Friday, May 8, 2015

Hollow Populisms

Union members and supporters protest Governor Scott Walker's assault on unions
Madison, Wisconsin, 2012

Conservative populism is inherently unstable; it must constantly struggle to keep cultural populism from bleeding over into economic issues.  That is, white working people are encouraged to resent snobbish, over-educated, cosmopolitan, elitist liberals who look down on them for their unsophisticated tastes, crude manners and backward views.  But they must never resent the rich simply for being rich; they must never consider the injustice of being forced to work for less pay in worse conditions while CEO’s and hedge-fund managers make millions.  Since in conservative mythology, capitalism always rewards the virtuous and punishes the lazy, conservative populism must be about attitudes and humiliation, never about wages and power.  It must remain purely affective, never material.  You’re only allowed to hate someone for their condescension, never for their money.  Thus is real populism neutered.

But that’s what makes the conservative split on immigration so interesting: it sneaks in some genuine economic populism through the back door.  Conservative elites – commentators, writers, the Republican establishment, the Chamber of Commerce, big money – are quite happy to let in lots of unskilled workers from other countries.  It provides cheap labor, and it indulges their stark libertarianism, the view that any interference in the market – even a national boundary – is the work of the devil.  And after Hispanics voted overwhelmingly in 2012 against Mitt Romney and his severely restrictive anti-immigration position, Republican leaders are eager to appear more accommodating toward Hispanics.  And did I mention that immigration provides lots of cheap labor?

The conservative base, of course, is strongly opposed to both allowing in more immigrants and allowing undocumented immigrants to stay.  Their reasons are partly cultural: they’re afraid that too many foreigners will resist assimilation and alter the national character.  And on the farther reaches the reasons become more nativist and racial: they’re convinced America is meant for white Christians.  But their objections also include perfectly defensible and plausible economic concerns: they don’t want to compete against cheap labor.  Of course, that’s the same cheap labor – I may have mentioned – that employers and investors are quite happy to have them compete against.  So the split on immigration between the conservative establishment and the conservative base is an economic split.  It’s a split defined by class.  Not class in the sense of who’s looking down his nose at who, but in the sense of who holds economic power and who is subject to it.

Into that breach has stepped Scott Walker, the conservative Republican governor of Wisconsin and credible presidential candidate.  During an interview with conservative Glenn Beck, Walker staked out what calls a “pro-American-worker” position:

In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying—the next president and the next congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages, because the more I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to [Alabama] Senator Sessions and others out there—but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today—is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.

Clearly, Walker is siding with the base against the establishment.  But to do so, he’s taken a populist position, an economically populist position: the rich and the powerful are making decisions that hurt everyday people, that hurt them in their pocketbooks.

Now Scott Walker, like most conservatives, is not exactly a friend of policies and institutions that promote the economic interests of working people.  Indeed, he’s loved by conservatives specifically because of the ferocious battles he fought against organized labor in Wisconsin.  And many conservative commentators consider Walker’s newfound suspicion of a completely free labor market to be a real betrayal of conservative principle (there are exceptions).  Consider Philip Klein's delightfully dogmatic reaction:

The idea that policymakers should protect current American workers from competition from immigrants who come here legally and are willing and eager to work hard is a perversion of American ideals and a recipe for decline.

But in addition to Walker’s newfound moderation regarding market purity, there is his newfound immoderation on the immigration issue itself; i.e. he’s gone quite a few steps further than most of his conservative presidential rivals by questioning not only illegal immigration, but legal immigration.  Together these deviations add up to a new, more comprehensive conservative populism.  That is, Walker is positioning himself, consciously or otherwise, to be the genuine voice of working America (white working America, at least) championing both its cultural instincts and its economic interests.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
Or so it would appear.  But will Walker embrace a broader range of policies helping working people?  Will he support raising the minimum wage or progressive taxes or public works?  Will he come out fighting in favor of unions?  If he does none of those things his populism will have been detained at the border’s edge.  If it seems that the immigration controversy might be the herald of a more genuinely populist conservatism, it isn’t happening yet, and it probably won’t happen any time soon.  And that’s because conservatives – even populist ones – believe that American workers merit special consideration only for being American, not for being workers.  American workers should be protected from competition from foreigners but not from the depredations of American capitalism.  This is the full extent of conservative concern for American workers: they must remain American.

But if conservatives have no concern for American workers as workers, liberals have no concern for them as Americans.  Indeed, most liberals seem to have no more consideration for American workers than they do for workers from other countries.  It’s true that the Democratic economic agenda – minimum wage increases, Obamacare, etc. – is directed at helping working people, but when faced with the choice between American workers and immigrants, liberals choose the immigrants.  Have their national feelings attenuated that far? They’re terribly concerned about the injustice suffered by African-Americans, Hispanics, other racial minorities, women, gays, the handicapped, etc., and rightly so.  But do they have no particular consideration for their fellow Americans as Americans?

If not, if liberals have gone that far, then American liberalism is on a short one-way trip to history’s dust bin.  No one will vote for a party that doesn’t put a special priority upon the interests of its own citizens.  Indeed, no one should!  Especially if one supports the social welfare state and hopes for a more egalitarian and just society, since those are practically possible only within the confines of a well-defined polity.  It’s much easier to convince a rich New Yorker to pay taxes for doctors in Texas than for doctors in Bangladesh.  Liberalism without patriotism is liberalism standing upon thin air.

Liberals used to understand this.  Only a few years ago they were much more willing to express worry about the effect of immigration on American wages.  Now they only worry about doing even the tiniest damage to their demographically expanding non-white electoral coalition.  And by spending so much time and energy portraying any conservative resistance to immigration as based entirely upon racism, they’ve made it too politically costly to question immigration themselves.  Their populism is a victim of their own propaganda and their own hypertrophied broad-mindedness.  To love everyone is to be of no use to anyone.

And conservatives, whose national feelings could probably do with a little attenuation, are all too happy to demonstrate how this undermines liberal economic populism.  Here is the Weekly Standard’s Jeffrey H. Anderson explaining how immigration shows that liberals don’t care about workers (in a piece written before Walker staked out his anti-immigration position):

If there is anything that liberals and Big Business can seemingly agree upon, it’s that we don’t need an approach to immigration that benefits Main Street.  It remains to be seen whether anyone running for president will seize this opening and buck the liberal-corporate consensus.

But liberals seem blithely unaware how much they’re playing into that consensus.  Hillary has even come out in favor of more immigration!  And that’s in perfect keeping with her pro-business positions and the general cosmopolitan tilt of liberal elites.  And, of course, it helps Democrats cement their support among Hispanics.  But it drastically undermines liberal credibility among working Americans, the very people that liberalism used to be about.

We’re left with no real populism.  Liberal populism shrivels before our eyes.  And a hollow conservative version tries to steal its place.  But the only American populism worthy of the name is one that actively works for the material good of American workers.  Liberals may call that nativism and conservatives may call it socialism.  But in reality it’s neither, it’s justice made practical.

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