The fight over immigration is a proxy war. The absolute number of immigrants to be welcomed into the country is only a secondary question: the primary question is how that number should be arrived at. There is a fundamental difference between two warring worldviews here, and people who think of themselves as conservatives are found on both sides. One side, the side I favor, sees the United States as a nation-state and regards immigration as a prudential question to be answered in light of what is good for the nation’s interests—specifically the citizens’ interests, diversely understood. The costs and benefits of immigration have to be weighed based on how different levels and different enforcement mechanisms affect our culture, our citizens’ liberties, our economy as a whole, the economy of different regions and demographics of the country, and our national security.
At present, there is a reasonable argument that high levels of immigration support GDP growth—they certainly support population growth, which, other things being equal, is in itself a useful thing for a nation. But high immigration comes at the price of some degree of decreased cultural solidarity, economic dislocations and inequalities of various kinds, nonzero national-security risk, and much more than nonzero public fear of national-security risks. Given the deteriorating state of our working class and middle class communities in much of the country, and given the high degree of cultural conflict we are experiencing at the moment, I would favor a significant reduction in immigration, even if there were some GDP cost. The penalty in terms of citizens’ liberties lost, however, also has to be taken into account, and clearly some immigration-control measures, such as the creation of a national ID card, would not be justified by the present modest inconveniences of large-scale immigration.
Compassion for noncitizens and concerns for their civil liberties are worth weighing in the scales as well, but the first priority should be given to our citizens’ needs and desires. And the decision should be in their hands: it should be a matter for the public to discuss, openly and clearly, and for elected representatives to act upon in good faith. But this has not happened. For one thing, immigration poses a unique ethical problem in that it offers politicians the opportunity to betray their present constituents in the hope of creating more constituents in the future. Politicians may even embrace a policy that is contrary to the interests of citizens because they believe they must do so for defensive purposes, lest the other party claim the future constituency’s loyalty first. Thus Democrats tend to favor more immigration for partisans reasons, and many Republicans feel they must compete in offering plans for amnesty of illegal immigrants or other pro-immigration measures.
But there is an even more serious obstacle to good-faith deliberation about a pro-citizen immigration policy. Namely, that the other side in the proxy war over immigration does not believe that America should be understood as merely a nation-state and does not agree that immigration levels are a matter of prudence rather than of principle. Adherents of this view believe in a Universal America, not a National America. They accept that the United States is, in several senses, an actual, historically existing nation-state. But America’s existence as a nation-state is not what should determine its immigration policy, or its policy in any number of other matters, such as trade and foreign intervention. Rather, certain fixed principlesthat apply to all peoples at all times determine, without the need for any deliberation, what general immigration policy should be pursued.
This view is shared by both open-borders libertarians and multicultural liberals. For them, the principles of Universal America call for admission of as many immigrants as care to come. For the open-borders libertarian, there are universal laws of economics at work that must be obeyed: free movement of peoples without regard for borders is conducive to maximum efficiency. Most of these libertarians would also see a universal human-rights requirement for free immigration. For many economic conservatives (one may call them “Jack Kemp” conservatives), and neoconservatives, the same calculus applies, although they may acknowledge some need to be gradual about perfecting market efficiency or the universal reign of American values. Progressives may or may not explicitly go all the way to arguing for open borders, but they too approach the question as not primarily about the national interest but rather about human rights. They will allude to “American values,” but those values are not “American” in the sense of being values that serve American citizens in practical terms, they are “American” in the sense that America happens to be, for them, the vehicle for universal values in this world.
All these groups share a basic favoritism toward a Universal America and share in the antidemocratic sentiment of who gets to decide: immigration is to be decided by experts who understand the needs of universal markets and the human race much better than legislators or citizens. They offer an ideological, rather than prudential and deliberative, answer to the question of how much immigration the U.S. is to have.
Conservatism as an intellectual movement has failed badly here, and that failure has had concrete political consequences. Over the course of seventy-odd years, the conservative movement has not faced up to the challenge of squaring its commitment to free-market economics with its professed commitment to the nation-state. The upshot of avoiding this challenge has been a political split between the think tanks, magazines, and donors of the movement and the right’s popular base. The divide is not total: there are plenty of immigration restrictionists and nation-state conservatives at the elite levels. But there is a gradient: ideological pro-immigration sentiment is much greater at the elite level than among the base. This contributes to the base’s growing distrust of the movement conservative elite: a distrust that was in full display in the 2016 election, where the base favored Donald Trump, much to the horror of the donor class and intellectual apparatchiks.
The latter cannot be altogether blamed for avoiding the difficult task of reconciling what is universal in American conservatism, particularly in its economic commitments, and what is national. Conservatism as a political and intellectual movement developed during the Cold War, and during the Cold War free-market economics and the principle of the nation-state—as well as religion, one might add—were united as one against godless international Communism. And in the two decades following the end of the Cold War, the triumph of economic globalism seemed so complete, and the global power of the United States so vast, that even among conservatives, Universal America seemed to have won by default. National America was something that only Pat Buchanan represented in politics during the 1990s, at least to any great extent.
The failure of Universal America in the past fifteen years is what has made immigration a live controversy again. Universal America’s foreign policy (and immigration policy) failed to keep the country safe on 9/11, and subsequently the war in Iraq demolished the idea that American values and American might could transform every corner of the world. The financial crisis then shattered the idea that what passed for capitalism could always satisfy Americans (and everybody else). The national interest and the interests of citizens, not just as an aggregate but as classes and regions, mattered once more. And so immigration matters again too.
Because Universal America commands so much power in the media and among credentialed elites, including those who think of themselves as conservatives, National America is much misunderstood. The average citizen is not less intelligent than the average pundit, but the citizen is much less media-savvy and much less accustomed to framing his beliefs in sweet, sophisticated formulas. So citizens are misrepresented by the verbalist class as being economically ignorant and racially bigoted whenever they oppose mass immigration. To make matters worse, there are actual racist ideologues who, because they have been honing their media message for some time, are in a position to present themselves as the articulate spokesmen of an inarticulate conservative public that favors immigration restriction.
Conservatives, whether of the Universal America or National America camp, have a duty to clarify the confusions here, both among conservatives and in the eyes of the national media and intellectual elite. Conservatives must directly and theoretically confront the question that has gone unanswered since the 1950s: namely, how prudence and universal principle, the nation-state and the free-market, can be reconciled—or if they cannot be reconciled, then which set of institutions and values the right is to choose. Bringing the proxy war out into the open and dealing with it in the most intellectually rigorous and honest fashion will help to defuse some of the hostilities that otherwise attach to the immigration debate. The divisions will remain sharp, but at least they will be clear.
Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative.