The sources of America’s immigration problems—and a possible solution
With the immigration controversy now dominating the headlines, I’m republishing my major article on that topic from a few years ago.
Perhaps if more journalists and pundits had read my analysis at the time they would not have been so surprised when Donald Trump seemingly came out of nowhere to seize control of the GOP against the fervent opposition of every major moderate and conservative party faction.
- Will mass immigration destroy the GOP?
- Can our middle-class society survive high immigration levels?
- Is there any political solution to our current immigration difficulties?
Many years of heavy foreign immigration have been the crucial element driving this transformation, but even if all immigration—legal and illegal—were halted tomorrow and the border completely sealed, these demographic trends would continue, although at a much slower pace. Today, the median age of American whites is over 40, putting most of them past their prime child-bearing years. Meanwhile, America’s largest minority group, the rapidly growing population of Hispanics, has a median age in the mid-20s, near the peak of family formation and growth, while both Asians and blacks are also considerably younger than whites. In fact, since 1995 births rather than immigration have been the largest factor behind the near doubling of America’s Hispanic population.
As in most matters, public perceptions of America’s racial reality are overwhelmingly shaped by the images absorbed from the national media and Hollywood, whether these are realistic or not. For example, over the last generation the massive surge in black visibility in sports, movies, and TV has led to the widespread perception of a similarly huge growth in the black fraction of the population, which, according to Gallup, most people now reckon stands at 33 percent or so of the national total. Yet this is entirely incorrect. During the last hundred-plus years, American blacks have seen their share of the population fluctuate by merely a percentage point or two, going from 11.6 percent in 1900 to 12.6 percent in 2010. By contrast, five decades of immigration have caused Asian Americans—relatively ignored by the news, sports, and entertainment industries—to increase from 0.5 percent in 1960 to 5 percent today, following the fifteen-fold rise in their numbers which has established them as America’s most rapidly growing racial group, albeit from a small initial base.
These national changes in racial distribution have been quite uneven and geographically skewed, with some parts of the country leading and others lagging. For example, during the 1970s when I was a teenager growing up in the Los Angeles area, that city and the surrounding sprawl of Southern California constituted America’s whitest region, about the only large urban agglomeration whose racial character approximated that of the country as a whole—around 85 percent white—and my own San Fernando Valley area in particular exemplified the popular image of suburban picket fences and lighthearted “Leave It to Beaver” family comedies. Yet during the two decades that followed, Southern California underwent an enormous immigration-driven demographic transformation, creating a new Los Angeles which was almost 80 percent non-white and a surrounding region in which whites no longer held even a mere plurality.
This sweeping racial shift, involving the movement or displacement of over ten million people, might easily rank as the largest in the peacetime history of the world and is probably matched by just a handful of the greatest population changes brought about by war. The racial transformation in America’s national population may be without precedent in human history.
Republicans as the White PartyIt is a commonplace that politics in America is heavily influenced by race, and these enormous demographic changes since 1965 have certainly not gone unnoticed within the political world. For decades, white voters have tended to lean Republican while non-whites have been strongly Democratic, so the swiftly falling ratio of the former to the latter has become a source of major concern, even alarm, within the top ranks of the GOP, which received a sharp wake-up call when gigantic California, traditionally one of the most reliably Republican states, suddenly became one of the most reliably Democratic.
During the mid-1990s there was a powerful strain of thought within conservative and Republican circles that the best means of coping with this looming political problem was to reduce or even halt the foreign immigration that was driving it. But after several years of bitter internal conflict, this anti-immigrationist faction lost out almost completely to the pro-immigrationist camp, which was backed by the powerful business lobby. As a result, the Republican Party mantra became one of embracing “diversity” rather than resisting it and focused on increasing the Republican share of the growing non-white vote. Former President George W. Bush, strategist Karl Rove, and Sen. John McCain have been the most prominent advocates of this perspective.
Rove invested huge resources in maximizing Bush’s Hispanic numbers in 1998 during his easy Texas gubernatorial reelection campaign and achieved considerable success, persuading some 40 percent or more of local Hispanics to vote the Republican ticket that year, a major shift of political loyalties. This later allowed him to tout his candidate’s excellent Hispanic rapport in national GOP circles, which was an important factor in gaining him the presidential nomination in 2000. Although Bush’s national Hispanic totals were much less impressive in the 2000 race, and the vast funds he invested in a quixotic attempt to carry California were totally wasted, Rove and his allies redoubled their efforts during the 2004 reelection campaign, and buoyed by the continuing patriotic aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, largely succeeded. Although the percentages have been much disputed, Bush seems to have carried somewhat over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide in 2004, although he was once again trounced in California.
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Part of the Bush/Rove political strategy was to take a leading role in passing a sweeping immigration-reform measure, aimed at legalizing the status of many millions of (overwhelmingly Hispanic) illegal immigrants, easing the restrictions on future legal immigration, while also tightening border enforcement. Leaving aside policy matters, the political theory was simple: if the Republican Party changed the laws to benefit Hispanic and other immigrants, these groups and their children would be more likely to vote Republican, thereby helping to solve the GOP’s demographic dilemma. Rove endlessly pointed to 40 percent as the necessary GOP level of future Hispanic support—score above that number and political victory was likely, score much below it and defeat was nearly assured. Although this precise quantitative target was obviously intended for rhetorical effect, it does seem to represent the dominant strain in conservative thinking, namely the need to combine a strong white vote with a solid minority of Hispanics and Asians, thereby allowing the Republicans to survive and win races in an increasingly non-white America. (Meanwhile decades of fruitless efforts to attract a significant share of the black vote would be quietly abandoned.)
But does this political strategy actually make any sense? Or are there far more effective and more plausible paths to continued Republican political success? Although almost totally marginalized within Republican establishment ranks, the anti-immigrationist wing of the conservative movement has maintained a vigorous intellectual presence on the Internet. Over the years, its flagship organ, the VDare.com website run by Peter Brimelow, a former National Review senior editor, has been scathing in its attacks on the so-called Rove Strategy, instead proposing a contrasting approach christened the Sailer Strategy, after Steve Sailer, its primary architect and leading promoter (who has himself frequently written for The American Conservative). In essence, what Sailer proposes is the polar opposite of Rove’s approach, which he often ridicules as being based on a mixture of (probably dishonest) wishful thinking and sheer innumeracy.
Consider, for example, Rove’s oft-repeated mantra that a Republican presidential candidate needs to win something approaching 40 percent of the national Hispanic vote or have no chance of reaching the White House. During the last several election cycles, Hispanic voters represented between 5 and 8 percent of the national total, so the difference between a candidate winning an outstanding 50 percent of that vote and one winning a miserable 30 percent would amount to little more than just a single percentage point of the popular total, completely insignificant based on recent history. Furthermore, presidential races are determined by the electoral college map rather than popular-vote totals, and the overwhelming majority of Hispanics are concentrated either in solidly blue states such as California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey, or solidly red ones such as Texas and Georgia, reducing their impact to almost nothing. Any Republican fearful of a loss in Texas or Democrat worried about carrying California would be facing a national defeat of epic proportions, in which Hispanic preferences would constitute a trivial component. Pursuing the Hispanic vote for its own sake seems a clear absurdity.
Even more importantly, Sailer argues that once we throw overboard the restrictive blinkers of modern “political correctness” on racial matters, certain aspects of the real world become obvious. For nearly the last half-century, the political core of the Republican Party has been the white vote, and especially the votes of whites who live in the most heavily non-white states, notably the arc of the old Confederacy. The political realignment of Southern whites foreshadowed by the support that Barry Goldwater attracted in 1964 based on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act and that constituted George Wallace’s white-backlash campaign of 1968 eventually became a central pillar of the dominant Reagan majority in the 1980s.
In many cases, this was even true outside the Deep South, as the blue-collar whites of Macomb County and other areas surrounding overwhelmingly black cities such as Detroit became the blue-collar Reagan Democrats who gave the GOP a near lock on the presidency. While the politics of racial polarization might be demonized in liberal intellectual circles, it served to elect vast numbers of Republicans to high and low office alike. George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad and Jesse Helms’s “White Hands” ad have been endlessly vilified by the media, but they contributed to unexpected come-from-behind victories for the candidates willing to run them. And in politics, winning is the only metric of success.
Sailer suggests that a very similar approach would work equally well with regard to the hot-button issue of immigration and the rapidly growing Hispanic population, arguing that the votes of this group could be swamped by those of an angry white electorate energized along racial lines. He cites Pete Wilson’s unexpected California gubernatorial reelection victory in 1994 as a perfect example. Deeply unpopular due to a severe statewide recession and desperately behind in the polls, Wilson hitched his candidacy to a harsh media campaign vilifying illegal immigrants, and although his Hispanic support plummeted, his white support soared to an equal extent, giving him a landslide victory in a race the pundits had written off and sweeping in a full slate of victorious down-ticket Republicans. Sailer’s simple point is that individual white votes count just as much as Hispanic ones, and since there are vastly more of the former, attracting these with racially-charged campaign themes might prove very politically productive.
An additional fact noted by Sailer is that the racial demographics of a given region can be completely misleading from a political perspective. As mentioned earlier, Hispanics and other immigrants tend to be much younger than whites and much less likely to hold citizenship. Therefore, a state or region in which whites have become a numerical minority may still possess a large white supermajority among the electorate. Once again, today’s California provides a telling example, with Hispanics and whites now being about equal in numbers according to the Census, but with whites still regularly casting three times as many votes on Election Day.
The Sailer analysis is ruthlessly logical. Whites are still the overwhelming majority of voters, and will remain so for many decades to come, so raising your share of the white vote by just a couple of points has much more political impact than huge shifts in the non-white vote. As whites become a smaller and smaller portion of the local population in more and more regions, they will naturally become ripe for political polarization based on appeals to their interests as whites. And if Republicans focus their campaigning on racially charged issues such as immigration and affirmative action, they will promote this polarization, gradually transforming the two national political parties into crude proxies for direct racial interests, effectively becoming the “white party” and the “non-white party.” Since white voters are still close to 80 percent of the national electorate, the “white party”—the Republicans—will end up controlling almost all political power and could enact whatever policies they desired, on both racial and non-racial issues.
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Many might find this political scenario quite distasteful or unnerving, but that does not necessarily render it implausible. In fact, over the last couple of decades, this exact process has unfolded in many states across the Deep South, with elected white Democrats becoming an increasingly endangered species. Each election year, blacks overwhelmingly vote for the “black party,” whites overwhelmingly vote for the “white party,” and since whites are usually two-thirds or so of the electorate, they almost invariably win at the polls. Although Republican consultants and pundits make enormous efforts to camouflage or ignore this underlying racial reality, it exists nonetheless.
By contrast, appeals for white support based on racial cohesion would be almost total nonstarters in 95 percent white Vermont or New Hampshire, or in many other states of the North in which the local demographics still approximate those of the country that overwhelmingly supported the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. But today’s national white percentages are much closer to those of 1960s Alabama and Mississippi, where whites fought that legislation tooth and nail on racial grounds. And as the nation’s overall demography continues its inexorable slide from that of Vermont to that of Mississippi, will white politics move in that same direction, especially if given a push?
Now I think a strong case can be made that such a process of deliberate racial polarization in American politics might have numerous adverse consequences for the future well-being of our country, sharply divided as it would become between hostile white and non-white political blocs of roughly equal size. But given the extremely utilitarian mentality of those who practice electoral politics for a living, the more important question we should explore is whether it would actually work, purely on the political level. Might this strategy of racial polarization be applicable across the country as a whole?