Cantigny Conference Series: Dual Citizenship and American National Identity

A Dilemma of Diversity

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So What? Some Basic Questions
Metaphors and Muddles
Dual Citizenship and American Democracy
The Domestic Context of Dual Citizenship: American Culture in Transition
The Domestic Context of Dual Citizenship: American Character in Transition
Dual Citizenship and Integration of Immigrants
What Should Be Done: Policy Responses to Dual Citizenship



In recent decades, the number of countries that allow, and in the case of many immigrant‑sending countries, encourage, their nationals to hold multiple citizenships has exploded. Though this was once a relatively rare occurrence, I recently counted 89 countries that now allow multiple citizenships.* No doubt others will soon be added to that list.

My concern here, however, is not with dual citizenship as an element of international migration issues. Rather, it is with its impact on American national identity and culture. Understanding that impact begins with some numbers.

The latest official estimates (1997) of the number of foreign‑born persons, of whatever legal status, living in the United States is almost 26 million (25.8). Official INS figures for 1994‑1998 show that 16 of these "top 20" immigrant sending countries (80 percent) allow some form of multiple citizenship. Of the 2.6 million-plus immigrants from the top 20 sending countries between 1994 and 1998, 2.2 million-plus (83.9 percent) are multiple-citizenship immigrants. Historically, of the 22 million-plus immigrants legally admitted into this country between 1961 and 1997, 16 and 1/3 million, or almost 75 percent, are from dual/multiple-citizenship-allowing countries.

The basic data are indisputable: American immigration policy is resulting in the admission of large numbers of persons from countries that have taken legislative steps (for economic, political, and cultural reasons) to maintain and foster their ties with countries from which they emigrated. One may disagree about the importance or implications of these facts, but not with their presence.


So What? Some Basic Questions

I would like to consider some of the implications of these figures, but I want to do so in a way balanced somewhere between the enthusiastic and determinedly naive embrace of massive dual‑citizenship immigration as a matter of little consequence to us (as expressed by Peter Spiro in his article, "Dual Nationality and the Meaning of Citizenship," published in the Emory Law Journal 46 in 1997), and the premature, but not unrealistic, concern of our possible evolution into a country where separate psychological, cultural, and political loyalties trump a coherent national identity (as described by Georgie Anne Geyer in her 1996 book, Americans No More: The Death of Citizenship).

Current discussions of this issue have been decidedly narrow. Most have been carried out by law school professors and political theorists, many of whom have been enthusiastic advocates of dual citizenship. Those with legal backgrounds have looked to the law to see if what they find desirable is legally possible. They have been joined by political theorists whose ruminations are only constrained by their immigrations and who rarely are concerned with the extent to which their speculations are rooted in solid fact or theory.

Consider the question of multiple loyalties and national identity. Most advocates subscribe to the "why not one more?" theory. (Sanford Levinson put forth an eloquent formulation of this view in his article, "Constructing Communities Through Words that Bind: Reflections on Loyalty Oaths," in the Michigan Law Review 1440 in 1986.) We are reminded that we are, as in my own case, sons, husbands, and fathers. We are labeled as Caucasian and western. We are working class by background and upper‑middle class by socioeconomic status. We are Jewish and reformed; New Yorkers, Manhattanites, and Upper West Siders. We are professors, scholar/writers, psychologists, psychoanalysts, and neo‑Freudians. We are economically progressive, politically moderate, and culturally conservative. And we are Americans, Northerners, and Jewish‑Americans.

Postmodern theorists like Kenneth J. Gergen in his 1998 book The Saturated Self see us as comprising a virtually unlimited and replaceable set of selves that can be enacted or abandoned at will. Liberal political theorists and their allies count up all the categories by which we may be understood and conclude that adding one more, say, Mexican or Indian nationality, will make little, if any, difference. David A. Martin expressed this view in "New Rules on Dual Nationality for a Democratizing Globe: Between Rejection and Embrace," in the Georgetown Immigration Law Review 14 in 1999.

The first basic fallacy of these arguments is the idea that core identity elements are infinitely malleable. They are not. The second is that all identifications have equal weight. They do not. The "why not one more?" theory fails to distinguish between the elements that form a central core of one's psychology and identity and those that are more peripheral. I am much more a father than a Caucasian, much more a political moderate and cultural conservative than an Upper West Sider, and definitely more of an American than most of the other categories in my list.

Before we can talk sensibly about whether it is truly possible to have two or more divergent core national identities, we had better be clear about what it takes to develop and maintain a coherent, integrated one. And we had better be clear about how personal and national identity functions to support the cultural and political arrangements that underlie this fabulous experiment, America.



Metaphors and Muddles

Such understanding may help us make less of a muddle of our metaphors. For example, beginning in the 19th century, dual citizenship has often been compared to bigamy. However, in my view, that analogy is deficient. Marriage is a voluntary union between two adults searching for intimacy, companionship, and partnership. It is based on a combination of similarity, complementarity, practicality, and the hope for wish fulfillment.

Nationality that combination of national identification, psychology and outlook on the other hand, begins with the earliest experiences of language, family, custom, and parental psychology. Furthermore, this early foundation generally develops within a relatively consistent institutional, cultural, and psychological setting that is not freely chosen nor easily abandoned. In these and other ways, nationality and national identity are quite the opposite of marriage.

In his article, "Between National and Post‑National: Membership in the United States," in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law 241 in 1999, T. Alexander Aleinikoff compares dual citizenship to the relationships between one's family and one's in-laws. He notes that conflicts may arise, but believes a person can still be loyal to both.

However, consider what happens in a marriage when both parties feel very strongly about an issue a matter of principle for each. How does one resolve and maintain fidelity to dual loyalties in such circumstances? Not every issue between two countries will involve irreconcilable principles and policies, but they might well arise. And what are the effects of siding with your family at the expense of your spouse? Translated into the concerns being discussed here, what is the effect of having groups of dual citizens side with or give strong weight to the official views of their country of origin the effect on them, on the United States, and on the country from which they came?

The metaphor linking family life and national identity suggests certain parallels. There are of course, differences as well. The nation is not a parent writ large. Nor does it have the primary responsibilities for nurture, guidance, and socialization.

On the other hand, the nation, like the family is present from the child's earliest experiences. It is to be found in the language, cultural practices, and national cultural identifications of the parents. However, the nation is also the consistent context in which the child's development unfolds, and provides the institutions (e.g., schools, civic and community experiences) and objects (flags, rituals like the pledge of allegiance) through which the child's personal and national identity becomes fused at an early age.

Nationality and national identity, therefore, seem closer to family than to married life. Is it possible to have equally full, deep, and enduring relationships with two spouses? I doubt it. However, if the family metaphor is more apt, it would be more accurate to begin with a basic fact and then ask some questions:



  • Is it possible to have two different sets of parents, with different core psychologies, different sets of values, different sets of beliefs, different world views, and the information and experiences that support them all? I don't think so.
  • Is it possible to give equal weight to all these elements that help form one's central emotional attachments? No, not without an extremely shallow foundation for ones' identity. Such an identity is more likely to be conflicted than functional.

The idea that individuals can integrate multiple, conflicting basic orientations toward life may well prove a form of cultural conceit. As Michael Waltzer notes in his 1997 book On Toleration, "In immigrant societies people have begun to experience what we might think of as a life without clear boundaries and without secure or singular identities." It is apparently easier for some in the privileged elite to disregard the primary attachments that most citizens have to their own countries. In so doing they appear to have confused sophistication with a new form of modern rootlessness. Such people may go anywhere, but essentially belong nowhere.

Dual Citizenship and American Democracy

Advocates consistently minimize the difficulties of being fully engaged, knowledgeable, and effective citizens in one political system, much less two. The "test" for citizenship requires, for example, knowledge of a number of disjointed facts requiring little if any knowledge of the traditions, political and psychological, that have shaped this country. Many thousands become citizens and require translations of ballots on which they cast their vote. It is hardly likely that these citizens have followed the complex pros and cons of policy issues, since they don't well understand the language in which these debates are conducted. (Stanley J. Kelley and T. Mirer discussed the complexities of voting in "The Simple Act of Voting" in the American Political Science Review 68 in 1974.)

Some ask whether it is legitimate to hold immigrants to a standard unmet by citizens. It is a fair question. According to an article in the New York Times by Scott Veale on July 2, 2000, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that supports liberal arts education, asked a series of high‑school-level multiple‑choice questions to a randomly selected group of graduating seniors at the nation's most elite colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, and Brown. The results were dismal. Seventy‑one percent of our nation's best students did not know the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation. Seventy‑eight percent were not able to identify the author of the phrase "of the people, for the people, by the people." And 70 percent could not link Lyndon Johnson with the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act. Yet, 99 percent correctly identified Beavis and Butthead, and 98 percent could correctly identify Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Both immigrants and native‑born citizens, it seems, have much to learn about their country.

It remains to be seen whether it is truly possible to be conversant with the traditions and policy debates of two countries. Evidence keeps mounting that doing so even in one country is a task beyond the reach of increasing numbers of American citizens. Yet, this a poor reason, given the importance to democracy of an informed citizenry, to lower standards and expectations for everyone.


The Domestic Context of Dual Citizenship: American National Culture in Transition

Advocates of dual citizenship look to the past, and reassure us that we are unlikely to go to war over dual citizenship, as we did with the British in 1812. That seems true. Yet while international military conflicts that engage or test the loyalties of dual citizens cannot be easily ruled out, the real problem is not war, but cohesion.

Any serious discussion of the implications of dual citizenship for the United States must consider the extent to which the fundamental personal, institutional, and cultural understandings that have provided the unum for the pluribus have increasingly become matters of contention. That debate is usually, and I think too narrowly, framed in terms of common values or, as Jeffery Alexander and Neil Smelser put it in the 1999 book, Diversity and Its Discontents, "The core of the complaint concerns common values in American society." A major problem with focusing on values is that they are too abstract. Who doesn't believe in democracy? Who is against opportunity?

Americans may agree at the stratospheric level that democracy is best. However, that hasn't exempted any of our major social, cultural, or political institutions or patterns of traditional practice from acute conflicts over the specific ways in which they are constituted and operate. That is, after all, the meaning of the phrase "culture wars." Actually, though, that term is inaccurate since the reality is that there are a series of wars: "science wars," "history wars," "school wars," "military‑culture wars," "gender wars, "family wars," and "policy wars" on every domestic issue from affirmative action to welfare.



The Domestic Context of Dual Citizenship: American Character in Transition?

The origin of American national culture can be traced to the twin motivations behind the establishment of the first colonies and the psychology necessary to realize them. The twin motivations were economic and social opportunity on the one hand and personal and political freedom on the other. The psychology that made these motivations possible was symbolized and reflected in the frontier, which required courage, independence, and self‑reliance from those living there. Of course, the psychology of independence and self‑reliance was, from the start, embedded in a setting of interpersonal, social, and community connections. From its inception, then, one fundamental paradox of American national psychology was that people were expected both to fit in and to stand out.

There have been, however, deep changes in American national psychology. There are still among us self‑reliant, independent-minded persons. Yet there are also, as David Reisman pointed out in his 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, many "other-directed" persons who look away from themselves for clues as to how they should act or what they should think. This group coexists with those raised and brought to maturity in the "culture of narcissism" that dominated the '60s and '70s, as described by Christopher Lasch in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. And that group in turn shares our country with those whose 11th commandment is, "Thou shall not judge," and refuse to make any judgments.

So, immigrants arriving into American culture arrive in circumstances where not only the basic legitimacy of the culture's institutions and practices are at issue. They arrive as well into a culture in which the basic psychology necessary to sustain the founding principles of freedom and opportunity are eroding. Strong, independent-minded convictions and the courage to maintain fidelity to them; independence and the ability to stand apart from others if necessary; and self‑reliance are becoming increasingly scarce. The pervasive complaint that one group or another has been victimized because of disparities runs counter to the historically and psychologically deeply embedded connection between the intensity, consistency, and quality of efforts to achieve one's ambitions and the possibilities of doing so. Demands for equality regardless of achievement and tolerance regardless of behavior are increasingly becoming the ethic by which Americans are being asked to live.



Dual Citizenship and Integration of Immigrants

The United States is facing a virtually unprecedented set of circumstances with regard to multiple citizenships. Becoming an American is not simply a matter of agreeing that democracy is the best form of government. It is a commitment to a psychology and the way of life that flows from it. And it ultimately entails an appreciation of, a commitment to, and yes even a love and reverence for all that it stands for and provides.

It is easy to see America instrumentally. It is a place of enormous personal freedom and great economic opportunities. America has always recognized that many arrive seeking those treasures that are in such short supply in so many of the countries from which they come. The fear that self‑interest will come at the expense of developing appreciation and genuine emotional connection to the country has, I think, always been the sub‑text of attempts to ensure that new arrivals became "American."

That has been the tradeoff. America takes the chance that it can leverage self‑interest and transform it to authentic commitment. Immigrants agree in coming here to reorient themselves toward their new lives and away from their old ones. This involves some basics: learning, to the extent of being at home with English; understanding the institutions and practices that define American culture; and reflecting on the ways in which the immigrant's search for freedom and opportunity fit in with the history, with all its vicissitudes, that has shaped the idea and promise of America.

It is only at that point that the transformation from self‑interest to genuine emotional connection can be made. In the past, that implicit contract was buttressed by some practical facts. One might be an Italian, but the ability to read Italian newspapers, to keep up with the news in your local village or city, was limited, and the chance to see your country of origin again was a seminal life event.

Today that is far from the case. Jet travel and its accessibility to all but the most financially marginal has erased boundaries of time and geography. Internet access to newspapers and people has likewise eroded distances. Anxiety about finding psychological grounding in a culture that allows, perhaps even encourages, the diffusion of the traditional sources of individual identity leads people to seek it somewhere anywhere. The unprecedented search for "roots" can best be understood in a society with anxieties about rootlessness.



What Should be Done: Policy Responses to Dual Citizenship

The question naturally arises as to what, if anything, the United States should do about these facts. Dual citizenship is a fact of contemporary international life, and it is not going away. Therefore, talk about abolishing dual citizenship is unlikely to be productive and likely to divert discussions away from what really can be accomplished.

The United States, unlike almost every other country in the world that allows dual citizenship, does nothing to regulate it. As a result, all dual citizens in the United States are free to undertake the responsibilities of citizenship in one or more other countries. These include, but are not limited to: swearing allegiance to a foreign state, voting in another country's election, serving in its armed forces (even in combat positions, and even if the state is a "hostile" one), running for office in a foreign country, and, if successful, serving. These citizens can also serve on policymaking and advice-giving bodies in the United States, even those addressing issues that are central to or affect the interests of their countries of origin. They can serve as judges, state senators, congressmen, senators, governors and even, if I understand the Constitution correctly, as president, so long as they meet the other mandated requirements. Informed constitutional judgment suggests Congress could legislatively address any of these, or other, issues arising out of these multiple, perhaps, conflicting responsibilities. Yet, to date, it has chosen not to do so.

At some point, Congress should act, and I present here (but do not analyze), four proposals to shape and guide United States policy in this area:



  1. No voting in other elections;
  2. No serving in the armed forces or serving as a combatant volunteer of another country;
  3. No serving in positions of policymaking or advice;
  4. Children of dual-citizenship nations would have the opportunity when they came of age to choose whether to become United States citizens or to exercise their right to become a citizen of their parents' country of origin, if they wished, while retaining legal status as permanent aliens.

These proposals will lead some to say they are against the interests of immigrants. They are not. Policies that help promote the development of primary emotional, cultural, social, and political ties in and to the country immigrants have chosen to become part of are an important element of good relations between both.


America reached its present state of political, economic, and social development by providing enormous personal freedom and abundant economic opportunity. In doing so, the nation leveraged personal ambitions as a tool to transform individuals' social and economic circumstances. In the process, it helped develop and reinforce psychological elements that were consistent with personal success and civic prudence. An emphasis on consistency, hard work, delay of immediate gratification, prudence, pragmatism, and optimism were among these.

In return, America asked of immigrants that they learn the country's language, culture, and political practices. Thus oriented toward their new home, immigrants could become part of the fabric of American cultural and political life. Leaving a life behind, even one that one wanted to leave, was, of course, difficult. Yet, generations of earlier immigrants thought the sacrifice worthwhile.

Dual citizenship and its associated bifurcation of attention and commitment changes that traditional and successful recipe. Immigrants increasingly come from countries that encourage dual citizenship. Their purposes in doing so are primarily self‑interested.

This poses a dilemma for the United States. It has traditionally taken in immigrants with the assumption that they would become anchored to American identity and nationality over time in a way that was not primarily instrumental. In the past this was a reasonable assumption. It no longer is.

Dual citizenship seems well suited to an age in which advocates, theorists, and politicians tell us there are no limits on what we should expect to have. Want the benefits of freedom and opportunity, buttressed by a 21st century infrastructure and unlimited access to consumer goods, but still want to maintain and further develop your emotional, economic, social, and political ties to your "home" country?2 Why not? For the immigrant, this dramatically lowers the costs of immigration and raises its benefits, while lowering what is asked of immigrants in return.

Yet to a democracy especially one facing issues of cultural coherence and solidarity, the costs of admitting and allowing large numbers of dual citizens are not so favorable. In a time characterized by enormous worry regarding the decline of social capital and its implications for American civic life, the split attachments of large numbers of dual citizens is another source of deep concern. No country, and certainly no democracy, can afford to have large numbers of citizens with shallow national and civic attachments. No country facing divisive domestic issues arising out of its increasing diversity, as America does, benefits from large‑scale immigration of those with multiple loyalties and attachments. And no country striving to reconnect its citizens to a coherent civic identity and culture can afford to encourage and reward its citizens to look elsewhere for their most basic national attachments.


* Some material in this essay draws on Stanley A. Renshon, "Dual Citizens in America: An Issue of Vast Proportions and Broad Significance," Washington, D.C.: Center for Immigration Studies, 2000.

1 Following the 1986 Supreme Court's decision in Afroyim v Rusk (387 U.S. 253) Congress repealed parts of the statutory provisions of American citizenship law by adding the key requirement that loss of citizenship could occur only on the citizen's "voluntarily performing any of the following acts with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality" [Act of Nov. 14, 1986, 18, 100 Stat. 3655, 3658 (codified as amended in 8 U.S.C. 1481 (1988)]. With that, the onus shifted to the government to demonstrate that a designated act had been performed both voluntarily and with the specific intent to renounce U.S. citizenship.

2 No less an authority on self‑interest without responsibility than former President Clinton found the idea of dual citizenship publicly appealing.
Jerry Rawlings, President of Ghana mentioned in a news conference with President Clinton that he was sponsoring a bill to allow to allow present and former nationals of Ghana dual citizenship. Part of that exchange follows:


Q: Would it be dual loyalty?

President Rawlings: Well, I guess that what we have a bit of‑we don't have any problem with that ... I have a problem with you because you're demanding loyalty to the American Constitution and yet I cannot command the same type of loyalty in my country.

President Clinton: ... Almost all countries allow some form of dual certainly won't hurt to get more Americans interested in Ghana and contribute to Ghana's future. I thought it was quite as clever idea myself.

See William J. Clinton, "Remarks at a Welcoming Ceremony for President Jerry John Rawlings of Ghana," (February 24, 1999) Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, March 1, 1999, 35:8, 298‑99.

Stanley Renshon is a professor of political science and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Program in the Psychology of Social and Political Behavior at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. He is also a certified psychoanalyst. Author of numerous articles and books on presidential politics, leadership, and political psychology, his recent treatments of the Clinton presidency include High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition, which garnered the 1997 American Political Science Association's award for the best book published on the presidency. The work also won the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis' Gradvia Award in 1998 for the best published work in the category of biography. Currently, Renshon is a visiting scholar at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, where his research focuses on American national identity and the dilemmas of diversity. For the 2000-2001 academic year, Renshon is a research fellow at the Kennedy School and is studying the role of character issues in the 2000 presidential election.

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