Magazine | November 11, 2013, Issue

Forming a People

Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics, by Michael Barone (Crown Forum, 320 pp., $27)

In this brief but fascinating study of both immigration to the United States and mass migrations within it, Michael Barone traces the peopling of America, from the original British Protestants of the 17th century to the present influxes of millions of Mexican nationals and Asians.

The late-18th-century arrival of the Scots-Irish from war-torn Northern Ireland, and their subsequent migration to Appalachia and farther westward through the Cumberland Gap, bifurcated the politics of so-called white Protestant America. The majority culture would soon become schizophrenic, as the old Puritan New England status quo was challenged by brasher, cockier, and soon-to-be-Jacksonian populists. Barone adroitly charts the early stages of America’s path toward the Civil War in a story of parallel migrations: New Englanders spread laterally into the northern Midwest, even as rich, slave-owning grandees opened up new bottomlands across the newly acquired southern United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi Valley. Both prospered — and they grew to loathe each other.

Why was the later Progressive movement often identified with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the upper Midwest? It was likely owing to the statism and pacifism brought to the northern U.S. by millions of impoverished Germans and Scandinavians. They were determined to make government work for the poor in a way it had not done so in Europe. In contrast, an almost simultaneous and equally large influx of even poorer Irish Catholics relied on a different sort of Democratic patronage politics in the major cities of the eastern seaboard.

After the Civil War, impoverished southerners largely ignored the much more dynamic economies of the northern states that were the nexus of the growing Industrial Revolution. But foreigners — especially Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews — fleeing both poverty and political persecution, found Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh oases of economic opportunity.

The mid 20th century was characterized by another two great internal migrations, originally fostered by World Wars I and II: the flight of blacks from the South to the North, and the trek of Midwesterners and the poor of the old border states to California and the southwestern U.S. Out west, agriculture, new industries, tourism, and recreation were creating wealth at a rate that outpaced that in all other areas of the nation.

Barone ends with a final pair of population movements. The present massive flight from “blue” states — California in particular — to no- or low-tax red states such as Nevada, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas has turned the conventional wisdom of seeking paradise on its head, as economic robustness for most Americans trumps natural beauty and idyllic climate.

The other massive movement of peoples is, of course, the huge influx of Latin Americans, and the nearly as large, but mostly legal and less controversial, arrival of more prosperous and educated Asians from China, South Korea, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia.

In the retelling of these often disruptive demographic changes, Barone’s calming purposes are twofold. First, he wishes to distill common themes across time and space: The arrival of large numbers of quite different peoples into new and often previously homogeneous enclaves has always caused initial cultural chaos. We need to recall only the draft riots in New York during the Civil War or white flight to the suburbs at the advent of African-American migration from the South following the 1940s. The usual scenarios of conflict were predictable: stereotyping, if not overt ethnic and racial prejudices, answered by insular, tribal, and often shrill identity politics — the mix resulting in occasional violence.

Despite their claimed desire to maintain their own culture and language, most arrivals from abroad eventually were absorbed by the unstoppable forces of assimilation, integration, and intermarriage — a popular culture fueled by the official “melting pot” ideology of the U.S. government, a policy of making “one from many.” Unlike Europe, where class and birth were firmly entrenched, and unlike Africa, Asia, and South America, where citizenship was often assumed to be a reflection of racial uniformity, the U.S. almost immediately after its founding was redefined as a heterogeneous culture, in which relocation was often synonymous with economic opportunity and advancement to the middle class.

The net result of immigration usually proved positive. Immigrants enriched the peripheries of American culture — food, fashion, music, art, religion, and language — while accepting the core values of consensual government, market capitalism, and middle-class populism. The American population grew rapidly. Society was energized by the constant influx of an ambitious, if not desperate, new underclass. Host Americans were reminded that they could not simply coast on their native advantages. Millions of mostly less-well-off citizens reflected the ethos of self-reliance, hard work, and a meritocratic system, in which status was acquired more through material acquisition than through birth, class, or ethnicity.

Barone’s second theme, however, is more controversial, and it serves as a subtext of the entire book. The current debate over some 11 million illegal aliens, the vast majority of them Latinos, and in particular Mexican nationals, is addressed in terms of the prior analyses of past mass migrations. For Barone, the present apprehensions of contemporary Americans are not all that different from what our forefathers once feared from the influx of starving Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine, or late-19th-century inflows of Italians, most of them from impoverished Sicily, or the arrival of hordes of Eastern European and Russian Jews.

#page#In all these cases, the original majority culture of the U.S. — Northern European and mostly British, Protestant rather than Catholic, and English-speaking — fretted that the nation of the founding fathers would be lost to a new mob of polyglot, multiethnic, and often politically subversive Europeans.

Barone notes that in all the huge influxes of the past — the 18th-century arrival of the Scots-Irish, and especially the mid-19th-century German and Irish immigrations — there were dire predictions that the hordes would just keep coming. That never happened. In every case, the numbers eventually tapered off, as the economies and political landscapes of once-wretched home nations abroad usually improved and would-be immigrants eventually chose to stay put.

Barone also draws an analogy between present-day illegal immigration and internal migration, and takes the long view that things even out over the generations. The need for factory workers in World Wars I and II drew almost half the black population to northern and western industrial centers — even as there now grows a reverse pattern of black migration back to the South. California was once the promised land; yet when taxes soared and social problems exploded, people began leaving as eagerly as they had once trekked through the Sierra Nevada to reach the Golden State. In other words, at least some Mexican nationals may well begin migrating back to Mexico, as economic and political conditions south of the border improve.

Barone is correct to note that there was little net influx along the vast 1,900-mile Mexican border for most of our nation’s history. Past generations certainly did not talk of fencing the Rio Grande or the San Diego–Tijuana corridor. He assumes further that the near destruction of the Mexican economy in the 1980s and 1990s, like most downturns abroad, was episodic: Mexico now has a higher rate of GDP growth and lower unemployment than does the U.S. Similarly, declining birthrates in Mexico suggest that, like the Irish and Germans, fewer Mexicans will be coming into the U.S. in the future, regardless of the policies adopted by the U.S. government. Consequently, Barone can end his study on an upbeat note:

Cultural variety and cultural conflict have been a part of the American polity from its beginnings, and we should not forget that there are dark sides aplenty in our heritage. But in considering current problems, it is helpful to recollect that conflicts produced by the surges of migration that have come before resulted in much worse strains than those of the early 21st century, and that in the process of dealing with them, Americans have developed a capacity and a habit of accommodating and uniting into one nation citizens with very serious and deep differences.

I hope his optimism is well founded, but the use of history cuts two ways. While there may be great controversy over past immigration laws that adjudicated entry into the U.S., America has never had over 11 million foreign nationals simply ignore federal immigration law and a myriad of state statutes.

Illegal immigration also does not occur in a vacuum, but instead is a part of a perfect storm that has seen other simultaneous and force-multiplying events. Multiculturalism is a fairly new American concept, postulating that no one culture — America’s in particular — can be judged as any better than any other. The result is that the illegal immigrant rarely hears from his new host that he left racism and exploitation in Oaxaca for something far more humane and just in America.

The trendy salad bowl is more likely taught in our schools than is the caricatured melting pot. Huge increases in state and federal entitlements have eroded the work ethic of new immigrants, while the purveyors of racial politics see career expansion through millions of new, loyal constituents.

Statistics suggest that in terms of graduation rates, criminality, literacy, and unemployment, second-generation Mexican Americans are having as many problems of adjustment as their parents, or even more than they had. Amnesties of the last 30 years have not curtailed illegal immigration, which thrives on the odd alliance of corporate America and identity-politics pressure groups — the one wanting cheap labor, the other constituents in need of group representation.

Nineteenth-century Ireland and Germany, of course, did not share a 1,900-mile border with the U.S. In 1910, Los Angeles was not a sanctuary city, in which federal immigration law might be openly rendered all but null and void. In 1950, there was not a viable La Raza movement or popular but ahistorical sloganeering that the “borders crossed us.” Nor was a sixth of the nation on food stamps in 1900. Scandinavians were not schooled under the protocols of federally mandated bilingual education. Ballots and various government documents were not printed in Polish. Affirmative action did not grant privileges to the impoverished children of destitute Sicilian minorities. Lithuania did not print comic books to instruct its emigrants on how best to enter the U.S. illegally. The prime minister of Japan did not sue individual states with the support of Washington. The president of the United States did not publicly assure Jewish leaders that they should jointly “punish our enemies” at the polls.

Barone’s masterly account of our demographic history could be reassuring in our present chaos, but only if we have not broken with our own precedents. The problem with historical adjudication is that different inputs can often result in quite different outcomes.

– Mr. Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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