Ten years ago, I would have cited immigration as a triumph of good policy over the popular will. A good chunk of the population opposed the levels of both legal and illegal immigration. They were strong enough to scuttle bipartisan deals that would regularize illegal immigrants, or increase the numbers of legal ones. But they couldn’t alter the status quo. The result might not represent good democracy, but it was good policy on both economic and humanitarian grounds.
Ten years on, this seems rather embarrassing. The dam broke, and the floodwaters that surged through propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. Yet the logic behind the old immigration consensus is as popular as ever.
When New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested that a deal on immigration would require someone like White House adviser Stephen Miller, a committed restrictionist, at the table, social media erupted with cries that the Times was now a white supremacist paper. “Hey, there are a lot of white racists and is really such a bad thing if we negotiate immigration with them?,'” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie said in summarizing the argument.
There’s a short answer to that question. It sounds controversial, especially if you think some or all immigration restrictionists are racists -- racism is something to be shunned. But it is really a bad thing to systematically disenfranchise voters in a democracy. In this case, a group that represents a third of the nation.
That’s effectively what Bouie suggests. Oh, they would be allowed to vote. But only symbolically, to keep up the appearances of democracy, not to actually affect any laws or procedures. France and Sweden have chosen this route: Parties collude to keep the far-right from exercising any power over the government.
But the structure of the American electoral system produces exactly two parties capable of winning elections. When the immigration restrictionists all herd together into one party, they will likely constitute a majority, or at least a plurality, of that party. How do you keep such a powerful group away from the machinery of government? That it was managed for so long took a sort of political genius -- albeit one of the mad scientist variety given the backlash it triggered.
Even some people who support the old immigration consensus have now begun to cry, “Stop, you fools, you’ll kill us all!” In The Week, Damon Linker argued against shunning anyone who seeks to shift U.S. immigration policy away from high levels of low-skilled immigration. For this he faced sharp pushback from from two professors -- Dan Drezner of Tufts University, writing for the Washington Post, and Swarthmore College’s Timothy Burke, writing on his own blog. Both effectively argued that restrictionists are a minority, and therefore have no right to impose their opinion on the rest of us.
I have immense respect for both Drezner and Burke. But I think they both somewhat overstate the strength of popular support for the old consensus, and the political realities of the current moment.
Start with voter sentiment. “A third of Americans want to see greater restrictions placed on immigration,” writes Drezner. “Which means that two-thirds of Americans do not want such restrictions… I may be just a small-town political scientist, but in most democracies that means that the restrictionists do not get to cut legal immigration by half.”
Burke, meanwhile argues that if Linker and Douthat are “worried about what a minority frustrated by not getting their way might do, they ought to worry doubly about what a majority that doesn’t have their views proportionately represented in policy might do. In practical terms, that’s much more threatening and dangerous.”
But this view is, to say the least, heavily reliant on your choice of polls. In Gallup surveys -- upon which both Drezner and Burke seem to rely -- “increase immigration” is a minority position, with “keep it the same” and “decrease it” roughly tied. But you can’t simply bundle the “increase” and the “same” sides together and declare that the restrictionists are therefore a minority. It’s a bit like saying that between us, Bill Gates and I have billions of dollars -- true, but not a good measure of my financial position. After all, the restrictionists could effectively perform the same bundling act to decry Obama’s immigration expansions -- something that few of the people now complaining about intransigent minorities would have supported at the time.
This bundling trick is misleading because “keep levels the same” is a sort of careless answer, the sort people give when they don’t really have much invested in an issue. If you ask people how many immigrants we ought to admit, you get numbers that are lower than current levels. Overall, as Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR recently noted, more people want to decrease immigration than increase it. Since the voters whose electoral choices are driven by the issue are likely to be heavily concentrated at the poles of public opinion, there is arguably a strong argument that respect for the popular will should incline us towards restriction.
This argument gains further strength from the fact that the relatively immigration-favorable Gallup numbers Burke and Drezner lean on weren’t so favorable a few decades ago, when roughly two thirds of Americans wanted immigration decreased; the current state of popular opinion seems to have been driven at least in part by an expansionist minority overriding the substantial majority of Americans who said they wanted less immigration as recently as 2002.
Restrictionists could be forgiven for feeling like the rules have changed just when it was advantageous for the other side. Immigrants and their children are far more immigration-enthusiastic than second or nth-generation Americans. That group grew to historic highs in recent years, likely shifting the electorate. And suddenly it’s illegitimate for a minority of voters to want its views expressed in policy, even if they manage to win elections on those views?
Neither Douthat nor Linker are arguing that the restrictionist minority/majority/plurality deserves to win everything they want. Rather, their argument is that those people deserve to have a seat at the immigration policy table. The Trump Administration’s proposal was the opening bid in that negotiation, not the final agreement.
To disagree with Douthat and Linker, then, you need to argue, not just that the restrictionists are propounding bad policy, but that the restrictionists must be shut out, delegitimized, anathema. Practically, this is a silly argument as long as they are able to capture the White House and dozens of Congressional seats. But in a way I didn’t appreciate ten years ago, it is also corrosive to our civic institutions.
Every functioning democracy larger than a small committee has some counter-majoritarian elements, both to protect minority rights, and to make the thing operate efficiently enough to govern a large area. But such elements need to be carefully chosen, and balanced against the dangers of moving so far from democracy that you lose political legitimacy. If counter-majoritarianism is embraced casually--if elites ping-pong back and forth between claiming a democratic mandate when the political winds favor them, and the divine right of kings (or the blessings of capital-H History) when the populace proves fickle -- then it delegitimizes the whole concept.
As someone who wants strong countermajoritarian protections for all sorts of minority rights, this troubles me. But even if it doesn’t bother you to declare that millions of voters need to be kept out of the political process, you should be troubled by the evidence that it hasn’t worked. The conspiracy has been out-conspired; the experiment has blown up. It’s time to abandon the magic formula before the damage gets worse.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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