I heard on the news about a group called "America First" that supposedly wants to protect "Anglo-Saxon values". Other American and European nativists have also used that phrase.

Why the Anglo-Saxon part? Why not, say, "European values"? Is it because they want to exclude people like the Irish and others?

  • 1
    I don't want to name its founders because I don't want controversy – New Jerseyan Yooper Apr 22 at 15:52
  • 19
    I’m not sure this is universal. I’ve seen white supremacists use “European values” and “western values” too. I don’t know that I’d put too much thought into the specifics, since they’re all euphemisms for “white people”, however that group chooses to define them – divibisan Apr 22 at 16:12
  • 2
    I wasn't saying it was. I wanted to focus on why they are picking on the Anglo-Saxon specifically. – New Jerseyan Yooper Apr 22 at 16:14
  • 2
    I doubt people who identify with their German, Jewish, Irish, Italian... heritage would specifically want to protect Anglo-Saxon values. – Vladimir F Apr 25 at 10:56
  • 4
    @VladimirF: the Saxon in Anglo Saxon heritage, refers to Germanic heritage. But it is indeed (in my opinion) a term meant to exclude Irish and Italian, as well as French and Polish heritage. – jmoreno Apr 25 at 19:16

The notion of 'Anglo-Saxon values' goes back to the days of British colonialism. One of the more common justifications of colonialism was that the British (Anglo-Saxon) culture was the pinnacle of societal achievement, something that had to be imposed on more 'primitive' races because they weren't sufficiently sophisticated to develop or appreciate it on their own. In that sense, pushing into an undeveloped region, establishing colonies, extracting resources, and coercing native populations into labor forces under British administration was morally acceptable because the British were exporting their superior social and cultural values to the benighted dark-skinned peoples of the world. The idea persisted in US slave culture — to wit, the occasionally-still-heard argument that US blacks should be happy about slavery because it brought them out of Africa into the more enlightened US — and has established itself as a tenet of US Right-wing ethnonationalist ideology.

Whenever you hear a reference of this sort to 'Anglo-Saxon values', understand that the speaker intends to convey an idealized (and almost certainly mythologized) image of 18th/19th century British colonialism, where dark-skinned peoples could not be trusted to rule themselves or participate in their own governance, but must be controlled, administered, educated, and uplifted by the 'perfected' Liberal culture of the British Isles. It isn't xenophobic as much as deeply (absurdly) arrogant and paternalistic.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Philipp Apr 25 at 8:54

Like most motivation questions, we can't answer definitively (unless the group in question have commented), but we can make some intelligent guesses.

"Anglo-Saxon" means the people descended from Germanic invaders of what is now England who then intermarried with the native Celts. The original Anglo-Saxons were not Nordic, but during the Danelaw there was also quite a lot of intermarriage between the invading Norse and the conquered Anglo-Saxons, and then there was the Norman invasion (the Normans were Norse men who settled in northern France).

If you squint and ignore the distinction between the original Anglo-Saxons and the influx of Nordic invaders, this makes "Anglo-Saxon" a close synonym for "Aryan" as the term was defined by the Nazis: ancestry and culture that is Nordic and northern-European. The Nazis believed that Aryan culture and racial characteristics were superior to all others.

So the likely explanation is that they are using "Anglo-Saxon" as a dog-whistle code for "Aryan".

  • 3
    I find this most likely: they want to distance themselves from being compared to Nazi's, but they really have much of the same goals. And they may even romanticize the German history, because many of their ancestors came from there. – computercarguy Apr 23 at 22:27
  • 3
    I don't think it's really a "dog whistle" to avoid using a term that has negative associations. Is "undercover cop" a dog whistle for "secret police"? – Acccumulation Apr 25 at 3:00
  • 4
    @Acccumulation While avoiding terms that use negative associations are not necessarily dog whistles, all dog whistles are by definition avoiding terms with negative associations to the users' opponents. And "secret police" are distingushed from undercover cops in general by being specifically for use against political opponents of the regime. – cjs Apr 25 at 4:37
  • 2
    @Acccumulation The definition of a dog whistle is a term that sounds innocuous to non-believers but carries a clear signal to the believers. "Anglo-saxon values" doesn't make people outside of White Supremacists think of "Aryan". However those who have been "red-pilled" know the White Supremacist version of the history and know what it means. – Paul Johnson Apr 25 at 10:57
  • 2
    @Acccumulation Not in this case. The definition of "Aryan" evolved over time before WW2, but ever since it has been considered to be a basic part of Nazi ideology, and the meaning is the one the Nazis used. – Paul Johnson Apr 25 at 15:03

The term "Anglo-Saxon" is being used in a sense intended to be less obviously discordant than "white" to avoid the obvious association of the movement with White Supremacy, and also to exclude certain people.

It is to some extent a throwback to the conception of a WASP ruling elite in the U.S. which stood for "White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant" and was coined to distinguish white Catholics (mostly from Ireland and Southern Europe) and white Jews from other whites, despite the fact that the movement in question no longer has a strong bone of contention with white Catholics.

In parts of the U.S., the term "Anglo" is in common usage to distinguish between native speakers of English of European descent, from people who are Hispanic.

"Anglo-Saxon" also seeks to distinguish certain cultural/political traditions that might otherwise be within the scope of "white" such as Middle Eastern and North African people, Jews, and the Communist/Democratic Socialist traditions found in much of Continental Europe.

  • Technically, shouldn't Jews be considered a separate ethnic group from Whites because that's how they consider themselves? – nick012000 Apr 26 at 1:30
  • @nick012000 all of the Jews I know consider themselves white. Do you know many who don't? – phoog Apr 26 at 3:31
  • 1
    @phoog "For starters, "white" is not an ethnic group." I'm pretty sure it is, because there are a lot of people who identify as White. It's only polite to refer to someone using the labels that they append to themselves. – nick012000 Apr 26 at 8:57
  • 2
    This is it to me. Racism being unfashionable in many circles, outright white nationalism may scare precious voters away. "Anglo-Saxon values" elevates the argument to a cultural one rather than a racial one. It's a veil of plausible deniablity to attract a more moderate electorate. – AmiralPatate Apr 26 at 11:35
  • 1
    @nick012000 you can "identify as" something that isn't an ethnic group. If some group of ethnic Swedes suddenly declared "we are not white," that would not make it so, regardless of etiquette. It's far more complicated than you're making it out to be. You still haven't supported your claim about the Israeli government, so I begin to doubt it, but I note that a claim that Jews constitute a distinct ethnicity isn't a claim that they're not white (consider e.g. the Irish, Basque, Flemish, or Polish). Also consider that Judaism is a religion, so there are e.g. Ethiopian Jews and Ugandan Jews. – phoog Apr 26 at 13:50

As Paul Johnson points out, if speakers don't state their motivations we can't answer definitively for them. But it does appear to be an attempt (not for the first time) for American "nativists"† to narrow the definition of who is the "natural" ruling group for some part of the world.

Similar terms and ideas go back a long way, and were related to determining just who was and was not properly "white." (The broadly accepted consensus within "white" groups has changed over time and of course is still disputed amongst various groups today.)

Robert P Baird, in "The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea" (The Guardian, 2021-04-20), writes:

Thanks to its role in facilitating slavery, whiteness in the US was often defined in opposition to blackness, but between those two extremes was room for tactical accommodations. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin could claim that only the English and Saxons “make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth”, and nearly 80 years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson would insist that the Irish, like the Chinese and the Native American, were not caucasian. Over time, however, the definition of who counted as culturally white expanded to include Catholics from southern Europe, the Irish and even Jews, who for centuries had been seen as quintessential outsiders.

This expansion of who is "white" was of course opposed by some, and "Anglo-Saxon" became a way to distingish a more narrow definion of who should belong to the ruling group from the expanding definition of "white." Adam Serwer goes into detail about this, in "‘Anglo-Saxon’ Is What You Say When ‘Whites Only’ Is Too Inclusive" (The Atlantic, 2021-04-21):

...it helps to understand that “Anglo-Saxon” is what you say when “whites only” is simply too inclusive.

The Anglo-Saxonism to which I refer has little to do with the Germanic peoples who settled in medieval England. Rather, it’s an archaic, pseudoscientific intellectual trend that gained popularity during the height of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe to the United States, at the turn of the 20th century. Nativists needed a way to explain why these immigrants—Polish, Russian, Greek, Italian, and Jewish—were distinct from earlier generations, and why their presence posed a danger.

They settled on the idea that the original “native” American settlers were descended from “the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains,” as Francis Walker put it in The Atlantic in 1893, and that the new immigrants lacked the biological aptitude for democracy. Anglo-Saxon was a way to distinguish genteel old-money types, such as nativist Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, from members of inferior races who had names such as, well, McCarthy. The influential eugenicist Madison Grant insisted that the Irish possessed an “unstable temperament” and a “lack of coordinating and reasoning power.”

This eventually did lead to the "Aryan" distinction:

This belief that America’s “original” population was Anglo-Saxon, and that the American way of life was threatened by the presence not just of nonwhite people but of inferior, non-Anglo-Saxon (or “Nordic”) white people, shaped the racist immigration-restriction laws of the early 20th century. As historians have documented, it also influenced the ideology of Nazi Germany. Translated into law, it produced such horrifying artifacts as Virginia’s 1924 anti-miscegenation act, passed with the aid of the eugenicist Anglo-Saxon Clubs. The law required all babies to be classified as “white” or “colored” and made it a felony to “misrepresent” your racial background. The Nazi jurists studying American race laws in the 1930s thought such “one drop” rules were a bit too strict.

However, the distinction as made in this case seems to be including groups that would previously have been excluded from the "Anglo-Saxons" and were certainly "non-Aryan" (by early 20th century definitions), such as those of southern European descent. However, though the particular ethnic/regional groups have changed (as they always do over time), the general exclusionary intent and its justification has not:

...it’s clear that prominent Trumpist officials and intellectuals, some of them descended from the very immigrant groups Anglo-Saxon was intended to vilify, agree with some of the presumptions of Anglo-Saxonism. The echo of the notion that, as Francis Walker wrote, non-Anglo-Saxons are biologically incapable of “self-care and self-government” can be heard regularly on outlets such as Fox News, where hosts like Tucker Carlson argue that Democrats wish to “replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” This is biological determinism, but it’s also simply false. The Republican Party is now led by the descendants of the people Walker decried as incapable of self-government, people with surnames like Giuliani and Pompeo, even as it launches these old calumnies at a new generation of immigrants.

Both articles I've quoted here are well worth reading in full. If you're short on time, Serwer's article in The Atlantic is the shorter read and more directly relevant to this StackExchange question, but Baird's article in The Guardian provides better detail and historical perspective on the underlying motives and how this all came about.

†"Nativist" here is what the descendants of certain North American settlers called themselves; they are of course not the earlier natives of North America whom they conquered and displaced.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .