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In the United States today, the rich lay claim to a higher share of our nation’s wealth than they have at any point since the Gilded Age — and foreign-born residents account for a higher share of our nation’s population than at just about any time since that same era.
In his 2016 book, The Great Exception: The New Deal & The Limits of American Politics, the historian Jefferson Cowie suggests that these two developments are related. His case is simple: It is hard to implement egalitarian economic policies in the absence of working-class solidarity — and it is hard to achieve the latter in a context of mass, multi-ethnic immigration.
According to this analysis, it wasn’t purely coincidence that American workers secured themselves a “New Deal” shortly after Congress passed (profoundly racist) restrictions on immigration, nor that the New Deal consensus unraveled shortly after those restrictions were lifted in 1965. Throughout the Gilded Age, America’s industrial working class was riven by bitter tensions between protestants and Catholics; and/or between longtime Anglo-American citizens, and newly arrived Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants. These ethnic and religious tensions divided workers (and the trade union movement) between the two major parties, preventing them from consolidating power within either.
In 1924, native-born protestants’ fear and loathing of their newly arrived, non-English speaking — and, in the near-unanimous opinion of contemporary scientists, racially inferior — compatriots reached its fullest expression in the Johnson-Reed Act, which all but barred Southern and Eastern Europeans from America’s shores. Nativists hoped that this Eugenicist legislation would safeguard the invidious distinctions between Anglo-Saxons and the lesser European-American “races.” It did the very opposite.
As America’s foreign-born population fell, nativist reaction receded, and European-Americans of all ethnicities assimilated into whiteness. Cowie summarizes the implications that this development had for class politics in the U.S.:
[W]hen the 1929 crash hit, nativism was largely at bay and workers living in this country were presumed to be here to stay. This in itself was enough to engender more of a sense of unity among working people than before. By effectively neutralizing one of the most common reasons why a sense of unity or shared economic destiny had fallen apart in the past, the mitigation of the nativist impulse helped shape an era of greater equality.
When the 2008 crash hit, by contrast, America’s foreign-born population was nearing historic highs, nativism was rampant, and a xenophobic right-wing movement ended up harvesting much of the oppositional energy unleashed by the financial elite’s epic feats of economic mismanagement. Cowie suggests that none of this should have surprised us:
When immigration resurfaced slowly in the generation after the 1965 immigration reforms, so did neo-Know Nothings and the militant nativism of an earlier age, returning “the” working class to historical patterns of internecine hostilities and political divisions reminiscent of the pre-New Deal Era. As throughout much of the twentieth century, few issues generate more visceral and divisive political reactions among native-born citizens than immigration — be it the immigrant cauldron of Five Points in New York on the 1830s or tensions along the militarized Arizona border today. To put it plainly, for most of American history, battle lines have been drawn around the social reality and policy issues of immigration — except during the period of the New Deal order.
Thus, in Cowie’s telling, the 1924 Immigration Act was one of several aberrant developments that allowed for “the great exception” that was the New Deal era: the sole period in American history when “the central government used its considerable resources in a systematic, if hardly consistent, fashion on behalf of the economic interest of non-elite Americans,” and, thereby, built the most prosperous middle class the world had ever known.
It was also one of the aberrant developments that allowed the Nazis to murder my grandmother’s entire family.
In all of this, some on the left see a progressive case for reducing immigration.
The Great Exception is no nativist tract. The argument of Cowie’s book isn’t that the American left must embrace immigration restrictionism, but rather that it shouldn’t model its vision for achieving 21st-century social democracy on “an extraordinarily unique period in American history.” After all, it wasn’t merely low levels of immigration that made the New Deal era exceptional, but also, Jim Crow rule in the South (which temporarily persuaded some Southern Democrats that they could have their activist federal government and their racial caste system, too), a prolonged depression, a global war against fascism, and the rise of a rival great power with a competing, egalitarian economic model.
Given the impossibility of recreating these conditions, Cowie argues that the American left should abandon its nostalgic dreams of reassembling the New Deal coalition, and instead look to the “pre-Depression, pre-trauma outlines of progressive-style politics, albeit updated for the global age” — a politics defined by “shifting alliances, diffuse leadership, cross-class identification, and general social ferment.” While Cowie details the challenges that mass immigration poses for progressive politics, he also suggests that America’s foreign-born working-class can offer the left a vital source of radical energy; at one point, the historian approvingly quotes an organizer of the 2006 Great American Boycott, who argues that immigration activists “are rescuing from anonymity the struggle for the 8-hour day, begun in Chicago over a century ago by the immigrants of yesteryear. They are recovering the traditions of all working people.”
But in 2018, some on the left would beg to differ. In their view, the resurgence of a nativist far-right across Europe — and the election of a certain far-right nativist in the United States — have demonstrated the impossibility of reconciling progressive politics with mass immigration. These intellectuals embrace much of Cowie’s analysis, but reject his conclusion; they maintain that progressives will never find the road to America’s social democratic future until they circle back to its restrictionist past.
In his new book, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization, the liberal political analyst John Judis argues that “without control of borders and immigration, it is very hard to imagine the United States becoming a more egalitarian society” — and thus, that the American left should support reducing legal immigration, and establishing stiff penalties against companies that employ undocumented immigrants (Judis does stipulate that such a policy must not be implemented until undocumented immigrants already in the country are provided with legal status). Meanwhile, in an essay titled “The Left Case Against Open Borders,” the nonfiction writer (and “dirtbag left” fellow-traveler) Angela Nagle writes that a mindless “moral absolutism” about immigrants’ rights has led progressives to blind themselves to what libertarian champions of “mass immigration” see all too clearly: that the so-called free movement of labor actually “benefits the elites within the most powerful countries in the world, further disempowers organized labor, robs the developing world of desperately needed professionals, and turns workers against workers.”
More prominently (if less programmatically), Hillary Clinton recently implored the European center-left to “send a very clear message: ‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support;’ because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.” Specifically, the former Democratic nominee suggested that if responsible politicians (in both the U.S. and Europe) refuse to limit immigration, then voters will hire the authoritarian right to do that job.
Some arguments for progressive restrictionism rest on substantive critiques of mass immigration as a policy. Judis suggests that working-class hostility to immigration is (at least potentially) rooted in rational material concerns: The perpetual arrival of disempowered, unorganized workers inevitably reduces the bargaining power, and thus, the wages, of native-born laborers. Nagle seconds that claim, while also arguing that open immigration hurts developing countries, by funneling their brightest minds to wealthy, Western nations.
And yet, mass immigration’s allegedly adverse economic effects are only inevitable if one presumes that its allegedly adverse political effects are, too. Which is to say: There’s no technical conflict between social democracy (or democratic socialism) and mass immigration. In fact, in countries with declining birth rates like the United States, regular infusions of working-age laborers from abroad render social welfare programs more sustainable, in fiscal terms. Further, there is no economic reason why mass immigration must weaken the bargaining power of native-born workers. Of course, immigrants inevitably increase the net supply of labor in an economy, but their arrival also creates new demand. It is perfectly possible, in theory, for a social democratic government — one committed to full employment, and universal collective bargaining rights — to reconcile high levels of immigration with rising living standards for native-born workers. And that government could also, theoretically, rewrite the rules of international trade and investment in a manner that supports state-led development, and provides highly-educated workers in the developing world with more opportunities in their home countries (both Judis and Nagle offer some worthwhile critiques of the free movement of capital).
The progressive case for restrictionism is, then, primarily an argument about politics, not economics. Its strongest contention is that mass immigration erodes the class (and/or national) solidarity necessary for expanding labor movements and welfare states — and inevitably delivers a significant portion of the native-born working-class into the hands of reactionaries. Given these realities, a morally serious (as opposed to moralistic) left must accept lower levels of immigration as a precondition for securing national power, and thus, for having any hope of redressing global inequalities.
This argument isn’t as implausible as I would like it to be. But it also isn’t nearly persuasive enough to justify the American left’s acquiescence to its implications — which are likely to be far grimmer than progressive restrictionists seem to understand.
The United States has been growing simultaneously more diverse and more progressive for decades now.
Liberal restrictionists may see mass immigration as a political boon for the American right — but the American right sure doesn’t. In 2016, future White House adviser Michael Anton wrote that the conservative movement was at a crossroads, with only two viable paths forward: It could either embrace draconian restrictions on legal immigration, or resign itself to certain death.
“The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” Anton wrote, “means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”
Anton’s analysis was, of course, an expression of virulent xenophobia. But his core premise — that mass, non-white immigration is making the American electorate more hostile to the conservative movement’s peculiar conception of “liberty” — has much evidence to support it.
Demographics aren’t destiny. The growing diversity of the American electorate will not guarantee the Democratic Party a sustainable majority (as Judis once suggested it would). But it has, ostensibly, loosened the GOP’s grip on the Sunbelt, all but evicted the party from California, and left Republicans increasingly reliant on counter-majoritarian institutions (like the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the Senate) to exercise power on the national level.
Meanwhile, as the foreign-born share of the U.S. population has surged over the past three decades — and the Democratic coalition has grown markedly less white — Team Blue has grown markedly more progressive. The 1996 Democratic standard-bearer was “tough on crime;” the 2016 one was toughness on “systemic racism.” Being a “centrist” Democrat once meant supporting sharp cuts to Medicare spending; now, it means supporting an expansion of public health insurance (but not necessarily the abolition of the private insurance industry). A party that once took pains to distance itself from labor militancy now eagerly stamps its brand on teachers’ strikes.
Correlation is not causation, of course. The GOP’s declining popular support — and the Democrats’ burgeoning progressivism — are shaped by countless factors besides America’s shifting demographics. But it seems telling that both developments are especially pronounced in states and cities with large immigrant populations. Regardless, correlation is enough to establish that mass immigration does not inevitably pull a country’s politics rightward. In fact, in the U.S., it has not even pulled the politics of immigration rightward, at least as measured by public opinion.
None of this means that mass immigration’s supposed political downsides are mere figments of Nagle’s imagination. On the contrary, there is evidence that rapid increases in America’s foreign-born population have turned some native-born voters more conservative. Demographic analyses of the 2016 Republican primary suggest that Donald Trump’s strongest support came in Midwestern counties with surging Latino populations; sociological research has found that when white voters contemplate the prospect of the U.S. becoming a “majority minority” country — or even when they hear Spanish being spoken on a commuter train — their support for redistributive policies declines. More concretely, the shifting makeup of the major-party coalitions does suggest that mass immigration is taking some toll on working-class solidarity: In recent years, the American electorate has become less polarized according to class position, and more polarized according to attitudes towards immigration.
These findings, the historical trends documented by Cowie, and the ascendance of the far right in Europe all lend credence to the progressive restrictionists’ concerns. Which raises the question: If the restrictionists’ claims about the politics of mass immigration are theoretically sound, why have they proven empirically false in the United States? Or, put more concretely: If mass immigration undermines the left by eroding social solidarity, then how did supporters of single payer health-care just oust the GOP from Orange County?
The rapid diversification of the U.S. has undermined white supremacy more than it has dulled class consciousness.
Where the progressive restrictionists err, in my estimation, is in their failure to account for America’s native-born obstacle to social solidarity: namely, the whole, “Our economy was built atop chattel slavery, a barbaric institution that we rationalized with a mythology of racial difference that only fell out of fashion a couple decades ago” thing.
It is true that the New Deal coalition began unraveling in the late 1960s, shortly after Congress expanded legal immigration. But Congress also passed a little law called the Civil Rights Act during that period. And, in its first decades of ascendancy, the conservative movement drew far more of its strength from white outrage over integration than it did from nativist backlash. As Nagle notes, Ronald Reagan actually sung the praises of open immigration; but the Gipper also sung paeans to “states’ rights,” in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
For a fleeting period, the Democratic Party’s Confederate heritage — combined with a historic economic depression — put the white South into a progressive, partisan coalition with the non-white working class. But in the absence of Jim Crow rule (and the other exceptional circumstances of the New Deal era) a significant segment of America’s white workers has always aligned itself with conservative economic elites, in defense of white supremacy.
This reactionary tendency is both deeply rooted in America’s past and profoundly relevant to its present. As the political scientists Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen demonstrate in Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics, the prevalence of chattel slavery in a southern county circa 1860 reliably correlates with the prevalence of conservative political attitudes there in the present day. This is because human beings typically derive their political values from the social environment that they’re born into; from the attitudes of their parents, and the cultural presumptions of their hometowns. And in places that were ruled by a slavocracy until just two human lifetimes ago, those attitudes and presumptions remain largely hostile to federal intervention and cross-racial collectivism.
Many pundits have attributed the rightward drift of non-college-educated whites in recent years to concerns over mass immigration. And that certainly appears to be part of the story. But according to the research of University of California Irvine political scientist Michael Tesler, a more important causal factor was the election of a black president — which led many low-information white voters in the U.S. to realize, for the first time, that the Democratic Party was more closely aligned with African-Americans than the GOP was. Before Barack Obama’s election, when pollsters asked white non-college-educated voters which party was more supportive of government assistance to black people, less than half said the Democrats; by 2012, two-thirds did. Meanwhile, just as Obama rose to the summit of American politics, white voters’ racial attitudes suddenly became more reliable predictors of their partisan preferences than at any time in recent memory.
Thus, America’s native-born white supremacy remains the fundamental challenge to progressivism in the U.S. And this reality helps explain why mass immigration has had ambiguous — if not positive — political implications for the American left: The “ceaseless importation” of workers whose worldviews weren’t shaped by the legacy of chattel slavery, and who have little (or no) investment in the maintenance of white supremacy, has diluted the electoral clout of white revanchism in the United States.
Contra Michael Anton, it is not immigrants’ “inexperience with liberty” that renders them relatively unsympathetic to the Republican Party. Rather, it is the fact the GOP has virtually nothing to offer working people who do not identify (consciously or otherwise) with the white race and/or the Evangelical church. No center-right party in the developed world opposes universal health-care, the minimum wage, and raising taxes on the wealthy in all circumstances. The conservative project simply isn’t electorally viable unless white racial animus is electorally salient. And when non-Hispanic whites only account for 62 percent of the U.S. population (as they did in 2014) instead of 90 percent (as they did in the 1950s), openly appealing to white racial animus becomes a much dicier proposition for the GOP.
All this suggests that embracing immigration restriction could have some political costs for the American left. And it also indicates that such triangulation would pay few dividends: If “racially conservative” whites turned on the Democrats (primarily) in response to the increasing visibility of the party’s alliance with non-white constituencies — rather than out of opposition to the finer details of Team Blue’s immigration agenda — then embracing restrictionism will do little to satisfy such defectors. Even if Congress enacted every immigration policy on Donald Trump’s wish-list, the rapid diversification of the American population would continue; nothing short of de jure ethnic cleansing could prevent such a development. The Democrats are going to be a visibly multiracial party in a browning America. There is no way for Democrats to avoid the liabilities of that position — they can only strive to capitalize on its benefits.
There is no leftist case for tightening borders in an age of climate crisis.
Of course, saying that mass immigration has been, on net, politically beneficial for the American left tells us nothing about the policy’s political implications for the European Union. Nor, for that matter, does it disprove the claim that the United States lacks the class solidarity necessary for achieving social democratic change — and will continue to, so long as both mass immigration and the political legacy of slavery persist.
The political argument against restricting immigration so as to enable progressive gains on the national level isn’t bulletproof. But the moral argument against such a strategy, in an age of climate crisis, is.
That case is much simpler than the political one outlined above, and can be summarized in a single sentence: The advanced, industrial world must not close its borders to refugees displaced by the consequences of its own carbon emissions.
The climate refugee crisis is not a dystopian hypothetical, but a metastasizing reality. Every year, desertification chases 700,000 people from Mexico’s drylands, while cyclones and hurricanes force thousands to emigrate from low-lying islands. Already, about 26.4 million people are displaced by extreme weather events each a year, a figure that is certain to rise in tandem with global seal-levels and air temperatures.
Estimates of how many climate refugees will need to be resettled in the coming decades vary widely (in part, because definitions of the term “climate refugee” vary widely). But we know that rising temperatures are likely to render large swaths of the Middle East, Africa, and south Asia uninhabitable, and that rising sea-levels are likely to displace millions of people in coastal communities, and submerge low-lying countries like Bangladesh. World War II uprooted roughly 60 million Europeans; conservative estimates suggest that climate change will displace upwards of 140 million people by mid-century. Much of this displacement will be internal to nation states. But plenty of migrants will be displaced into statelessness. And the U.S. is both better-equipped to absorb such people, in material terms, and more responsible for the climate disruptions that will uproot them, than just about any country on Earth.
If building the New Deal state required draconian restrictions on immigration, it required abandoning the Jews of Europe to their fate; if building 21st-century social democracy requires meeting Trump and Le Pen halfway, then it will require abandoning thousands of climate refugees at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Given the choice between accepting Gilded Age-caliber inequality at the national level and complicity in mass death at the global one, it’s not clear to me how the latter could qualify as the “left” option.
Fortunately, it is far from clear that the left faces such a choice. Building multi-ethnic social democracies will not be easy (let alone multi-ethnic socialist states). But neither was toppling the ancien régime, abolishing slavery, or securing social welfare programs and collective bargaining rights. The vocation of the left, across time and geography, has been to demand the unprecedented and purportedly impossible — because honoring the fundamental dignity of all human beings has never demanded anything less.
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