Toppling the Melting Pot: Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism

Toppling the Melting Pot: Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism

Toppling the Melting Pot: Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism

Toppling the Melting Pot: Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism


The catalyst for much of classical pragmatist political thought was the great waves of migration to the United States in the early twentieth century. Jose-Antonio Orosco examines the work of several pragmatist social thinkers, including John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Josiah Royce, and Jane Addams, regarding the challenges large-scale immigration brings to American democracy. Orosco argues that the ideas of the classical pragmatists can help us understand the ways in which immigrants might strengthen the cultural foundations of the United States in order to achieve a more deliberative and participatory democracy. Like earlier pragmatists, Orosco begins with a critique of the melting pot in favor of finding new ways to imagine the civic role of our immigrant population. He concludes that by applying the insights of American pragmatism, we can find guidance through controversial contemporary issues such as undocumented immigration, multicultural education, and racialized conceptions of citizenship.


It is not true that all creeds and cultures are equally assimilable in a First
World nation born of England, Christianity, and Western civilization. Race,
faith, ethnicity and history leave genetic fingerprints no “proposition nation”
can erase.… Race matters. Ethnicity matters. History matters.

        —Patrick Buchanan, State of Emergency

These thoughts about contemporary immigration to the United States, penned by conservative political commentator Patrick Buchanan, hearken back to heated debates at the beginning of the twentieth century. the first decade of that century saw a great surge of immigration to the United States. Many of the newcomers came from Eastern and Southern Europe rather than the traditional places of origin for European Americans. These diverse waves of immigrants occasioned significant cultural soul searching among the us American public about the foundations of our national identity. Indeed, many iconic images of immigrant life in the United States, such as huddled masses waiting at Ellis Island, or ships passing the Statue of Liberty with eager passengers, were forged at this time. It was during this period that the term “melting pot” was coined as a metaphor for describing the process by which newcomers ought to be absorbed into mainstream society. This melting pot metaphor still resonates profoundly with us Americans today.

Buchanan, however, challenges the common interpretation of this metaphor. We are mistaken, he maintains, if we take the melting pot ideal to mean that immigrants have a right to come to the United States and retain their culture, as long as they pledge allegiance to certain distinct political values or constitutional propositions. Along with the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, Buchanan argues that the United States is not, at its fundamental core, an immigrant nation to which any ethnic group can assimilate. Instead, the United States is a “settler nation” whose political culture and institutions were essentially defined by the original Anglo-Saxon pioneers and their ways of life. Liberal immigration policies that recommend open borders threaten the social and political stability of the United States, they both argue, because such regulations permit large groups of foreigners, who may not share these ethnic or cultural foundations, to enter and stay in the country. Huntington is somewhat measured in his assessment of the . . .

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