The Collectivism of Immigration Rhetoric

The tenor of racial politics has been on a steady increase throughout the Obama and now the Trump administration. But in the cross-purposed tribalistic shouting between left and right which has come to comprise the punditry of today, there’s little room for core principles, which is a shame, really, because it overlooks a crucial element of racism and its perniciousness: it is inherently collectivist.

Laura Ingraham made quite the splash last week when on her Fox News program she claimed demographic changes have been “foisted upon” the American people:

“In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically, in some ways, the country has changed. Now much of this is related to both illegal and, in some cases, legal immigration.”

Such sentiments are hardly new. The faces change, but the racial hyperbole of populism never changes. In 1892, the Populist Party Platform contained a codicil that condemned “the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable immigration.” In 1914, Edward A. Ross, a prominent Progressive of the time, fine-tuned the anti-immigrant hostilities of his movement’s intellectual forebears in The Old World in the New, which provided a slightly more nuanced opinion on immigrant undesirability. To Ross, it was primarily Eastern European immigrants–not immigrants writ large–whose intellectual and moral backwardness were a threat to America:

“Some are quite cheerful about the confusion, cross-purposes, and delay that come with heterogeneity, because they think the variety of views introduced by immigration is a fine thing, “keeps us from getting into a rut.” The plain truth is, that rarely does an immigrant bring in his intellectual baggage anything of use to us. The music of Mascagni and Debussy, the plays of Ibsen and Maeterlinck, the poetry of Rostand and Hauptmann, the fiction of Jókai and Sienkiewicz were not brought to us by way of Ellis Island. What we want is not ideas merely, but fruitful ideas, fructifying ideas. By debating the ideas of Nietzsche, Ostwald, Bergson, Metchnikoff, or Ellen Key, American thought is stimulated. But should we gain from the introduction of old Asiatic points of view, which would reopen such questions as witchcraft, child-marriage, and suttee? The clashings that arise from the presence among us of many voters with medieval minds are sheer waste of energy.”

Ingraham’s particular brand of anti-immigrant sentiment is interesting because it is both a retreat to populism’s economically-driven fear of immigrants as entities who compete for labor and suppress wages and simultaneously a genesis of the Progressive belief that opposing the importation of “undesirable” elements with backwards ideas is an act of civic virtue. Ingraham goes on in her rant to illustrate examples of illegal immigrants committing crimes, then advances an extremely disingenuous syllogism: Some immigrants commit crimes. Crime damages the social fabric of America. Therefore, immigrants are a threat to the social fabric of America.

But this takes individual acts and imputes them to an entire class of people. Again, collectivism is at play.

For Ingraham and others of her ilk, opposing even legal immigration becomes an act of civic virtue, one that grotesquely twists the conception of America as a meritocratic society. Merit is morphed from something achieved by individuals who apply themselves through hard work and diligently honed talents into something that is possible only when a certain set of values is prevalent in the common culture. The collectivism upon which racism is built is, in a sense, very Aristotelian: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The individual’s ability to thrive depends upon the dominant social conditions. This requires consensus: in order to prosper from the dominant social conditions, they must be inculcated into each member of the polity. This occurs through a constant process of indoctrination as each individual grows, bombarded by wholesome messages from dominant social and civic institutions. Value is not intrinsic to the individual, a reflection of each person’s unique needs and desires. It is grafted onto the individual, who is effectively a node on the great tree of society, and then carefully cultivated. There is very little of true autonomy to such a system. Rather, give and take is intrinsic: society creates a wholesome environment with conditions best calculated to promote the individual’s ability to thrive; the individual thus owes deference to society and must behave in a manner that respects the values which create the conditions of his prosperity, both for his own sake and for the sake of his fellows.

Immigrants are to this system of belief as an imported plant to an environment vulnerable to the foreign nature of a biome, which it has no defense to fight. The very idea of immigration presages an irrevocable change to the civic landscape. Even supposing immigrants desire to assimilate into America and adopt American values, they lack the ability to do so; they grew up in an environment that inculcated a completely different worldview. This is another problem of the collectivist interpretation of  immigration: it assumes individuals, as a product of their environment, are not autonomous rational actors. This is true of American citizens, for whom value is not freely chosen but is imposed and enforced by the community, as well as immigrants. Immigrants, then, are caught in a Catch-22: tribalistic and collectivistic thinking casts immigrants as an “other” because they are from a political system presumed to operate on different values, but they are also denied the opportunity to assimilate because this same presumption states those values make it impossible for foreigners to appreciate a different system of values.

One of the many problems with this line of reasoning is the idea that value is something which can be agreed upon collectively. In a manner of speaking, there are dominant community values. But in order for consensus to form, the individual mind of all the constitutive members of a majority must first consider the value in question and determine it to be something of merit. Change one person’s mind, and the entire makeup of the group changes, even if it is still, numerically speaking, a majority.

And herein lies another problem with Ingraham’s assertion that immigration has been “foisted” without consent upon the American people. It constructs the American polity as a singular entity with a central, animating will, as if there is unanimous consensus in regards to public opinion on immigration policy, a fact which is belied by her language: in her contention that though no one voted for demographic changes, most people are unhappy with them. In her contention that the demographic changes she condemns without specifically naming are evident in areas like Virginia and California, not uniformly across the country. This is merely collectivism by another name. The polity is nuanced. Once upon a time, conservatives championed this idea: it’s intrinsic to federalism, to the idea that because the nation as a whole comprises many disparate factions with diverse needs, goals and opinions, individuals are best positioned to govern themselves. The people who must live with the political decisions made are also the people–informed about on-the-ground situations–who ought to make them.

Which brings us to another flaw in Ingraham’s thinking: her contention that no one voted for demographic changes presumes this is something over which people–considered in the collectivist framework of a national polity that behaves as a singular entity–have authority. But this is preposterous.

Again, we must return to the concept of federalism. The tendency of modern politics to construct the citizenry through a nationalist lens transfers the sovereign authority from the individual and places it in the collective entity of “the people.” But this is not an entity that exists, either in terms of simple logic or in terms of Constitutional theory. As Alexander Hamilton explains in Federalist 9, America lacks the unassailable central authority of a national government, opting instead for a confederate-republican style of government, which respects the sovereignty of disparate actors, whose voices are coalesced in a federal authoritative body:

“The extent, modification, and objects of the federal authority are mere matters of discretion. So long as the separate organization of the members be not abolished; so long as [states] exists, by a constitutional necessity, for  local purposes; though it should be in perfect subordination to the general authority of the union, it would still be, in fact and in theory, an association of states, or a confederacy. The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power.”

There is no national polity; even within the context of the federal government, there is no real national polity, and even if there were one, it would not reign supreme in the manner Ingraham contends. It would still have to wrangle with the authority of the states.

But returning to the issue of collectivism: the sentiments surrounding immigration policy nowhere admit individualism. Immigrants are not viewed as individuals but as the living embodiment of a foreign ideology and morality. Immigrants, like individuals, are denied agency by the idea that community values are threatened by importing foreign ways of thinking.

And yet immigration is an inherently individualistic act, spurred by an exigent desire to improve one’s lot in life. The degree to which an immigrant brings the customs and values of their homeland to America is, again, a reflection of what is of value to the individual.

Assimilation is something of a nuanced concept. It is predicated on the idea that the newcomer begins to behave and think in a way that is compatible with the prevalent social majority. But the majority itself is simply a reflection of individuals whose autonomous ways of thinking all happen to coincide around a particular point. Assimilation, then, ought to be a rational act, assuming that society is driven by reason.

But the rhetoric of immigration makes this impossible because it constructs value collectively. It makes it something imposed and accepted–a product of force, not reason. And this, ultimately, means society is not only collectivistic but relativistic as well. If individuals have no agency, they don’t select values for the merit intrinsic to them. Society moves the people, not the other way around. This means there is no social mechanism by which to distinguish between “good” values and “bad” values. There is no objectivity to virtue; “good” is simply a function of majority consensus. The dominant values themselves are irrelevant. The presumption that immigrant values are “bad” is not actually about virtue, but about difference and the erosion of control.


Also published on Medium.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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