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Immigrants Against Empire

Obama's ethnic coalition is changing America's attitude toward war--for the better.

Nearly 40 years ago, Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer wrote that “the immigration process is the single most important determinant of American foreign policy.” Immigration determined the ethnicity of the electorate to which our foreign policy responds. “It responds to other things as well, but first of all to the primary fact of ethnicity.”

The two scholars did not elaborate, but probably had in mind the ferocious political conflicts over American intervention in World Wars I and II, in which an Anglo-American establishment eventually prevailed over fierce opposition to intervene on Britain’s side. They might have been thinking of the German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrant communities’ intense efforts to keep America out of the Great War (I explored this subject in more detail here), efforts that prompted Woodrow Wilson reportedly to say, “We definitely have to remain neutral since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other.” The “hyphenates,” as non-Anglo ethnic groups were called at the time, were eventually bullied into silence, but later gained a kind of revenge by helping to derail Wilson’s bid to enlist America to the League of Nations. In the ’30s, Walter Lippmann interpreted American isolationism as an ethnic phenomenon: intervention in Europe risked exacerbating America’s own tensions. In a famous post-World War II analysis, political scientist Samuel Lubell opined that American isolationism was more an ethnic than a geographic phenomenon, rooted in anti-British prejudices stoked by the Republican Party.

If, in the pre- and post- World War I eras, ethnic diversity served as a brake on an interventionist Washington, that had changed by World War II. The “Good War” sped up work of the melting pot, and in postwar America the most notable ethnic influence on foreign policy—save perhaps the pressure to recognize and then support Israel—manifested itself as hawkish anticommunism. Refugees from Eastern Europe and Cuba were among the most politically visible of the small number of immigrants in the 1950’s and ’60’s—and refugees from Communism were an important leg in the Cold War anti-communist platforms of both parties.

That postwar electorate exists no more. The Immigration Act of 1965, eliminating national origins quotas, ensured that. The 2012 presidential election results showed Americans of European origin accounted for only 72 percent of the electorate, and that a Republican who garnered the same percentage of the white vote as Ronald Reagan did in a landslide victory can now lose decisively in the electoral college. Republicans are now trying to figure out how to win a reasonable share of the rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian vote, amidst widespread speculation that their reliance on an overly white base threatens their long-term viability as a national party.

But just as important as the question of whether the new immigrants will sink the GOP is the one introduced by Glazer and Moynihan: what impact will the new immigrants have on American foreign policy? Of course, the answer may be unknowable, subject to combinations of events no one can now foresee. Nevertheless visible signposts point in one direction: from the evidence thus far, it is likely that the new, more ethnic elements of the American electorate will act—as they did in the pre- and post- World War I eras—more as a brake on an interventionist or militarized foreign policy than a leaven for one.

The new electorate is more Hispanic, more black, contains more East Asians, has sprinklings of Arabs and Muslims and South Asians; all of these constituencies voted heavily for Obama. More generally, both Hispanics and Asians have for many years supported Democratic politicians for local offices. Among the new immigrants, there appears little obvious  interest in foreign policy, or at least nothing to compare with the fierce anti-Castroism of the early Cuban refugees. An exception might be made for Muslims who at this point make up less than 1 percent of the American population.  Nevertheless even small groups can make their impact felt: the children of Muslim immigrants are often active in the pro-Palestinian student organizations that have blossomed on American campuses in the last decade.

If one charts the varying responses of whites and minorities in the Reuters/Ipsos exit poll, one does not find sharp discrepancies on foreign policy questions, but notable differences do exist. Asked, for instance, whether the United States should use military force to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, 41 percent of minorities either strongly or somewhat agreed, versus 51 percent percent of the whites.

Asked whether they agreed that the United States should spend less money on the military, 28 percent of minorities somewhat or strongly disagreed, as opposed to 39 percent of whites.

Such gaps persist on most of the foreign-policy issues. Relatively few of the polled questions translate into a straightforward hawk-versus-dove dichotomy, but those that do tend to show the minority coalition about 10 percent more dovish than the whites.

That is not surprising in an election wherein foreign-policy issues played a secondary role. But it is clear, nonetheless, that no part of new electorate compares to the Cubans of the early ’60s, or the “captive nation” Eastern Europeans of the postwar era. Immigrants from China may indeed wish that the Beijing government were more liberal, but those sentiments seem largely dissolved in pride for China’s emergent power. Few Iranian-Americans, however disgusted they are by Tehran’s current regime, are beating the drums for a war against Iran. If immigrants were offended by what the Republicans depicted as President Obama’s “apology tour,” they certainly gave no sign of it in the voting booth.

The Democratic orientation of the new immigrants illuminates the nearly forgotten internecine battles conservatives fought 20 years ago over immigration policy. In the ’90s, under the editorship of John O’Sullivan, National Review turned its powerful polemical guns on an immigration system which, in the editors’ minds, was destined  to overwhelm the voting base of the Republican Party and replace a perfectly good existing American people with a new one. National Review supported such measures as Proposition 187, California’s controversial effort to push illegal immigrants off of state welfare programs, and tried to argue, against a generally complacent Republican establishment, that large-scale immigration would imperil the party’s long term prospects. Peter Brimelow, then a senior editor, was the point person in these battles, but NR drew widely from writers associated with burgeoning immigration restrictionist movement.

The restrictionists wanted not only to secure the border against illegal immigration, but more importantly to modify the criteria for legal immigration—making it more skill-based, and less dependent on “family unification” or so-called “chain immigration.” Several Democrats agreed with them and in 1996 Barbara Jordan, a black former congresswoman appointed by President Clinton to chair an immigration-reform commission, supported a reform plan that would have reduced chain or family-based immigration, rendering the overall immigration flow more highly skilled.

These efforts were opposed vigorously by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, whose core view—aptly summarized by Steve Sailer as “Invade the World, Invite the World”—would not allow immigration restrictionist arguments even to appear on its opinion pages. Meanwhile, several neoconservatives either directly or by innuendo accused immigration restrictionists of being motivated by anti-Semitism. Needless to say, it was  shocking to hear such charges emanating from people generally considered close political allies.

A noteworthy example was the “open letter” against National Review circulated by Weekly Standard editor and close Rupert Murdoch associate Irwin Steltzer in 1995.  William Buckley responded forcefully, but two years later fired John O’Sullivan and dramatically toned down the magazine’s immigration polemics. The accusatory “open letter” technique mirrored the campaign the Podhoretzes had used several years previously to persuade Buckley to fire Joe Sobran and had very much the same result—in effect giving key neoconservatives a veto power over what authors and viewpoints could be published in National Review.

The high-water mark of 1990s immigration restriction was probably the legislation inspired by the Barbara Jordan-chaired immigration reform commission, which would have ended chain immigration. Had California governor Pete Wilson been a viable candidate in 1996, immigration would have been a prime national issue. But Wilson’s presidential ambitions fell victim to an ill-timed throat operation, the legislation based on the Jordan commission recommendations came up short, and O’Sullivan was no longer in charge at National Review. By 1998, Pat Buchanan was the only national figure pushing immigration restriction. And of course once the new immigrants became established as critical voting blocs in key states—as now appears to be the case—it would be less and less likely that any immigration reform limiting future numbers would pass.

But if one takes stock of the result—a Republican Party wedded to a shrinking and aging electoral base, a Democratic coalition that is on almost every foreign policy issue less hawkish than the Republicans—it would appear that the neoconservatives scored a rather dramatic “own goal” in the immigration wars. By “inviting the world” the neoconservatives and Wall Street Journal Republicans undermined the demographic and electoral basis for its preferred, hawkish, foreign policy. Or to put it differently, the paleoconservative immigration restrictionists, losers in the last generation’s immigration battles, may receive as a valuable consolation prize an electorate far less inclined to support imperial and hegemonic wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. John Quincy Adams might never have dreamed that new immigrants from Asia and Mexico and Latin America would help teach his nation “to [go] not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” But that is what appears to be happening. And in the end, this result is one which will lead many dissident conservatives to make their peace with multiculturalism.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.



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