Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Further Note on Nativism

OK, so the right-wing populist combination of preserving social programs (especially for retirement) while keeping out immigrants is proving to be popular world-wide, including in the US (Donald Trump).

The concern is often expressed in economic terms -- immigrants are stealing our jobs.  There is, of course, a problem here.  Namely, most anti-immigration activists aren't exactly clamoring to work in the fields, or in a meat packing plant.  When asked who will do those jobs if we get rid of all the immigrants, most anti-immigration activists are not able to give a very satisfactory answer.  Then, too, while some of the good-paying blue collar jobs are being taken at lower pay by immigrants, most have either been automated away or gone overseas.  And in any event, one thing that the auto bailout in 2009 convinced me is that large sections of the Republican Establishment are opposed to good paying blue collar jobs anyhow.*  So blaming declining wages on illegal immigration looks very much like ethnic scapegoating.

More realistically, many people are troubled by the expense to schools of bilingual education or English as a Second Language classes and worry that their own children are being neglected in the rush to accommodate so many high-maintenance immigrants.  Or they see immigrants without health insurance clogging emergency rooms.

But on the whole, the main issue appears to be the fear of the loss of cultural cohesion, especially the growing status of Spanish as an unofficial second language in this country.  ("For English, press one. Para espanol, oprima dos."  It is, at worst, a trifling inconvenience, but it deeply offends many people).  A German column, commenting on the German nativist movement, remarks that it is mostly a small town phenomenon, little seen in major cities.  He attributes this to high unemployment and limited opportunities.  And certainly it is true that small towns are becoming increasingly unviable, and that people fight more over a shrinking pie than an expanding one.  But the other phenomenon at work is that small towns are more culturally homogeneous, seeing an unfamiliar culture as a threatening intrusion, while large cities are more cosmopolitan and are apt to greet yet another culture added to the mosaic with a shrug.

And what of the merits?  Conservatives often argue the case for homogeneity as necessary to social cohesion.  Homogeneous societies are tighter knit, with people more likely to know their neighbors and to help out friends in trouble, more community involvement, and more community.  Thus they see ethnic variety as a thing to be dreaded lest it unravel the social fabric.  I suppose my critique would be two-fold.  First, ethnic homogeneity is in considerable degree a myth or an ideal that never really was in the real world, and would be a messy, dirty business to achieve.  Second, very close-knit societies have their downside.  Hostility toward outsiders, sometimes even to the point of xenophobia is often the flip side being close-knit.  Their informal methods of enforcing cultural norms -- gossip, cliquishness, social rejection (and sometimes worse) -- can be most unpleasant to people on the wrong side.  And they can be stifling to anyone who just doesn't fit in.  And for all conservatives sing the praises of the cohesion and community of a homogeneous society -- well, let's not forget that the ones enforcing that homogeneity are the likes of Trump (or George Wallace, or Pat Buchanan, etc) and their followers.

So, to circle back to my original question, is there political space on the American scene for the benign manifestation of people who are at once economically liberal and socially conservative -- for what someone referred to as Christian Democrats -- favoring protection of our retirement programs, a robust social safety net, health and safety and labor protective regulation, but conservative on faith and family issue, and on general social mores?  Would the angry wing of the Republican Party be less angry if the Christian Democratic quadrant were recognized as a legitimate political orientation?

I see two basic obstacles to a viable Christian Democratic quadrant in American politics.  One is its lack of elite sponsors -- a donor class.  Our economic, political, and media elite is overwhelmingly politically conservative and socially liberal, with the main difference being one of emphasis.  Whatever its popular following, how would a Christian Democratic movement in the US get its foot in the elite door?  But, alas, I also see an important obstacle to a Christian Democratic popular movement in the US.  Christian Democrats are not xenophobes.  They regard xenophobia as un-Christian.  This not only means no scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic minorities, it also means no reflexive hawkishness.  It means a foreign policy of international cooperation.  Indeed, the Christian Democratic movement is international, which is in itself enough to make it anathema to most of our xenophobes.

I suppose that it should be possible for a Christian Democratic party (under some other name!) to be economically liberal and socially conservative, not to scapegoat immigrants, but to make fairly strong demands that they assimilate to the host culture, and particularly to learn English.  Maybe this would peal off the milder members of the Trump coalition.  Maybe if such a had arisen instead of the Religious Right, it might have taken some wind out of their sails and found a respectable place in US politics, and averted the rise of the enraged wing of the Republican Party.  But all this is pure speculation.  At present, to take the right wing position in the culture war means to scapegoat immigrants and be reflexively hostile to any country that will not toe our line.

*There was an interesting division there.  Publications like the National Review and the Wallstreet Journal openly denounced the auto unions for continuing to have good paying blue collar jobs with benefits and made clear that they considered the loss of Chysler and GM to be a small price to pay for ending that vile scourge.  And they made quite clear that they regarded banks and hedge funds and noble and honorable players that poured their life's blood into the auto industry, while the auto workers were a bunch of parasites who never invested a thing.  They could be so open, confident in the assumption that members of the auto workers' union didn't read the National Review or the Wallstreet Journal anyhow.  By contrast, Fox News and talk radio, which did have to worry about auto workers listening to their show, were more cautious, saying that boycotting GM would regrettably hurt auto workers, but it was worth it for the all-important principle of fighting government.

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