The Corner


New Voters, New Politics

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

One of the more contentious questions in the immigration debate is over how future immigrants might influence U.S. politics. Will they move our politics to the left or to the right? Does the class composition of the immigrant influx matter at all? All of this came to mind as I read an Associated Press report on changing opinion among Asian Americans on racial preferences. In short, support for racial preferences is falling among Asian Americans, and this decline has been driven largely by plummeting support among Chinese Americans:

In 2012, 78 percent of Chinese-Americans said they supported race-based affirmative action; in 2016, the figure was 41 percent.

[Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California, Irvine] says the newer immigrants moving public opinion are active on Chinese-language social media. They are wealthier and better educated than previous generations.

“They look down upon prior waves of Chinese immigration as well as other Asian immigration,” he said. “They somehow believe that the most significant racial discrimination that exists is not getting into Harvard.”

If you’re detecting a hint of disdain in Ramakrishnan’s characterization of these Chinese newcomers, I don’t blame you. His explanation for why newer arrivals are less favorably disposed to his preferred policies — that they are insular, self-regarding people who care not a whit about the well-being of other racial minorities — certainly comes across as ungenerous. And of course there are other possible explanations for what’s driving opposition to racial preferences.

Given racial animus directed at Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, perhaps these immigrants fear the implications of color-conscious policies, regardless of their supposed motivation. Or perhaps they’re cynical about egalitarian rhetoric because many spent their formative years under a notionally Communist regime where corruption and self-dealing are rampant among the elite. My point isn’t that these alternative explanations are correct. Rather, it’s that when the immigrants in question have the “wrong” opinions, those who hold the “right” ones tend to see them through a jaundiced eye. This isn’t limited to liberals, conservatives, or anyone else. It’s a familiar pattern across the board.

I don’t mean to single out Ramakrishnan. Consider the following from Alvin Chang of Vox, who also addresses opposition to racial preferences among Asian Americans, drawing on the work of Colorado State University education professor OiYan Poon:

She interviewed 36 Asian Americans last year who have advocated for or against affirmative action. And she found that those who have advocated against affirmative action are almost entirely recent immigrants from mainland China — the same group that spends time on WeChat. They tend to be affluent and educated, but also racially isolated. They work in places that are predominantly white, and occupy social spaces that are predominantly Chinese.

I think it’s fair to say that Chang’s views on racial preferences are in tune with Ramakrishnan’s. The rest of his piece is about how our conception of “merit” is hopelessly compromised by racism and capitalism, etc., an argument you can take or leave, and that Asian Americans are being deployed by critics of racial preferences as “racial mascots.” And I have no reason to doubt that Poon’s empirical observations are sound. What really struck me was how much this reference to how racial isolation can give rise to (forgive me for being a bit polemical) wrongthink seemed like a mirror image of concerns that immigration skeptics have about the “clannishness” of new arrivals, and what it might portend politically.

In a discussion of changing opinion on racial preferences, the fact that changing immigration patterns can have negative political consequences is taken for granted by liberals, as well it should be. Yet in other contexts, the well-founded claim that new voters can give rise to new policies is treated as scandalous.

Consider the following sketch of the debate. Roughly speaking, small-government restrictionists argue that permissive, skills-blind immigration policies will eventually lead to a leftward shift in the electorate, as low-income naturalized citizens will, ceteris paribus, favor higher levels of redistribution. Left-of-center admissionists often agree with small-government restrictionists on this point, only they see leftward shifts in the electorate as entirely salutary (and, of course, they tend to deemphasize this line of argument when they’re trying to win over allies on the right). To left-of-center admissionists, it’s not so much that small-government restrictionists are wrong to argue that admitting more low-income immigrants will nudge U.S. politics to the left. Rather, their (implicit) objection is that it is morally wrong to oppose this leftward march towards rainbow socialism, or whatever we’re calling the eschaton these days.

And as for libertarian admissionists, they are divided into a few different camps. Some angrily reject the premise that low-income immigrants will necessarily favor redistributionist policies, insisting that impoverished newcomers would happily embrace the cause of dismantling the safety net if only the partisans of small government would declare themselves in favor of increased openness to immigration. For now, I’ll just say that I don’t find this line of argument very convincing. Others posit a sort of political ricochet effect, i.e., as low-income immigrants represent a rising share of the population, natives will grow less inclined to support redistribution, or so the argument goes. The net effect would thus be to shift the electorate rightward. Though I’m skeptical of this argument too, what’s most notable about it is its breathtaking cynicism, particularly when it comes from libertarian admissionists keen to build bridges with the left.

Then there are those who concede the premise that low-income immigration could shift the politics of a given society leftward yet conclude that the answer is to exclude said newcomers from citizenship by, say, issuing guest-worker visas that bar their holders from naturalizing, or that establish obstacles to naturalization that have the effect of selecting for immigrants less favorably disposed to redistribution. I’m not a fan of the implications of this argument, for reasons I explain in my forthcoming book, but it is an argument that deserves to be taken seriously.

But I digress. My basic point is that, as changing opinion among Chinese Americans suggests, new arrivals can change the political balance of a given community pretty quickly, and this is going to have bearing on the immigration debate, whether we like it or not.


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