When Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York offered, in late September, an “administrative policy change” that would have enabled illegal aliens to apply for state drivers’ licences, he set off a furious revving of political engines that has still not quietened down.

The licences-for-aliens issue hasn’t just provided fodder for gleeful tabloids out to embarrass Spitzer (dubbed “Gov. Flipser” after he retracted his plan once he’d gauged how unpopular it was). It has vaulted, also, into the debates between the Democratic presidential candidates, as well as into the wider national punch-up on the subject of immigration reform.

My aim in this column is not to delve into the details of Spitzer’s initiative – or, indeed, those of similar plans in other states of the union. I intend, instead, to examine the cultural surface on which this debate is etched.

It is certainly fair, if not quite incontestable, to say that American society has had five leitmotifs – or totems – in the 20th and 21st centuries. They are, in no particular order of importance: the courts; war; the stock market; automobiles; and immigration.

And each has shaped the US in distinctive, even relentless ways. I shall attempt to explain how.

The courts have determined the rules by which Americans live, and the enforceable values by which coexistence is made possible in an often excessively individualistic society. In a broadly secular country, the courts are the only institution to which many citizens turn for spiritual and moral guidance.

War has shaped national myths and patriotism, as well as determining America’s place and image in the world. This is true as much for “good” wars (the first and second world wars) as for “bad” ones (Vietnam and Iraq).

The market has defined Americans’ attitudes to wealth and opportunity, and ultimately to class and ideology. Let us not forget that its collapse, and the Depression that ensued, paved the way for welfare-ism, the implications of which are still at the forefront of American politics.

But what of automobiles? It is not an exaggeration to say that they have determined the geography of America’s imagination. More specifically, they have shaped demographic and residential patterns, making suburban America possible. They have brought personal liberation, and have been engines of economic growth. And who can ignore their political role? Without the car, it is doubtful we would have had the sort of environmental politics we have today.

And immigration? Of the five totems, this one is the least complex philosophically (which may explain, in part, the passion with which battles over it are fought). Without immigrants, we would not have America as we now know it. Immigration defined America’s origins, and continues to define the country’s self-image. In foreign relations, America’s thin skin is the thin skin of an immigrant civitas.

All of which brings me back to the question of drivers’ licences for illegal aliens. What makes the issue so politically combustible is the coming together, in a single debate, of two of America’s totems. When the two – cars and immigration – coalesce, the reaction and terms of debate illuminate more about America and its soul than they do the narrow confines of the licence question.

Automobiles and immigration are both about freedom: specifically, the freedom of movement. They are also, both, Janus-faced – a blessing and, sometimes, a curse. The car gave us personal mobility. Yet it is destroying our cities, and our civility. On the one hand we have the joys of the open road; on the other, honking tailbacks, road rage, pollution and reliance on despots.

Ditto immigrants: they are, on the one hand, the great strength of an open society such as America. On the other hand, the flood of seemingly unassimilable immigrants is straining America’s tolerance and, as some would see it, its system of shared values.

The trick, of course, is to get the best out of these two Januses. This should not be beyond the wit of a society that has built itself on immigration and autos – and would not survive without either.

The author is a contributing editor at the FT

Matthew Engel is away

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