Welfare Chauvinism, Again

Hillary Clinton speaks in Las Vegas, Nev., in 2016. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)
Mrs. Clinton tiptoes into Trumptown

Hillary Rodham Clinton shocked polite progressive society by insisting that European leaders must exercise political discipline over immigration: “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” she said, indicating the recent wave of right-wing populism. She suggested that Europe is at its practical political carrying capacity, that Europeans can no longer promise “refuge and support” to new immigrants, the most visible of whom in recent years have been poor people from Muslim countries.

Perhaps Mrs. Clinton has decided to revisit the successful anti-immigration rhetoric of the 2016 presidential race.

Not from President Trump — from Senator Sanders.

For a half a second in 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders, the grumptastical Vermont socialist, was out-Bannoning Steve Bannon if not quite out-Penning Marine Le Pen. Senator Sanders, speaking at Iowa union halls with signs out front banning foreign-made cars from the parking lot (an inconvenience to Sanders’s Subaru-driving hordes), insisted with great passion that continuing high levels of immigration from poor countries was part of a conspiracy to undermine the economic and political position of the American working class. Sounding for all the world like an alt-right rabble-rouser, he denounced so-called open-borders policies (creating literally open borders is an idea that has approximately zero political constituency in the United States, but, never mind the facts) as a “Koch brothers proposal” that would end up “making people in this country even poorer.”

Candidate Trump concurred, eagerly.

The MFA-and-veganism crowd was appalled. Vox called the senator’s rhetoric “ugly and wrongheaded,” and Latino progressives began to reconsider whether Senator Sanders was the sort of firebrand they really needed. It did not occur to any of them that the self-proclaimed socialist who left behind his native Brooklyn to represent the whitest state in the Union might harbor some atavist nationalist ideas. That is a very old internal division within socialism: The classical Marxists with their commitment to international revolution ran up against the rocks of national identity (and ethnic identity) as Joseph Stalin turned toward national socialism. The great majority of socialist revolutionaries of our era have been nationalists of one stripe or another: Stalin, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim il-Sung, Hugo Chávez, etc. Adolf Hitler called his creed national socialism, which, ironically, is a much better description of the beliefs of his mortal enemies.

Nationalism and socialism are mutual attractants, because each is an expression of illiberalism and collectivism. In our time, nationalism and socialism both are adopted mainly as critiques of the liberal internationalism of free trade, free markets, permissive immigration policies, and other institutions and ideologies affiliated with the easy movement of people and goods across national borders. The readers of The Economist and the readers of Monocle might be best thought of as the center-right and center-left wings of the same liberal and cosmopolitan tendency, while the Sanders movement and the Trump movement represent the left and right wings of what is sometimes called welfare chauvinism, a term that is not fraught with the same historical freight as national socialism.

Welfare chauvinism is the creed of the Le Pens, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orbán — and also of Senator Sanders, Donald Trump, and much of the unfortunately illiberal main stream of American populist politics. (Almost all American politics is populist to some degree.) That it is associated with distasteful figures such as Le Pen and Orbán should not be held as automatically discrediting: It is wider than that.

The idea that government programs of various kinds can and should be used to take some of the rough edges off of capitalism is widely held, from the classical liberal theorist F. A. Hayek, who argued for extensive social insurance, to our modern nationalists and welfare-statists, who often are arguing for much the same kind of arrangement in ways that are less rigorously thought through or that are expressed less humanely (often because they are less humane). But degree and detail matter. As the libertarian economist Bryan Caplan has wryly observed, in the United States today we really have no classical liberal party but instead have a choice between two national-socialist parties: one a little more nationalist, the other a little more socialist.

The idea that we necessarily are victimized by trade with China is of a piece with the idea that we necessarily are victimized by immigration. The thing that distinguishes the welfare chauvinism of Senator Sanders or President Trump from that of Le Pen or Orbán has less to do with the underlying economic assumptions and more to do with how politicians define “we.” The “1 percent” rhetoric of Senator Warren et al. performs much the same political function as Orbán‘s dark whisperings about foreigners and international financiers: It offers an exterior Them to offer up as a threat to the solidarity of Us. Senator Sanders seems to forget from time to time that people who work in finance, international trade, or corporate management are Americans, too — that they are not the “enemy of the people.” But populists must have an enemy of the people to excoriate — the jackboots and matching shirts are optional, but that is necessary. Democratic politics is impossible without an enemies’ list.

For that reason, who is Us can be a tricky question to answer for a politician, especially one who is captive — as Senator Sanders and Mrs. Clinton are — to the Malthusian fallacy: the belief that the boat is full and that taking on more passengers will sink us all for sure. The insistence that we have too many mouths to feed is a stance rooted in invincible ignorance; its attraction is that it renders (falsely) simple the more complicated questions related to immigration and trade.

The Democrats’ rhetoric on immigration — and, especially, on illegal immigration — has changed radically since 2016 in reaction to the election of Donald Trump. The corporate partisan conversion to the latitudinarian creed on illegal immigration probably is an error for Democrats, because blue-collar voters, whom the Democrats need to supplement their pathetic coalition of blubbering grievance artists and the thumb-sucking bedwetters who fall in line behind them, are much closer to Donald Trump than to the editors of the Wall Street Journal on that question. But if President Trump were this morning to issue a proclamation praising Mom and apple pie, you can be sure that black-clad misfits would gather in the public squares of Portland to hurl profanity and illiteracy at Mom and her wicked white-supremacist pastries.

That is stupidity, if tediously predictable stupidity. Senator Sanders and President Trump have substantially similar instincts when it comes to immigration even if the politically plastic gentleman from Vermont has been scolded into pretending otherwise. If you have convinced yourself that Senator Sanders’s views simply must be rooted in solidarity and that President Trump’s views simply must be rooted in viciousness, then you might want to consider the possibility that you have become a brain-dead partisan, a very cheap date indeed — and that you have not given sufficient consideration to the ways in which appeals to in-group solidarity are related to ordinary viciousness.

Mrs. Clinton has over the past quarter-century not shown herself to be the most consistently sober practitioner of the rhetorical arts, and her recent remarks on immigration may be a simple case of politics after eight, never to be repeated. But the erroneous thinking to which she gave voice is not only common but damned near universal in American politics. If the Democrats really are committed to running at top speed in the opposite direction, then they should do something with their new majority in the House of Representatives to show that they possess the courage of their convictions. Immigration is a matter of law, and the Democrats have a bumper crop of new lawmakers. The president has the power to enforce the law stringently and robustly; legislators have the power to deny him a restrictive immigration code to enforce.

If the Democrats follow that course, then they certainly will find themselves in a political gunfight with President Trump. They may find themselves in a duel with Mrs. Clinton, too, which probably is irrelevant: As a political figure, Mrs. Clinton does not know she’s dead yet. But if the Democrats think that they can win on the support of those bandana-festooned bungholes in Portland while ceding the immigration-wary union-hall vote to Trump & Co., then they might want to make absolutely sure that the business end of that shiny new .45 isn’t pointed at their own metatarsals before they pull the trigger.


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