American conservatism has in the past few decades become an ever more robust coalition of populist “non-conformist dissenters”: free marketers, social conservatives, national-security hawks, national-cohesion conservatives, patriotic libertarians, etc. Analogous to 18th-century British Whigs, these dissenters are united in their non-conformity to the “established church” of 21st-century America and its prevailing progressive orthodoxy. On the other hand, American business and its GOP allies who do not look beyond “economic man” either silently accept or actively approve the dogmas of progressive orthodoxy – the diversity project, multiculturalism, radical feminism, globalism, mass immigration, environmentalism, and all of the progressive social issues.
Immigration politics is at the heart of the divide between conservative populist groups, on one side, and corporate elites within the GOP on the other. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama wrote a memo in July to his fellow Republican lawmakers, calling on them to “flip the immigration debate on its head.” At National Review Online, Sessions urged the GOP to “adopt a humble and honest populism” and distance itself from “the corporate titans who believe the immigration policy for our entire country should be modeled to pad their bottom line.”
The GOP lost the 2012 election, Sessions said, “because it hemorrhaged support from middle and low-income Americans of all backgrounds,” and the party must now mount an “unapologetic defense of working Americans.” He noted that Americans oppose by a two-to-one margin increasing low-skilled immigration and also strongly oppose any legalization of illegal immigrants before border security is in place. Sessions made the key political point that Republicans have a golden opportunity to appeal once again to Reagan Democrats, who are, as John O’Sullivan put it in a statement lauding Sessions, an “electoral bloc that dwarfs any other in numerical terms.”
Two preconditions of populist ascendancy are already emerging in embryonic form: first, a Sister Souljah–style rebuke of corporate elites and, second, the development of policy measures aimed specifically at supporting the middle and working classes. To the first point, Sessions on Labor Day chided pro-immigration-reform business groups and pointedly raised the issue of American patriotism, asking, “What is the loyalty a nation owes to its own citizens?” On the second point, conservative policy intellectuals as well as elected officials such as Senator Mike Lee of Utah are beginning to formulate policy initiatives focused on strengthening the middle and working classes.
Barack Obama’s most effective campaign argument in 2012 was that Romney represented corporate America while the president and his party were fighting for ordinary Americans. Immigration is the first issue on which to turn this accusation back against Democrats and seize the moral high ground by speaking up for the real underdog, the American worker. Let us begin the re-branding, as Jeff Sessions suggests, with conservatives and the GOP vigorously and unapologetically opposing all legislation that increases low-skilled immigration and denouncing “comprehensive immigration reform” for what it is: class warfare waged by an unholy alliance of Obama, progressive elites, and big business against the well-being and way of life of the American middle and working classes.
— John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others?