Politics & Policy

Bret Stephens’s Exclusionary Politics

A U.S. border patrol agent detains a man (Reuters: Carlos Barria)
His Swiftian satire is a misguided approach to citizenship.

One of the more interesting trends of recent years has been the effort to view citizenship through a kind of debauched meritocratic lens. This approach is favored particularly by those who oppose enforcing immigration laws, who argue that somehow immigrants (including illegal immigrants) are more “American” than poor Americans. Like some earlier iterations of Social Darwinism, this worldview combines moral self-righteousness with a crass materialism.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Bret Stephens offers a “Modest Proposal”–style recommendation to deport poor Americans: “Complacent, entitled and often shockingly ignorant on basic points of American law and history, they are the stagnant pool in which our national prospects risk drowning.” Stephens says he doesn’t really want to deport struggling Americans; his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His main purpose is to criticize the deportation of illegal immigrants by pointing to the supposed shortcomings of many native-born Americans. However, rather than destroying the case for enforcing immigration laws, this satirical proposal far more effectively skewers efforts to dissolve national fellowship in the name of the pseudo-meritocracy.

Stephens’s proposal cherry-picks evidence to show the supposed degeneracy of native-born Americans. But it does not account for the fact that immigrant households rely on government assistance at a much higher rate than native-born households do. Nor does it account for research finding that the children of many immigrant families sometimes face more challenges than their immigrant parents did. For instance, sociologists Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz found that the economic prospects of those descended from Mexican immigrants often stall or even decline after the second generation. To note the struggles of immigrants and their families is not to pile moral blame on them. These difficulties do, though, indicate that immigrants face many obstacles, some of which are greater than those faced by the native-born. In many areas, illegal immigrants are prime competitors to legal immigrants, so widespread illegal immigration almost certainly makes it harder for legal immigrants to climb the ladder of success.

Intellectual shortcomings radically compound the economic deficiencies of the meritocratic denigration of the native-born. The worldview that poor Americans can’t cut it and should therefore be replaced by more “competitive” immigrants might fit comfortably in a corporate boardroom, but it profoundly misunderstands the purpose of citizenship and the enterprise of inclusive politics. Whether or not a poor American “deserves” to be an American is beside the point — what matters is that he is American and that, by virtue of his citizenship, he has an inherent claim to the public square and public concern. While pseudo-meritocratic initiatives to cull the weak are chic on Wall Street, they inject poison when applied to politics. Arguing that the poor and disadvantaged are somehow less worthy citizens exacerbates civic alienation; it cuts the materially unsuccessful out of the body politic and flatters the indifference of the successful, whispering to them that they are justified in sneering at the struggles of the weak. In its high-handed dismissal of the struggles of the poor, the argument that the native-born are degenerate trash-people is almost a recipe for even more populism, a force that has caused Stephens himself no small angst in recent years.

Instead of indulging in the unhealthy inquiry into which of the native-born are “real” Americans, our politics would be far better off discussing how to devise policies for immigration and other matters that will strengthen civic belonging and help those across the economic spectrum, including the native-born and immigrants themselves. That discussion could go many ways. Some (and I think Stephens is sympathetic to this camp) might argue that turning a blind eye to illegal immigration and working to increase legal immigration would be the way to arrive at this result. Others might argue that pervasive illegal immigration undermines opportunity and that legal immigration — rather than being indiscriminately increased — should instead be reformed so that future immigrants have a better chance of economic success in the United States. Whatever its ultimate resolution, this kind of discussion about policy takes for granted (or should take for granted) that policymakers have an obligation to all Americans, and that poverty — and not the poor themselves – is a problem for the United States.

As part of his attack on deporting illegal immigrants, Stephens asserts the centrality of immigrants to the American experiment. Of course, immigrants have been crucial partners in building our republic, but we can note the valuable legacy of immigration without discounting the dignity of natives. After dropping the mask of satire, Stephens writes, “Because I’m the child of immigrants and grew up abroad, I have always thought of the United States as a country that belongs first to its newcomers — the people who strain hardest to become a part of it because they realize that it’s precious; and who do the most to remake it so that our ideas, and our appeal, may stay fresh.” This sentiment might be fashionable, but it has no more moral force than the argument, Because I’m a child of the Mayflower, I have always thought of the United States as a country that belongs first to those who laid its foundations — the people who sacrificed so much to make it precious; and who created the blueprint that has made our ideas, and our appeal, so enduring.

Rather than an immigrant-first or a Mayflower-first politics, we should have a politics that says that all Americans — whatever their descent, however long their American lineage — are equal partners in our national life. Stephens might want those who don’t share his sentiments about immigration to “get out,” but indulging in fantasies of exclusion might be a less productive way forward than nurturing the hopes of a commonwealth at once expansive and unified, in which pride and self-righteousness give way to humility and understanding.


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