely believe they are truly citizens of the world, not of just one country. But, as the events of November 8 revealed, the vision of global citizenship is just that — a mirage.

In the days following the election, our social media feeds were filled with posts exhorting us to try to understand Trump voters so we could incorporate them into “our plan.” Certainly, the election demands reflection and examination; regardless for whom you voted, at least 60 million Americans voted for a major party candidate antithetical to your values. However, attempts to understand Trump voters only in order to “incorporate” them betray a misunderstanding of the sociopolitical and psychological forces that helped buoy Trump to victory. This very rhetoric of radical inclusivity is precisely what helped drive Americans to Trump’s populist, nationalist message in the first place.

Whether at Stanford or in America as a whole, citizenship matters. It fill humans’ dual need to belong and to exclude. As a result, though it is often characterized as a political evil, tribalism may more accurately be described as a law of nature — we are hardwired for it. To create a sense of belonging, communities must define themselves negatively. To establish what they are, they must clearly articulate to members what they are not. If they grow so large and become so inclusive that they lose their ability to distinguish themselves from other communities, they become meaningless.

For example, instead of acting as models of tolerance, proponents of such radical inclusivity tend to define themselves just as negatively as any other community. Rather than celebrating Hillary Clinton’s candidacy during the election, for instance, Stanford students overwhelmingly focused on opposing the xenophobia, sexism, and misogyny they believed Trump represented. Clinton’s cosmopolitan candidacy was more defined by her opposition to Trump than by any particularly substantive message or vision of her own.

While we can and should try to understand those different from ourselves — whether they be other Stanford students, fellow Americans, or people of different cultures — insisting that everyone in the world truly belongs to one shared community runs counter to human instinct and reality.

In fact, doing so will only continue to inspire the type of backlash that brought Trump to power. Over the past eight years, proponents of radical inclusivity painted a portrait of America that Trump supporters found empty and alien. President Obama’s rejection of American exceptionalism and insistence on multicultural inclusivity as the new American creed rang false to them. Radical inclusivity and cosmopolitanism continue to fail to unify the country not because swaths of America are backward and bigoted, but because a community defined only by open membership — and not what that membership actually entails — has no substance onto which its members can latch.

The backlash against these vacuous ideals has led to the radical fracturing that now characterizes American politics. One of those fractions turned to Trump’s vision of America — one far narrower and more recognizable than Obama’s. His promise to stop immigration from Latin America and the Middle East “dead, cold, flat”, was a comforting rebuke to the Obama era’s creep towards open borders. His pledge to fight and defeat outsiders — “gangs”, “criminals”, “terrorists” — in order to create a sense of an American community with clear limits was a welcome rebellion against globalism. The Sisyphean pursuit of global citizenship has simply intensified tribalism.

A similar phenomenon has played out on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed, populist nationalism has recently gained so much traction throughout the West because it has capitalized on citizens’ fears that their national identities are being erased. When Marine Le-Pen espouses anti-immigrant populism, her words can be understood as “Make France Great Again”.

Students at Stanford may stand for much that Trump does not, but, in an important sense, we do not behave so differently. As Stanford has become more diverse, life at the Farm is increasingly defined by the communities one belongs to rather than by some overriding Stanford ethic. We may all be Stanford students, but what exactly that means is no longer clear. “Fuzzy” or “techie”, Review writer or Daily columnist, conveys much more about ourselves than “Cardinal”.

Through overseas seminars, speakers series, BOSP study abroad, and the Crothers Global Citizenship themed dorm, Stanford still aspires to mold its students into global citizens. While these resources are excellent mechanisms through which to learn about, appreciate, and navigate cultural difference, they do not bridge the gap between understanding and belonging. New York, Paris, Beijing, and Cape Town may be oases of learning and cosmopolitanism, but each “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable rather than distinct. Sampling a foreign culture with other Stanford students for 10 weeks may be eye-opening, but it does not engender belonging.

If Stanford, an institution whose resources, worldview, and energy make it exceedingly well positioned to pursue global citizenship, cannot truly achieve this goal, the chances of being able to do so elsewhere seem slim.

Faced with a fledgling country whose citizens were loyal to states rather than a central government, the Founding Fathers similarly recognized over 200 years ago that membership in smaller communities would outweigh membership in larger ones. Instead of attempting to “incorporate” these communities into a federal framework, they pioneered a policy that worked with, not against, this recognition of human social behavior: federalism. By delegating power and enabling state and local governments to experiment, federalism leveraged cultural, geographical, economic, and other differences. We would do well to apply this insight to our current situation.

We will not heal division by patching over it. As Stanford students, we should certainly aspire to be part of an international community of scholars. This same commitment to rational thought, however, must force us to question global citizenship and the notion that building the biggest and most inclusive community possible will be a silver bullet for our problems.

Yet, rejecting global citizenship does not mean rejecting diversity. In fact, recognizing the limits of our ability to belong strengthens diverse communities that would otherwise become weak and diluted without the ability to distinguish themselves.

Stanford’s communities are vibrant precisely because they are different from other groups on campus. Whether it’s building solar cars or performing public service, they are meaningful because what they do is unique. But to sacrifice the diversity of the narrower, more closely-knit groups that make up our larger society is to create a community to which no one belongs. When everyone is a global citizen, no one is.

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