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Progressives have nothing to learn from “nationalist” backlash politics

Nativism is the social democracy of fools.

New York’s Liberty Island Evacuated After Fire Breaks Out Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Far-right nationalist parties that emphasize anti-immigration and (to a lesser extent) anti-trade themes have gained ground in elections across the Western world. This is a fact of life that requires a political response from progressive forces.

But an unfortunately large set of progressive thinkers want to wrongly concede that nativist backlash politics is correct on the merits.

John Judis, author of the new book, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization, pushes a version of this narrative in a New York Times op-ed titled “What The Left Misses About Nationalism.” Judis combines some appropriate criticisms of unrestricted international financial flows with the totally erroneous conclusion that the nativist backlash is in some fundamental sense predestined.

“As long as corporations are free to roam the globe in search of lower wages and taxes, and as long as the United States opens its borders to millions of unskilled immigrants,” Judis writes, “liberals will not able to create bountiful, equitable societies, where people are free from basic anxieties about obtaining health care, education and housing.”

This is flatly untrue. August Bebel wrote in the 19th century that “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools,” an irrational prejudice that many working-class Europeans substituted for an intellectually rigorous critique of capitalism. In the 21st century, anti-immigrant politics is the social democracy of fools.

Absolutely nothing about free trade or the presence of large numbers of immigrants in the United States prevents us from taxing the rich, expanding social services, or regulating the labor market. Those things are hard to do not because of immigrants but because of the political power of the political right — power that is only enhanced by going along with the myth that it’s immigrants’ fault.

Some aspects of globalization didn’t work out

Where Judis is correct is that some aspects of the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus have not worked out as promised. As he writes, “China’s entry into the W.T.O. [World Trade Organization] didn’t lead to Beijing embracing free enterprise and liberal democracy” and banking deregulation has helped to foster a “succession of financial crises” around the world.

To this one might add the important observation that the mechanical underpinnings of Europe’s experiment with a single currency were badly flawed and have unleashed mass suffering on Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, while in a more subtle way reducing living standards in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.

Most of all, subsequent research has shown that the economic consequences of granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China were larger than Clinton administration officials realized they would be.

The intention of the PNTR policy was to increase imports from China, bringing lower prices to American consumers at the price of lost manufacturing jobs. The result of PNTR, however, was a much faster-than-anticipated influx of Chinese imports that produced significantly more dislocation in manufacturing-oriented communities than the architects of the policy had counted on.

All that being said, in addition to lower consumer prices, the economic relationship with China also brought the United States very low borrowing costs in the 2000s that gave the federal government an enormous fiscal opportunity. The administration of George W. Bush chose to use that opportunity to squander trillions of dollars on a pointless invasion of Iraq and trillions more on tax cuts for the rich. That money could have been spent on alleviating the “basic anxieties about obtaining health care, education and housing” that Judis bemoans, but it wasn’t because Bush had bad ideas about public policy.

This was a human tragedy, and it’s no wonder that many people are angry that the government did so little to rescue communities that were hurt by the influx of Chinese imports.

But it wasn’t a choice President Bush was forced to make by immigrants, and it certainly wasn’t a mistake made by an excessively cosmopolitan left. It was the political right doing what the political right does, and adopting economic policies that favor the rich and spending priorities that are tilted toward warmaking rather than social needs.

By the same token, it was Blue Dog Democrats’ incorrect ideas about fiscal policy that prevented Democrats from adequately stimulating the economy in 2009. Immigrants had nothing to do with it.

More broadly, though the political obstacles to generating higher taxes, stronger labor unions, and a much more generous welfare state are formidable, nothing about immigration or trade makes it impossible.

Sweden has a larger foreign-born population share than the United States and is much more open to foreign trade, but nonetheless manages to have all those things. Conversely, the existence of strong unions and a generous welfare state hasn’t immunized Swedish politics to the anti-immigrant backlash which is a political fact of life that progressives need to deal with.

Political reality is what it is

Equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples is so popular now that conservatives barely even mention their opposition to it. But 10 or 15 years ago, it was so toxically unpopular that Democratic Party politicians didn’t dare to endorse it in contested races.

This was a fairly cynical political calculus but also a fairly reasonable one. A political party that wants to win elections and help people sometimes needs to bow in the face of public opinion.

The defection of working-class voters to anti-immigration parties is, similarly, a huge practical problem for European center-left parties. In the United States, where the white population is much smaller, it’s a less urgent practical issue nationally. Still, though, it’s a huge issue in the Senate, where voters of color are underrepresented.

I would personally favor a large expansion of legal immigration, but I don’t think proposing one would be politically viable. And I don’t particularly want to see politicians I admire put this idea forward and then lose elections over it.

But there’s a difference between bowing to a political reality and embracing a counterproductive narrative. The idea that immigration and globalization make it somehow impossible to tax the rich, fund social services, and demand higher wages is a falsehood deliberately perpetrated by economic elites who simply don’t want to pay higher taxes and higher wages to improve middle-class living standards.

To the extent that progressive politicians feel compelled to cater to anti-immigration sentiments, the one thing they should absolutely avoid doing at any cost is imply that immigrants are a real problem for economic policy.

If we want to raise the minimum wage, the solution is to raise the minimum wage. If we want stronger labor unions, the solution is to reform labor law. If we want to tax the rich, the solution is to tax the rich. If we want to provide decent health care and education to everyone, the solution is to provide decent health care and education to everyone.

Cracking down on immigration and trade is neither necessary nor sufficient to advancing progressive goals on any of these fronts. Saying that it is simply plays into the hands of the business interests who are the real impediments to progress.