When the going gets tough politically or personally, President Trump’s recovery move is to turn to his base voters. This has yet to increase his job approval numbers much beyond 40 percent, but it keeps his support level from falling into a total collapse. With sex scandals swirling and the Mueller investigation closing in, Trump recently took action on an issue that matters a great deal to his base—immigration. The President initially wanted to send active military to the Mexican border, but upon advice from the military settled for the more conventional tactic of deploying the National Guard.
It was no surprise that Texas and Arizona were quick to respond, but it was less clear what California, a self-proclaimed bastion of Trump resistance, would do. In the end, Governor Jerry Brown also complied after some hesitation. He took care to explain that the purpose of his order was to protect against “criminal threats,” and not to “round up women and children or detain people who are escaping violence or seeking a better life.”
Immigration was a hot topic in California decades before Trump ran on the issue in 2016. As the Latino and Asian population grew in the 1970s and 1980s, the predominantly white state electorate passed ballot measures that would have restricted government services to undocumented residents and limited bilingual education in the schools. Peter Wilson, running for re-election in a recession, focused his campaign on the fiscal drain that immigrants put on county governments. Minutemen patrolled the California-Mexico border and tensions developed between Latinos and African-Americans over public sector jobs in Southern California. Governor Brown, who witnessed all of this from the perch of one office or another during this period, chose “prudently” to follow a “measured” path with respect to Trump’s order, well aware that the embers of immigration politics never die out entirely.
Immigration in the new millennium raises many of the same cultural, economic, and political issues that were debated in the 1980s and 1990s, but there is a new element of physical threat. Terrorists (homegrown and foreign), drug-related violence, and Central American gangs feature more prominently now in the immigration discussion than they did several decades ago. This new angle generates fear, the most powerful electoral force in any setting—even in blue states like California.
Fear has driven California public policy in the past. The threat of drug-related violence led Californians to adopt mandatory sentencing and a harsh three-strikes law several decades ago. Governor Brown, who found himself on the wrong side of public sentiment on the death penalty and sentencing rules in his first stint as Governor, is clearly determined to avoid making the same political mistake again.
The recent debate has focused on the fate of the dreamers and funding Trump’s wall, but there are deeper themes at work. Many “isms” have assumed wrongly that national, cultural, racial, and religious identities could be swept aside by larger forces. The normative premise of economic liberalism and globalism is that rational individuals should prefer the efficiencies of trade and the free movement of labor to an inefficient world of protected markets. Marxism assumed that class identity could substitute for older traditional identity ties. Cosmopolitanism promoted the ideal that people could identify as citizens of the world. For some individuals, these assumptions were correct. But for many, they were not.
Protectionism is back, trumpeted by a political party that used to promote free trade most avidly. The fall of communism revived nationalism and religion in the former Soviet Union. Cosmopolitanism thrives only in limited domains populated by educated elites, not in red state Trump territory. Theories that overlook the importance of social identification, or dismiss it as irrational tribalism, or assume that it can be subsumed by loyalty to an occupational class or bureaucratic entities like the European Union, will often not foresee the backlash that inevitably follows.
The need to belong to a community is manifest in cyberspace as well as social geography. Many social media users cluster into homogenous networks, reinforcing common viewpoints and values among themselves. Homophily is omnipresent. First observed by Plato and Aristotle, and then later developed into a sociological theory by Paul Lazarsfeld in 1954, it holds that people generally prefer to associate with others like themselves—i.e. those who share similar values, religion, politics, and culture. Borders protected many of these homogenous communities in the past, but modern trends—free trade, social media, and the like—have eroded those buffers.
Political and economic elites have embraced the values of globalism, regionalism, and humanitarian concern for refugees more eagerly than many of their constituents. Recent research by political scientists John Ferejohn and David Brady found that in almost all of the political parties in the OECD countries they surveyed, party leaders were perceived to be more pro-immigration than their party’s supporters. From one perspective, this is far-sighted leadership. From another, it constitutes a representation gap, sowing the seeds of discontent with democracies that seemingly ignore what voters want in favor of interests that benefit various types of business, political, and nonprofit elites.
Where it has worked reasonably well, pluralist societies accommodate homophily with a tolerant, multicultural approach that allows for distinctive communities within common borders. Ideally people could self-sort by residence or in cyberspace, and at the same time maintain their trust in the impartiality and fairness of the rules that govern them. California aspires to this ideal. Today it is a clustered patchwork of disparate communities, not a uniformly integrated population. But racial tensions persist, as the Rodney King riots reminded us.
Problems arise when political or financial advantage is perceived to run along racial, cultural, religious or ethnic lines. Geographic and social media homophily, taken to an extreme, can undermine empathy for and an understanding of others. We can see signs of these problems in today’s national politics. Some whites in American believe that the United States went too far in redressing past injustices to minorities. Many minorities perceive that injustices persist. The political parties and residential patterns increasingly sort along white-nonwhite lines.
Much that has happened in recent years has reacquainted us with the fragility of democratic systems. Democracies work only to the degree that people trust in the institutions and adhere to its rules. And if the policies of these systems create sub-populations who believe that they are always losing and ignored, it will foster anti-system attitudes and “the hell-with-it” choices for leaders.
The short terms costs of necessary economic transitions may pale in comparison to the long-term gains of the free movement of people, capital, and work, but economic efficiency is only one value among several in a well-functioning democracy. If the system does not work for large numbers of people, faith in that system of government will eventually erode. Efforts to re-train workers in conjunction with NAFTA were half-hearted and eventually dropped. The transition to a green economy created winners in coastal states and economic losers in states that depended on fossil fuels. High tech ensconced itself in urban clusters, limiting the spread of benefits from the new economy to areas badly in need of economic rejuvenation.
In some instances, institutions can determine policy. In others, policies can make or break institutions. Border issues may fall into the latter category. Even if the Congress and the President can find solutions for the “dreamers” and better ways to protect the border, the tension between national borders and greater international connectedness will fester. However uncomfortable this will be for politicians, avoiding or obfuscating it is not an option, as recent elections have demonstrated.