Democratic Immigration Extremism and Warnings of Extremism to Come

DREAM Act supporters protest on Capitol Hill, December 6, 2017. (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
The cultural power of the progressive machine has moved the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.

Who’s the racist who once said this: “All Americans . . . are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public services they use impose burdens on our taxpayers”?

Who’s the racist who once said this: “When I see Mexican flags waving at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration”?

If you guessed the last two Democratic presidents — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively — then you’re correct. If you believe their own party would excoriate them for the same words if they uttered them today, then you’re also correct. It’s time to acknowledge that the Democratic position on immigration has moved rapidly and decisively to the left, so rapidly and decisively that internal progressive debates that were common even a few years ago are settled. Over. To some activists, good-faith dissent from the new position simply isn’t possible. It’s proof positive that you’re racist.

Indeed, this change is so rapid and so dramatic that thoughtful liberals are taking note. Last summer Peter Beinart wrote a long piece in The Atlantic chronicling the transformation. The party platform substantially changed. Politicians like Bernie Sanders were browbeaten into backing an ever-more open-borders position. Beinart talked to Jason Furman, the former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic advisers. “A decade ago or two ago,” Furman said, “Democrats were divided on immigration. Now everyone agrees and is passionate and thinks very little about any potential downsides.”

As Beinart notes, this change hasn’t happened because there’s now some sort of unshakeable scholarly agreement about immigration’s economic or cultural benefits. Instead, a combination of political and cultural pressures have shoved Democrats to the left, and they often justify that move by citing a scholarly consensus that does not exist.

Conservatives look at this change and think, “Here we go again.”

In the last two decades we’ve witnessed remarkable, rapid Democratic changes from tolerance to intolerance on critical political, cultural, and religious issues. Think of the major sexual-revolution controversies over abortion and gay marriage.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton used the phrase “safe, legal, and rare” to articulate the Democratic position on abortion. The 2006 Democratic takeover of the House was empowered in part by pro-life Democrats. Now there’s an active debate as to whether pro-life Democrats even fit within the party’s “big tent,” and the question of party support for a moderately pro-choice mayoral candidate in Omaha, Neb., sparked bitter infighting.

Safe, legal, and rare? Now some activists want women to “shout” their abortion. By some counts, the number of pro-life Democrats in the House has gone from more than 100 to fewer than five.

The transformation on gay marriage has been faster and even more decisive. Not long ago Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made religious and cultural arguments about the definition of marriage that would be considered bigoted today. To say they “evolved” on the issue is an understatement. Evaluating the records of both Clinton and Obama, PolitiFact judged both to be “full flops.”

What do these issues have in common? Identity politics. Immigration (race), abortion (gender), and gay marriage (sexual orientation) activate key portions of an increasingly identity-driven Democratic coalition, and the activist base doesn’t just nudge the party to the left, it shoves as hard as it can. While it shoves, it also shouts about all the “isms” and “phobias” that slander the opposition and silence dissent.

This rapid cultural, political, and religious change is bad for our body politic. It shuts down debate on debatable topics, labels good people as bad bigots, and spikes the negative polarization that’s ripping this country apart.

Why do these changes happen so darn fast? There are many reasons, but here’s a big one — the law of group polarization. In a piece last year, I briefly described the law and its effects

Articulated by Cass Sunstein in a 1999 paper, the law posits that “in a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.” In plain English, this means that like-minded groups grow more extreme over time, and that like-mindedness sometimes pushes groups toward so-called cascades — where they move quite rapidly to new consensus.

Progressives live piled on top of each other in ideological echo chambers far more ideologically uniform than even their counterparts the heart of Trump country. My precinct, for example, gave Trump 72 percent of its vote. That would be a catastrophically low result for Democrats in the progressive cultural centers like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia. Some large urban centers are less ideologically diverse than your average suburban Evangelical megachurch.

Ideological uniformity plus geographic concentration equals groupthink, and with groupthink comes a tendency toward extremism. It’s not a uniquely progressive failing. It’s simple human nature.

The formula is simple. Ideological uniformity plus geographic concentration equals groupthink, and with groupthink comes a tendency toward extremism. It’s not a uniquely progressive failing. It’s simple human nature.

Conservatives are of course vulnerable to similar forms of groupthink, and there is evidence of our own rapid ideological changes (while there’s much dissent in conservative ranks over immigration, the red-state debate about gun rights, for example, has changed with breathtaking speed), but conservatives not only don’t live in the same concentrated cultural enclaves, they simply don’t have the cultural power to change national debate as decisively as the Left does.

There’s no sign that any of these trends are slowing down. Too many Americans view you as a racist for even questioning whether there’s an economic or cultural cost to large-scale, low-skill immigration. Too many Americans believe you’re a vicious sexist for seeking to preserve the life of a baby in the womb. Too many Americans consider you a hopeless homophobe if you maintain the most basic Christian orthodoxy on sexual morality. And the question isn’t so much whether the Left will moderate on any of these points but rather what the next issue is that it will attempt to remove from the bounds of acceptable discourse.

Moreover, such is the cultural power of the progressive machine that it’s utterly blind to its own extremism. It moves and sets the so-called Overton window, the boundaries of acceptable political discourse on any given topic. It’s how a conservative can suddenly become an “extremist” without changing his position. In 1998, a Democrat could still exist happily within the center of the Democratic party while believing that the border should be controlled, marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and the right to abortion can and should be limited. Twenty years later, that same person is a right-wing bigot, and the positions that were formerly radical-left are now the new mainstream.

So, here we are. A groupthink-prone progressive movement exercises outsized cultural influence on the academy, media, and corporate America. It sets and enforces new boundaries of acceptable discourse. It shows no sign of moderating. Indeed, the very fact that it’s ideologically uniform and geographically concentrated dictates that it will likely continue down the present course, but with accelerating speed. Get used to it, America. Progressive immigration extremism is the harbinger of more extremism to come.


NR Editorial: Don’t Buckle on Immigration

What Is Our Responsibility for the Undocumented Population?

Choosing Immigration Criteria Is a Sisyphean Task

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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