Those Blue-Collar Blues

by John O'Sullivan

The Volokh Conspiracy blog has just revived a topic that Jonah raised ten days ago here under the title “Importing Partisans.” Both articles argue that mass immigration could change the partisan balance in a society and create an electoral majority for policies that the nation had previously rejected in elections. Both authors are libertarians and therefore less likely than unhyphenated conservatives to worry too much about such a potential transformation. As it happens, though, both are worried about it — though Eugene Volokh slightly more so than Jonah.

This is obviously a topical question because, as the current border crisis illustrates, the Democrats are desperately eager to import potential voters as quickly as possible to compensate them for likely defeat in November 2014 by augmenting their electorate for the future. Indeed, almost everyone can see this possibility except apparently the Republican leadership — unless, that is, they believe that their donors will give them enough money from gratitude to enable them to buy future elections.

NR has been discussing this question for more than two decades. Our cover story “The Emerging Democratic Majority” appeared in 1996, or six years before the book by John Judis and Ruy Texeira. So our track record on this is good and NR has covered almost every aspect of the immigration debate in depth since then. For the moment, however, three quick points:

First, Jonah asks if conservatives would worry about immigration if it were adding to the number of “natural” Republican voters. Since conservatives are human beings with all the weaknesses of that condition, the answer is probably “not as much as they worry now.” But most of us faced up honestly to that question a long time ago when the electoral consequences of immigration seemed less immediately threatening than today. Our answers then included the following: Immigration was not necessary for the growth of the U.S. economy; its net economic advantages for native-born Americans were at best nugatory, at worst slightly negative; its fiscal costs outweighed any such advantages; it was reducing the wages and job opportunities of low-paid and poorer Americans, including minority Americans; it was weakening the social bonds of Tocquevillian America; and it was a carrier of multiculturalism which, as Samuel Huntington argued in “Who are We?”, was a kind of program for the deconstruction of America’s national identity. That’s quite a list of non-electoral considerations. We have concentrated on electoral aspects of this debate in recent days largely because the GOP leadership has proved almost comically determined to avoid seeing the obvious about every aspect of immigration and its consequences.

Second, libertarians are more under electoral threat from immigration than any other group in the big tent of the Right. As poll after poll shows, the opinions of current and likely immigrants, legal and illegal, lean strongly towards a large state, high social-welfare benefits, and high taxation. Those opinions reflect not only their own economic status — they are largely poor by American standards — but also their moral convictions shaped by their different social experience in more statist societies. From the standpoint of libertarians, immigration is rapidly increasing the constituencies for the kind of government programs they oppose. Seeing this, Volokh prudently argues (mainly by analogy to pro-choicers threatened by the arrival of pro-life immigrants) that it would be justifiable on self-interested grounds to oppose high immigration levels. That seems reasonable even if most libertarians seem, like the GOP leadership, to avoid seeing the obvious.

Finally, conservatives will take a slightly different tack — as I did twenty years ago when the electoral effects of immigration were first mooted. That tack is to concentrate far less on group or partisan self-interest and far more on the requirements of common citizenship and national loyalty. Sure, the electoral strengths of different ethnic groups were changing all the time, I argued, with the result that the partisan balance shifted every so often. Some of these partisan shifts were caused by events — for instance, the Depression strengthened the Democrats. But population changes — mainly either through differential birth rates or through immigration — also led to partisan shifts. If differential birth-rates were the origin of such electoral changes of fortune, that fact was something we had to accept without complaint (or even internal resentment.) Other Americans voting the wrong way were, after all, Americans who had been shaped by the experience of growing up in this country. They had reached different conclusions about what was best for the country, but we could hope to change their minds by argument because we would have the same facts, meanings, and memories in common. We could not only assume each other’s patriotism but also understand each other’s point of view. Now, there are some commonsense limits to this argument, and it has been weakened by the rise of multiculturalism, but it is still largely true. But partisan shifts arising from high immigration levels are very different. They “import partisans,” to borrow Jonah’s term, in a more profound and less flexible way. These new voters have not been shaped by the American experience, and they are inevitably less open to arguments rooted in that experience and its possibilities. They will be even less open to changing their minds and votes if, as now happens frequently, they are captured on arrival by liberal pressure groups claiming to represent their culture, offering to mediate between them and the wider American society, and pushing them gently into the Democratic camp. Waiting for assimilation to give these immigrants and their children a real sense of free electoral choice is not a short-term matter. Even under the very different conditions of “Americanization,” it took about 60 years for ethnic groups such as the Italians to reach the point of assimilation where they felt comfortable voting Republican.

Conservatives, however, should not despair. Actions produce reactions. The Democrats’ embrace — no, promotion — of illegal immigration is the latest but most dramatic example of their decision (first made in the late 1960s) to tell their traditional union and blue-collar supporters to get lost. The American worker was too conservative for them. He would have to be replaced — and illegal immigration told the party just how to replace him. This time, however, the party’s rejection of Joe Sixpack is simply too public and too brutal not to be noticed by him. Blue-collar workers of every race (including Hispanic Americans) are now available to vote for a political party that represents their interests, including their interest in a tighter labor market where they are not perpetually undercut. See Henry Olsen’s recent piece for confirmation of this important truth. 

And now President Obama is taking the boldest and most public steps towards making the most salient issue in November’s election a choice between defending the American worker or the illegal immigrant.

The GOP will need time to think this one through.