Immigration has emerged as a crucial political issue throughout the West. On Sunday, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party was bested by Alternative for Germany in an election in Merkel’s own district. It was the first German election in which the upstart nationalist party had won more votes than Merkel’s venerable center-right party. There’s no doubt that Merkel’s decision to open Germany to more than one million Muslim refugees affected the outcome in a decisive way.
This outcome follows a pattern. Many factors contributed to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, but concerns about increased immigration were prominent among them. In Austria, the Freedom Party, which is also opposed to immigration, is poised to win control of the presidential palace. Hungary’s Fidesz, still another party opposed to immigration, is in firm control of the government there. Parties with similar profiles are gaining popularity in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and elsewhere.
Immigration has played a key role in Donald Trump’s rise. His promise to build “a very beautiful wall” along our border with Mexico catapulted him into the public eye at the outset of the primary season.
The fact that voters are agitated by significant influxes of newcomers ought not to surprise us. What’s striking, on the contrary, is the inability or refusal of so many politicians to address the growing concern.
Trump insists that anyone residing in the United States illegally is subject to deportation. Many commentators regard such comments as inflammatory. I am baffled by their outrage. What, exactly, is meant by “illegal” if the lawbreaker is immune from consequences? And I have another point of confusion: Why doesn’t the Clinton campaign coopt this issue by offering a clear, but less drastic, plan for enforcing existing immigration laws?
The very notion of limiting immigration—building a wall—gets Trump described as “anti-immigrant.” But isn’t job number one for our political leaders to protect the interests of Americans, which surely entails restricting the number of people who can immigrate? Again, why doesn’t Clinton box out Trump by juxtaposing his extremist rhetoric with her own proposal for immigration reform? Clinton’s proposal can be more generous, but nevertheless keyed to the interests of native-born Americans.
Something strange is going on here, something I don’t fully understand.
One factor, no doubt, involves the putative benefits of immigration. Over the last two decades, many have argued that only increased immigration will save Europe from demographic decline and economic stagnation. This way of thinking, combined with idealism about an inclusive, compassionate Germany, can convince the political leadership there that admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees is in the best interest of all Germans. Similar arguments about the contribution immigration makes to economic growth in the United States comport nicely with the mythology of our immigrant nation.
But I think the reasons go deeper. A recent essay in Foreign Affairs by Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers, “The Fusion of Civilizations: The Case for Global Optimism,” outlines a vision for a more globalized, peaceful, and prosperous future—in which nations become less significant. Today’s emphasis on multiculturalism and “diversity” participates in this vision of the future, one in which differences are overcome and borders are irrelevant. It’s species of utopianism, to be sure, but it has a powerful grip on the moral imagination of the West.
In this view, national interest is an impediment to progress. Concerns about identity are, by definition, forms of ethnocentrism bordering on xenophobia. This is why the upsurge of populist concern about immigration—which I take to be a synecdoche for wide-ranging anxieties about the long-term significance of many social changes—are so vigorously denounced by mainstream politicians, journalists, and political commentators. It’s also why Hillary Clinton doesn’t isolate Trump by employing a more moderate and sensible nationalist rhetoric. The same goes from Angela Merkel. She is almost certain to persevere, in order to remain true to what she believes will best serve the common good, not just of Germany, but of the whole world.
Globalization has a unifying dimension, which we rightly applaud. At the same time, though, globalization is associated with economic and cultural changes that are dissolving inherited forms of solidarity—the nation foremost, but local communities, as well, and even the family. This dissolution encourages an atomistic individualism, which in turn makes all of us more vulnerable to domination and control.
By my reading of the signs of the times, the dangers of dissolved solidarity in the West are far more dire than our present upsurges of ethnocentrism and nationalism. It is atomized societies that are susceptible to demagogues—not societies that enjoy strong social bonds and organic communal solidarity. Islamic extremism thrives where traditional Muslim societies are disintegrated by the pressures of globalization.
We need to renew solidarity, rather than encourage the dissolving trends of globalization. This means taking populist, anti-immigrant trends seriously, not denouncing them. It also means thinking hard about how to strengthen what Abraham Lincoln called our “mystic chords of memory.” We need a Christian nationalism, one that encourages the unity of mankind while recognizing that human beings thrive best as members of a particular people and as proud recipients of a distinctive cultural inheritance.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.