GOP politicos and pundits looking on in horror as Donald Trump lays waste to the Republican Party had better brace themselves: immigration fights can dominate and disrupt the politics of an entire generation in America. It has happened before.
Twice previously in U.S. history, concerns over mass immigration have combined with a growing sense of social and economic crisis to wreak havoc on the political status quo. Popular reactions against the Irish immigration (c. 1830-1860) and the so-called “Great Wave” from Southern and Eastern Europe (1880-1924) became potent political movements when a segment of the American public connected the immigration issue to deeper questions about the economy, community, and national identity. These movements destroyed or took over old parties, changed the national agenda, and altered the course of our history. Now, as concern over the breakdown of the Blue Model intersects with anger about mass immigration, we are experiencing a third such crisis in American politics.
Immigration by itself isn’t the problem; rather, when a wave of mass immigration coincides with deep and painful structural changes in American life, then parties explode and history changes. When the mass of Americans feel the economic ground shifting under their feet and fear for their livelihoods, when the financial sector seems out of control, when social and civic equality seems threatened by economic polarization as the country’s religious identity seems to be shifting, when security threats appear to be rising while politically empowered plutocrats conspire to lower middle class incomes and competition from cheap foreign labor threatens American jobs, politicians need to watch out. These are the times when the issue of mass immigration explodes onto the political scene to disrupt politics and challenge the party system.
In the 1830s large numbers of Irish immigrants, driven by poverty and oppression, began to arrive in the United States. This stream swelled to flood proportions when the Potato Famine hit the Emerald Isle in 1845. The newcomers were dirt-poor and suspiciously Catholic (and accompanied by a smaller but significant number of Catholics from southern Germany, who also began to immigrate in large numbers around then). America until that time had had only a small Catholic population, and our Protestant working class held a series of centuries-old prejudices against Catholicism (as the enemy of liberty) and the Catholic Irish in particular (as the traditional enemy of the English and the Scots-Irish ethnic groups that made up much of the native-born American population).
The Catholic newcomers entered an America that was already primed for political turmoil. Anger at elites and suspicion of high finance had fueled the Jacksonian revolt and Old Hickory’s war against the Second National Bank in the 1830s. The early stages of industrialization were beginning to undermine the role of the independent small craftsmen in the cities, pointing toward a future in which permanent service to another (factory employment), rather than a cycle of apprenticeship and then self-employment, would become the norm. This was also a period of relatively free trade: in 1844, Congress passed the Walker tariff, significantly lowering trade duties (these would be lowered further in 1857). This measure, along with the repeal of the British Corn Laws, significantly boosted international trade—a process which, as we have learned, has losers as well as winners.
But the biggest question was that of slavery—which for many Americans was first and foremost a question of national identity, of the structure of the union, and of the economic basis of the country: would America become a nation of free farmers, or of slaves and masters? As slavery spread into the newly acquired territories in the West, citizens in the the north and old northwest feared being swamped by the spread of “slave power,” whereby slave owners could first muscle them out economically from the rich farmlands of the west and then, holding an increasing number of the states, dominate the nation politically. While many increasingly recognized the moral evil of slavery, others saw it as a question of how America’s traditional northern citizens (free, white, Protestant, self-governing men) would be able to live. They cared less about the fate of black Americans (whom often they were eager to keep away—Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois made it a crime to help a free black man enter the state, for instance) than about the fate of the white, Protestant American folk group.
When men who thought along these lines looked South, they saw plantation owners conspiring to undercut them with slaves; when they looked east, they saw plutocrats trying to undercut them with immigrant labor, and ‘doughfaced’ northern business leaders in collusion with Southern planters. Everywhere, fat cats and politicians neglected and conspired against the ordinary American working man and a new, well-educated, well-connected social elite seemed to be entrenching itself in political power.
For about two decades, the wave of Catholic immigration had prompted a growing but disorganized nativist reaction, one that manifested itself in angry editorials, local political fights, and even street violence, but not a national political movement. Then, as both the immigration and slavery issues came to a head around the same time, a portion of the northern middle and working classes freaked out. In the early 1850s, these forces coalesced suddenly and rapidly into the American Party, better remembered as the Know-Nothing Party. The Know-Nothings were stridently anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, with a heavy rhetorical focus on national unity. But they lacked experienced political leadership, and their other policies were a grab bag of popular but often-contradictory proposals. (Sound familiar?) The new Party seized control of the Massachusetts state legislature in 1854, gained ground quickly elsewhere, and, running former President Millard Fillmore (who was nominated without his knowledge, while he was traveling abroad), won the state of Maryland in the presidential election of 1856.
The rise of the Know-Nothings marked and consummated the downfall of the Second Party System. The Know-Nothings emerged from the rapidly decaying Whig base and cannibalized a good deal of what was remained of the old American right. But the new party did not live to benefit from its own success. The Know-Nothings had misjudged which of the two elements of the crisis was the most important issue of their day. Unable to formulate a response to the slavery question that satisfied their northern and southern members, the party fell apart as rapidly as it had risen. (They were supplanted by the Republicans—who pointedly eschewed their nativism in favor of a broader conception of the American ideal.)
In many ways, Know-Nothingism had represented an attempt to avert the coming crack-up of the Union by going back to what had (in the view of its supporters) made America great—Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, with a heavy emphasis on national unity. This was wishful thinking: barring Catholics, enacting populist measures, and hoping really hard for national unity wasn’t going to make the issue of slavery fade away in the late 1850s. But Know Nothingism’s political appeal was, for a brief moment, undeniable. It took the Civil War to drive the immigration issue off center stage.
Anti-immigrant sentiment continued to roil the country even, as fans of the movie Gangs of New York will know, in the midst of the Civil War. A big drop in Irish immigration during the 1860s and 1870s quieted the immigration controversy in the aftermath of the conflict, and for the next generation, immigration remained a relatively unimportant issue.
Then, starting in 1880, a combination of czarist oppression, grinding poverty, the spread of railroads and steamships (which drastically reduced the price and increased the safety of travel), and the lure of opportunity in America (which was in the full swing of industrialization and westward expansion) caused millions upon millions of Eastern and Southern Europeans to head for America’s shores. By no means were the newcomers entirely unwelcome: the U.S. needed warm bodies in its factories and on its frontier. But the immigrants were conspicuously foreign in religion (Orthodox Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Christian), dress, and manner, and they flooded into American cities in numbers never seen before. This “Great Wave,” or “New Immigration,” grew to overshadow other issues in public life, just as the old had. And, as the pressures of the Industrial Revolution grew, and the agrarian way of life that had long been the pillar of American prosperity began to break down, immigration would once more surge into the forefront of American politics.
The “Great Wave” came at a time of rising social stress. From the 1890 census, which declared the frontier officially “closed”, onward, the family farm rapidly declined as a source of mass employment. Farmers made up half of America’s labor force in 1880, but only 20% by 1930 (and trending downward). This “disrupted,” as we’d now say, the employment model for several generations of Americans. It also prompted a new crisis of national identity. Since the Revolution, Americans had seen themselves as a country of yeoman-farmers. The Northern victory in the Civil War, and the race to populate the West, had engrained this idea even deeper. Now, the farmer was disappearing. And it would be some time before the idea of the factory worker as blue-collar provider overtook the image of the independent farmer as the core way in which the American citizen saw himself.
In the meantime, this uncertainty provoked an ambient sense of crisis. The struggling, native-born farmers of the south and midwest looked to the northeast and saw a conspiracy of plutocrats beggaring his kind through powerful corporations and banks. The development of the vast farmlands of Argentina, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, the improvement of agricultural technology, and advances in shipping all exerted deflationary pressure that increased farmers’ anger. A series of financial crises—in which the big corporations benefitted from bailouts while ordinary borrowers and savers lost everything they had—undermined public confidence in the wisdom and the fairness of those who managed the economic machine. The Populist movement grew out of such feelings, and while it failed as an independent party, its grievances increasingly were given a hearing by Democrats.
The West and Midwest were among some of the earliest and most stridently anti-immigrant areas throughout this period, despite (as historians have often noted with some level of puzzlement) relatively low levels of immigrant population. Two factors likely influenced this. The immigrants were once again seen as supporting the economic interests of the Eastern plutocrats, and the immigrants again organized urban political machines. Increasingly, these machines dominated the national political scene at the expense of rural states and regions, particularly as the demographic weight of the country shifted to the cities.
But this was by no means all. It is impossible to think of almost any political question or movement during this period not touched by the combined controversies of the new immigration and national identity. The labor movement at first swung pro-immigrant (incurring the wrathful opposition of industrialists, who alleged—not without reason—that the immigrants contained a significant socialist minority), but, as immigrants were seen as forcing down wages and making it easier for management to fight unions, organized labor turned restrictionist. Progressivism in each party was fueled by a need to control the unwashed mob and stop them from spreading disease—but also from drinking (Prohibition), breeding (sterilization), and spreading foreign superstition in parochial schools. And immigration again contained a national security element, at first during the Anarchist scare of the late 19th century (during which the slayings of half a dozen European heads of state filled the newspapers, Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley, and terrorists made several attempts on the lives of prominent industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller.) Later, following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Americans were concerned about the threat from Communists coming over among the immigrants.
In fits and starts in the 1880s and 1890s, and then in sustained fashion from approximately 1907 onward until 1924, huge fights over the Great Wave raged in Washington and across the nation. Smaller, symbolic votes didn’t buy off the restrictionists. (Though something as big—and ugly—as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882 at the behest of West Coast restrictionists, did placate some of them.) Nor did failed restrictionist efforts on the national stage end the fight: two restrictionist bills were passed by Congress but vetoed by President Taft in 1912 and President Wilson in 1915. But restrictionists kept gaining ground: what had once been bipartisan opposition became bipartisan support for restrictionism. In 1917, Congress overrode a Presidential veto and passed a literacy test for would-be immigrants. Then in 1921 and 1924, two quota acts hammered the Golden Door shut. The 1924 Act shut down immigration to the U.S. almost completely for two generations, from 1924 to 1965; not even the persecutions of the 1930s or the revelations of the Holocaust after WWII were sufficient to break the anti-immigration consensus that had hardened across right and left, from elites and populists, during the preceding generation.
Not only did the restrictionists in 1924, unlike in 1856, achieve their aim; on their way to victory, they transformed both parties. Neither party came out of the 1880-1924 period looking the same as it went in, but the Democrats were particularly affected. As many modern Republicans are now recalling with horror, the Democrats went into their convention in 1924 deeply split, with the Klan endorsing one of the two leading candidates in order to block the other, Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, from becoming President. The “Klanbake,” as the convention came to be called, went to 103 ballots in Madison Square Garden, while 20,000 Klansmen held a cookout on the banks of the Hudson River. The splits between populists and elites, immigrants and nativists, Progressives and traditionalists that the Party had until then papered over (Democrats had held the White House only four years previously) were on full display as the convention dissolved into chaos. The eventual winner, a Kasich-style compromise candidate, went on to post 28% at the polls that November. And while the Democratic Party—unlike the old Whigs—survived and eventually recovered, you have to take into account that full restrictionism went into effect after that same year. The end of mass immigration allowed the wounded Democratic Party to survive, barely, until it was rescued by the Depression in 1932.
Now we are in the middle of another great wave. Since 1965, when Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act and reopened the doors to mass immigration (this time largely from the Western hemisphere and Asia), 59 million new immigrants have arrived in the United States. These immigrants form 18.9% of the current population; if you include children born to them, there have been 79 million newcomers, comprising 24.7% of the population.
Like the last two waves, this one has caused significant changes in the ethnic and religious makeup of America, and has affected the composition of many local communities even more drastically. But also like the last two waves, it has continued for several decades without, until now, provoking a political crisis. Just as in 1830s and ’40s and 1880s-1900s, a combination of the sense that in general, things have been going well for the American middle class throughout this period and that there were other, unrelated things to worry about (the Cold War did not, for instance, have a significant immigration component) have kept immigration politics relatively calm. It has been treated largely as one issue among many, albeit at times an important one, rather than a potential party-breaker.
But now, as the Blue Model breaks down—as manufacturing and white-collar clerical work no longer provides mass employment, as local governmental services decay, and as the national and local sense of community frays—we have a major political disruption. This is likely not a coincidence.
The factory jobs that replaced the family farm as the unit of employment and identity for many Americans have gone away—and they are never coming back. Competition from China was part of this—but only part. Automation is now stealing jobs even from China. Factory jobs in the old sense—picking up hubcaps and sticking them to each car that comes down the assembly line, while someone else drills the nuts into place—are increasingly rare everywhere, because that’s what robots are for. (This is why, as FiveThirtyEight recently pointed out, while manufacturing as measured by value added has risen 20% in the U.S. since 2009, manufacturing employment has only risen 5%.) And likewise, computers are destroying millions of clerical jobs that used to be the lower-middle-class, white-collar equivalent of factory work. The housing bubble probably papered the effects of this over for a little while, and the immediate economic emergency of the Great Recession took the blame for a few more years. But no longer.
Just as how at the turn of the 20th century, people failed to see how factory work would thoroughly replace family farming as the source of American income and identity, so too today we struggle to foresee what will come after “Allentown.” As then, so too now the opening of global markets has exacerbated this problem in certain regions. Other problems of the 1850s and 1900s-20s also exist. As the chasm between educated elites and the middle class is exacerbated by the tech revolution, concerns about inequality have increased. Due in part to the particulars of the 2008 crash, those who have lost most from many of the recent structural economic changes are increasingly convinced they are being conspired against by financial elites and politicians, as well as just left behind. And terrorism has yet again tied immigration to national security.
The same ingredients that fueled the political explosions of the 1850s and the 1920s have come together again. Each of these issues—mass immigration, employment, local community makeup, homeland security, and national identity—are highly sensitive for average Americans. People, including or perhaps even especially those who are not usually politically active, care deeply about them. When all of them are in flux at once, as we have seen, they can combine to create political explosions. This is the third such crisis, and we shouldn’t expect it to quietly die down. History says that those concerned about the future of the Republican Party are right to worry: in times like ours, immigration is a potent enough issue to break a party and provoke a realignment.