Imagine you are an American in your twenties. You might have a bit of college, but you have no bachelor’s degree and are unlikely to get one any time soon. Your parents are low-skill immigrants, but you were born here. They worked at backbreaking or dangerous jobs. You are a wage-earner, too. Your English-language skills and high school diploma give you more options than mom and dad have, but far fewer than credentialed professionals and their kids. Several of your friends have dropped out of school and are working at food service or retail jobs for employers that could go out of business. What does populist nationalism offer this kid, and her parents, and her friends? The answer to that question will determine the course of her life, and our nation’s.
First- and second-generation Americans already make up about one-quarter of the population, a proportion that is set to rise. These first- and second-generation Americans will be threaded all though America’s communities. Many will marry, or otherwise have children with, the descendants of America’s pre-1967 population.
A populist nationalism doesn’t require the support of all the wage-earners described above. It doesn’t require the support of even half of them. But it will require the support of many of them. No effective nationalism can exist altogether without or against these American wage-earners. This is because there can be no national community without or against them. There can be no common good without or against them. There can only be pseudo-nationalist sectarianisms of class, ethnicity, and race.
The wage-earner described above might well have been drawn to Bernie Sanders, with his promises of free college (for those who saw a better life that way), a higher minimum wage (for those who saw a better life that way), guaranteed government healthcare, and more generous government pensions. She probably also noticed that Sanders (and Hillary Clinton) didn’t speak as though America’s problems had begun about the time her parents entered the country.
That doesn’t mean she is invincibly drawn to the Sanders agenda. She already dislikes the payroll taxes that eat into her paycheck, and a Bernie Sanders state would take even more out of her earnings. The rich aren’t going to pay for all of it. Moreover, there is an inherent tension between liberal cosmopolitanism’s open-borders rhetoric and its downwardly redistributive politics. Free college and government healthcare are fine, but they won’t be affordable if we make them available to everyone who can get here. In view of this, our second-generation wage-earner might be drawn to a politics of national solidarity.
But will she be? The liberal cosmopolitan view includes her in its vision of the common good in the short and medium term. It tells her that she is valued as a fellow citizen, that her family and friends have interests that matter, and that she will have a backstop if things go wrong. A similarly inclusive view of the common good is missing on the right. The “propositional nation” right is glad to talk about the contributions of immigrants (especially when asking Congress to permit more guest workers to staff their businesses), but their policy preferences (tax cuts for themselves, entitlement cuts for wage-earners) will never seem inclusive. They will seem like rationalizations of selfishness.
The populist right has the potential to speak to our second-generation wage-earner, but most of what she hears from populists sounds like identity politics for white people. She knows that her parents aren’t criminals and rapists. When alleged populists talk about making America great again, they don’t sound like they mean her any good.
It is too bad, because populist nationalism has other, more inclusive accents. It was Donald Trump (the husband of several immigrants) who said:
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.
A nationalist populism that spoke this way with more consistency and discipline would be a good start—but only a start. A rhetoric of national solidarity must be attached to an agenda of national solidarity.
One place to start would be to think of this politics as one of reciprocal solidarity. Americans—all Americans—have responsibilities to each other as Americans. For America’s businesses, that might mean low taxes and regulation, at least compared to what the Bernie Sanderses and Hillary Clintons of the world want. For wage-earners it might mean that, in return for living in a globalized economy, and as long as they make the right decisions, they will receive a modicum of security. If the best job they can get is low-wage, then a combination of wage subsidies and a child tax credit will enable them to earn a living, provided they work.
A politics of reciprocal solidarity would mean healthcare reform that forces providers to post transparent prices and removes obstacles to competition from newer, cheaper providers. A wage-earner who loses a full-time job and scrapes by with forty hours from a couple of part-time jobs would still have access to catastrophic health care insurance. Some wage-earners would have health-savings accounts (tax-advantaged pools of money that can be used to pay for routine healthcare costs), and perhaps those accounts would be pre-filled by the government. If those wage-earners shop carefully and are a little lucky, they might have a little money left over at the end of the year for Christmas shopping.
Some kind of reciprocal-solidarity agenda will be necessary if we are to have entitlement reform. As people live longer, it makes sense to raise the retirement age from the current sixty-seven. But it makes no sense to expect people to work as roofers at age sixty-nine. Reciprocal-solidarity policies would offer a deal to wage-earners: You will work more years, but if you take a less physically demanding job as you age, you won’t lose your healthcare benefits or find that your earnings collapse just as your body starts breaking down.
This all means that, even as our economy is reformed in some respects along market-friendly lines (entitlement cuts via delayed retirements, pro-competition reforms to the healthcare sector, a deregulatory agenda), our spending policy will become more downwardly redistributive. It will cost money to subsidize the wages and health insurance of our low-skill workers. Consequently, it makes no sense to use the immigration system to increase the size of this population. Directing help to our low-skill workers of all ethnicities will entail rebalancing our immigration in the direction of skill. Businesses will no longer be able to use immigration to avoid hiring from our current (and substantially foreign-born) population of low-skill workers.
The irony is that the priorities of reciprocal solidarity already align with the intuitions of the secular, working-class whites who were drawn to Donald Trump’s rhetoric. According to Henry Olsen, these voters value hard work, but they want reassurance that their hard work will bring them a modicum of security and dignity, provided they make the right choices. A politics of reciprocal solidarity can be a way to bring both working-class whites and a larger share of first- and second-generation wage-earners into a constructive nationalist politics. The solution to the problems of populist nationalism is to become more authentically nationalist, by becoming more inclusively populist.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.