David Brooks on Immigration, Elites and the Backlash
The conventional view is that an angry band of conservative activists driven by nativism and economic insecurity is killing immigration reform. But this view is wrong in almost every respect.
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What’s shaping the immigration debate is something altogether deeper and more interesting. And if you want to understand what it is, start with education. Between 1960 and 1980, the share of Americans enrolled in higher education exploded. The U.S. became the first nation in history with a mass educated class. The members of this class differed from each other in a thousand ways, but they tended to share a cosmopolitan approach to the world. They celebrated cultural diversity and saw ethnocentrism as a sign of backwardness.
Their worldview, which they don’t even understand as a distinct worldview, was well summarized by Richard Rorty, who died this week. The goal of any society, he wrote, was to create “a greater diversity of individuals — larger, fuller, more imaginative and daring individuals.” Social life should widen. New cultures should be explored. And, as Rorty concluded, “Individual life will become unthinkably diverse and social life unthinkably free.”
Liberal members of the educated class celebrated the cultural individualism of the 1960s. Conservative members celebrated the economic individualism of the 1980s. But they all celebrated individualism. They all valued diversity and embraced a sense of national identity that rested on openness and global integration.
This cultural offensive created a silent backlash among people who were not so enamored of rampant individualism, and who were worried that all this diversity would destroy the ancient ties of community and social solidarity. Members of this class came to feel that America’s identity and culture were under threat from people who didn’t understand what made America united and distinct.
The two groups clashed whenever a political issue arose that touched on America’s identity or role in the world: immigration, free trade, making English the official language or intervening for humanitarian reasons in Kosovo or Darfur.
These conflicts were and are primarily cultural clashes, not economic or ideological ones. And if you want to predict which side a person is likely to be on, look at his or her educational level. That’ll be your best clue.
As the sociologist Manuel Castells generalized, “Elites are cosmopolitan, people are local.” People with university values favor intermingling. People with neighborhood values favor assimilation.
What’s made the clashes so poisonous is that many members of the educated class don’t even recognize that they are facing a rival philosophy. Many of them assume that anybody who disagrees with them on immigration and such must be driven by racism, insecurity or some primitive atavism. This smug attitude sends members of the communal, nationalistic side into fits of alienation and prickly defensiveness. It’s what makes many of them, in turn, so unpleasant.
The bottom line is that the immigration debate is part of a newer culture war that has succeeded the familiar and fading culture war. This longer culture war is not within the educated class. It’s not the ’60s versus the ’80s. It’s — to mimic Mark Lilla — between the people who have absorbed both the ’60s and the ’80s, and everyone else.
It’s between open, individualistic cosmopolitans and rooted nationalists. It’s between those who ride the tides of the cultural mainstream and those so driven by marginalization that they’re destroying the best compromise they will get.
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I think that there is much wisdom in this analysis. And I am one who strongly supports immigration reform (including one that legalizes the status of the 12 million who live here). Indeed, I have been in court on several occasions representing immigration rights groups.
When I speak to many immigration reform opponents, I often find generally compassionate people who seem without compassion on this issue. Why? It isn't fear of economic loss as most of these folks have good, secure jobs. Instead, the fear is a cultural one--a fear that we are losing a cultural identity. I have always been mystified by this argument--and Brooks offers the best explanation of what this means that I have seen to date.