John Maynard Keynes once wrote, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” That quote dates from the 1930s. We are now a lesser people, and so our practical men are now the slaves, not of economists and philosophers, but of bloggers and social media mavens.
We can see how this works with that most practical of men, Mitt Romney. In 2012, Romney, a man with two advanced degrees from Harvard University, a sparkling family life, and an extremely successful business career, stood up before an audience of wealthy donors and proceeded to describe the “47 percent” of Americans who didn’t have a net income tax liability as entitled deadbeats who could not be convinced to care about their own lives. Where did Romney pick up such nonsense, which would be embarrassing coming from a drunk on a barstool?
Whether directly or indirectly, he got the idea from a blogger named Erick Erickson. Erickson is not a rich man. The people who make up his audience and have allowed him to earn a living through political opinionating tend to be favorable to Trump. Erickson has risked his career to criticize Trump, bitterly and often correctly. If I am ever similarly tested, I hope that I will show the same integrity. And yet Erickson is one of the accidental architects of the Trump phenomenon.
Back in 2011, Erick Erickson started the We Are the 53 Percent blog. It was a response to the Left’s “We Are the 99 Percent” meme, in which people held up messages explaining that they were struggling because of the greed of the rich. Erickson showed people holding up messages identifying them as part of the 53 percent that allegedly had a net income tax liability. They were the 53 percent because they worked hard, were responsible, and didn’t take handouts.
We Are The 53 Percent was supposed to own liberals, but it was a terrible misfire. It didn’t hit George Soros or Nancy Pelosi. It hit wage-earners who were working hard and not making a lot of money. It was supposed to mock the ideas of Leftists, but it ended up dismissing the work of those who earned just below the median income. If you lost a job that had paid well, and were struggling to make do with one around the minimum wage, what did the We Are the 53 Percent people think about you?
Romney worked out the implications of Erickson’s blog. If being in the 53 percent meant you were hardworking and responsible, then what did that make the 47 percent? Romney told us: “And so my job is not to worry about those people [the 47 percent]. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Many of those 47 percent voted for Trump. So, probably, did many of the 53 percent who didn’t like the idea of voting for someone who thought they would be bums if their employers cut back their hours. If a wage-earner suspected that conventional conservatives had contempt for him, all he had to do was listen to Romney go on about business owners, or read Erickson’s blog.
Recently, Erickson made an interesting observation regarding immigration policy. President Trump (allegedly) made a derogatory reference to African countries and wondered why we didn’t have more immigrants from Norway. Erickson responded by writing:
So the President would prefer we allow Norwegian socialists with no special love of America into the country, but not the Ghanan [sic] who will work his a** off with a grand appreciation for our free market system and raise his kids to be proud Americans.
Erickson’s instinct not to judge by race or country of origin is decent. But, as with We Are the 53 Percent, the thinking is muddled and self-righteous. Why does he imagine that immigrants from Ghana (or anywhere else) talk like interns at Paul Ryan’s congressional office? How does one operationalize “grand appreciation for our free market system” into our immigration system?
Trump’s (alleged) comment about African immigrants is on the wrong side of both facts and public opinion. As it happens, most Americans of all parties are in favor of an immigration system that favors skills and English proficiency over national origin. And, as it happens, immigrants from Ghana are more likely than the average native-born American to have completed four years of college.
But that isn’t Erickson’s argument. Erickson argues that a poor immigrant from a “kleptocracy” is preferable to a (potentially) more educated immigrant from Europe. Erickson argues that “the African will make the most of the American dream.” Meanwhile, back on Earth, there is wide variance in the employment success of African immigrants, based on country of origin. But, like Bluto Blutarsky in Animal House, Erickson is on a roll. There is nothing magic about being from Norway, or Ghana, or Somalia, or anywhere else.
The American public is wise to reject both Trump’s (alleged) hostility to African immigrants and Erickson’s condescending romanticism. The public’s rejection of those extremes isn’t about Africa or Norway. It is about America. America’s economic and cultural institutions have done a lousy job for our least-skilled workers of all colors for over fifty years now. Our families with least-skilled workers are less likely to stay together, and males from those families are less likely to be in the labor force. The gap in labor force participation and family stability across the class divide is much larger than it was in the mid–twentieth century. This pattern is now two generations old. That is long enough that even our nation’s political elites should have noticed.
The public is correct to want our immigrants (whether from Ghana, Somalia, or Norway) to slot into those segments of the labor market where the parents are most likely to work and most likely to stay together. The least-skilled portion of our population (of all colors, both foreign and native-born) needs help. That help could take the form of wage subsidies or other policies, but it will be expensive. The larger our population of low-skill workers, the less likely it is that they will get the help they need from America’s broken institutions.
Erickson closes by writing that that Trump’s “understanding is clearly superficial and lacks substance beyond the power of positive thinking.” Unfortunately, that statement is at least as true of Erickson as it is of Trump. Trump is president, and Erickson is an intellectual, but intellectuals matter. Perhaps the superficiality of our well-meaning intellectuals is why so many Americans see Trump as the more realistic alternative.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
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Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.