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David Brooks’ Sees Our Stance on Immigration as “The Central Challenge of the Age”… But Overlooks the Roots of the Problem

November 6, 2018

David Brooks column today, titled “The Central Challenge of the Age“, asserts that neither political party is helping our nation address the issue of immigration, which he sees as that central challenge. In dong so, he particularly singles out the Democratic Party, effectively conceding that the GOP is ripping the country apart by playing to the fears of xenophobe and racists. But his analysis seems to be implicitly defeatist, because he also concedes that defending anything that passes as “looser” immigration laws is a losing proposition politically. He writes:

The Republicans have flocked to Trump’s cramped nationalism and abandoned their creedal story. That’s left the Democrats with a remarkable opportunity. They could seize the traditional American national story, or expand it to gather in the unheard voices, while providing a coherent, unifying vehicle to celebrate the American dream.

And yet what have we heard from the Democrats? Crickets.

What is the Democratic national story? A void.

Why have the Democrats failed to offer a counternarrative to Trumpian nationalism? For two reasons, I think, one political and one moral.

The political reality, as described above, is that any position short of the GOP’s wall building and Muslim immigration ban is painted as “soft” and “anti-American” by the GOP. The moral problem is more complex. He writes:

Democrats have a very strong story to tell about what we owe the victims of racism and oppression. They do not have a strong story to tell about what we owe to other Americans, how we define our national borders and what binds us as Americans.

Here’s the central challenge of our age: Over the next few decades, America will become a majority-minority country. It is hard to think of other major nations, down through history, that have managed such a transition and still held together.

Here’s the comment I left in response to Mr. Brooks’ column after doing some quick Google research on immigration in the early 1900s:

How about OUR country as an example? I think this same “central challenge” existed  in the early 1900s when the percentage of immigrants was higher than it is today. Somehow we managed to absorb the Italians, Poles and Russians who sought refuge in our country. In 1900 it would have been easy to see that we might become a “majority-minority” country if we defined “minority” based on recent immigrants. What’s the difference today? Could it be race? Could it be religion? Could it be our own loss of optimism? And since we DID “manage” this transition in the early 1900s why can’t we do it today? Could it be our racism? Our religious intolerance? Or our pessimism about the future?

What got us out of our funk in the 1900s was an embrace of Progressivism. Our era then, like our era now, was one of extreme economic inequality; one of economic transition— then from an rural agrarian economy to an industrial urban one and now from an industrial urban one to a technological suburban-exurban one; and one of xenophobia— then against the wave of immigrants who arrived in the decades preceding that time and the African Americans who had been freed to now, where our latent racism and religious intolerance is being fueled by a power-mad President and his political party.

Mr. Brooks concludes his essay that effectively urges the Democrats to take the leadership on this issue with this:

But if the Democrats are going to lead this transition, they’ll need not just a mind-set that celebrates diversity, but also a mind-set that creates unity. They’ll need policies that integrate different groups into a coherent nation, with shared projects, a common language and culture and clear borders.

If you don’t offer people a positive, uplifting nationalism, they will grab the nasty one. History and recent events have shown us that.

I wholeheartedly agree with half of this conclusion. I DO agree that we can only overcome the latent racism and intolerance that exists in many disenfranchised Americans by fostering “…a mind-set that creates unity”. I DISAGREE that we can only accomplish this unity through “…a positive, uplifting nationalism“. It can also be achieved by getting voters united in their desire to restore the government services that provided every citizen with an equal opportunity to experience economic well-being, an opportunity that has been undercut by the corrosive winner-take-all economy that the GOP has buttressed with its tax cuts and deregulation. In short, the Democrats can achieve a mind-set that creates unity by helping the public see the benefits of a strong government.

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