BOB GARFIELD: We have often observed on this program how the GOP can take any event or presidential policy, no matter how antithetical to longstanding conservative doctrine, and embrace it as if it were an immutable expression of Republican philosophy. But Republicans do not have a monopoly on the politics of convenience. When it comes to the immigration debate, says political scientist Peter Beinart, Democrats are ignoring certain economic data, past positions and longstanding allegiances. Peter, welcome back to the show.
PETER BEINART: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: In promoting the benefits of immigration, lawful and otherwise, what are liberals suddenly leaving out?
PETER BEINART: As the Republican Party has become increasingly nativist, I think the Democrats have lost the language that they once had about some of the costs that immigration brings. I say this as someone who’s a supporter of a pretty liberal immigration policy but I don't think you’re gonna win political support for it, unless you acknowledge some of the strains that especially low-wage immigration can produce.
BOB GARFIELD: But it wasn't long ago that the debate on the left was significantly more nuanced. And I'm not talking about fringe critics. You’ve namechecked some boldfaced names.
PETER BEINART: Right, so if you look about a decade ago you can find writing by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for instance, where he says that immigration places liberal principles in conflict because it can put downward pressure on wages of lower-skilled Americans. Barack Obama, in the Audacity of Hope, talks a bit about the legitimacy of some degree of cultural anxiety about bringing in people who don't speak English, for instance. Bernie Sanders, you know, as recently as the beginning of his presidential run, basically said that he's concerned that too much low-skilled immigration will bring down wage. He said that the Koch brothers are the kinds of folks that want a lot of low-skilled immigration and that it actually would hurt American workers.
So there's been a pretty dramatic shift on the left towards a very pro-immigration view. And I, myself, am sympathetic to a lot of that. But I think that what has been lost is some recognition of the political and economic and cultural challenges that immigration brings, especially to the kind of society that liberals want.
BOB GARFIELD: You wrote in your piece that progressive commentators routinely claim that there's a near consensus among economists on immigration’s benefits. Consensus? You say, not necessarily.
PETER BEINART: I think most economists would say that, overall, immigration benefits the US economy but there's a real debate about what the impact is on lower-skilled workers, whether jobs that low-skilled immigrants do are the same jobs that native-born Americans might do or whether, sometimes in subtle ways, the jobs are actually different. There are very serious well-regarded economists on both sides of that question but I think as it gets translated into the journalistic and political discussion by liberals, there's a tendency to downplay the views of those economists who do think there may be some costs to low- skilled American workers of bringing in an immigrant population that has a lot of low-skilled workers.
BOB GARFIELD: So you're suggesting, look, we can have this debate but don't pretend there aren't winners and losers. Now, we know that there are stagnant wages, right? Do we know that it is immigration that is the significant force there, too much supply in the labor pool, or is it other issues, like the export of high-wage manufacturing jobs abroad?
PETER BEINART: I don't think many economists would say that immigration is the major factor in that. There are a whole series of other factors that have to do with changes in the economy that probably play a larger role but I think the point that you made is really the critical point, which is that immigration creates winners and losers. Instead of sometimes, I think, ending up in a situation where Democrats and liberals don't talk about the losers and, therefore, seem kind of blind to the anxieties that other Americans feel, are kind of dismissive of them, what the Trump campaign has exposed is that there is more anxiety about immigration then perhaps liberals had recognized. And while, I think, it's absolutely fair to characterize some of that as ugly and racist, just calling it “ugly” and “racist” isn't enough as a political response.
One of the challenges that liberals have to face is there's good data from, for instance, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam that as societies become more diverse, more religiously, more racially and more ethnically diverse, it becomes harder to maintain the social solidarity that you need to redistribute wealth, to deal with economic inequality. There's a reason that very homogenous societies, like the Scandinavian societies, have traditionally had the biggest welfare states. Diversity is absolutely a good, which is helping America tremendously, but asking people to redistribute wealth to people who are not like them is always a very, very significant challenge. And I think liberals have to be more open about talking about the tension between these desires that we have.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s hard to thread the needle though, politically. You were talking about Bernie Sanders’ assertion that an influx of low-wage immigrants is just what the Koch brothers are trying to achieve. He got slapped down for that and ended up having his own views [CHUCKLES] “evolve” on the subject.
PETER BEINART: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: They seem to be damned if they do, damned if they don't.
PETER BEINART: One of the questions that I think the Trump administration has really put front and center in American politics is the question of the obligations that we have to our fellow Americans versus our obligations to people in other parts of the world. And Trump and Bannon have made a very, very, very hard distinction that essentially we have almost no obligations to anyone outside of America's shores. I think that’s totally wrong. I think America has really strong moral obligations. But we also have to recognize, and this is what Sanders was acknowledging, and I think people like him should be able to continue to acknowledge this, that sometimes our moral obligations to vulnerable and poor outside of America's borders can come into conflict with our obligation to the vulnerable and poor inside America's borders.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me at the heart of this may be yet another more structural, more fundamental conflict, and that is between the age-old American ethic of the melting pot, assimilation and immigrants becoming integral to aspects of American society and culture, versus multiculturalism, which focuses on cultural differences and unique qualities, often to the exclusion of the melting pot. Is that conflict at play here?
PETER BEINART: Yeah, I think in some ways it is. America would be a much less interesting, much less creative place if people had to kind of give up the culture that they brought to this country; it wouldn’t be America at all. But I also think that politically Americans know that the Democratic Party celebrates diversity. What the American public doesn't always know enough, and Democrats need to remind Americans sometime, is the Democratic Party also celebrates unity, that they also believe in an Americanness that brings us all together, despite our cultural differences.
I think there's a reason that Barack Obama's statement in the 2004 Democratic Convention is one of the best-remembered of his phrases.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America.
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PETER BEINART: Coming from a Democrat, that was an important statement in a time of so much division.
BOB GARFIELD: If the Democrats do as to say and are more nuanced in the rhetoric about immigration, will they then not face the perception that they have been pushed to the right by Trump and Trumpism?
PETER BEINART: That’s possible but when you lose an election, even an election like this where, you know, Hillary Clinton actually won more votes, you have to adapt. You know, it’s, it’s a matter of political survival. And that's what smart political parties do. They find a way of remaining true to their core moral principles but find new language and new strategies for getting a political majority. You know, we’ve had a pretty high rate of immigration now in the United States since the 1960s, and it has really made America a very different country, I think a better country but a very different country. And it's coincided with growing economic inequality, which has produced a kind of backlash and resentment that Democrats can call racist -- some of it is racist -- but politically they have to find answers for it, acknowledging some of the strains, rather than trying to pretend they don't exist, and finding a set of policies and a message which talks about how America can become stronger and more unified, even as we become more diverse.
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BOB GARFIELD: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER BEINART: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Beinart is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York.
Coming up, a storm is brewing and the Southern Poverty Law Center finds itself in the eye. This is On the Media.