Bryan Caplan  

A Vast But Dwindling Reservoir of Nativism

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Tyler Cowen and I have an ongoing dispute about "immigration backlash."  Reading these June Gallup poll results, I'm tempted to hail a "backlash to the backlash."
Though preventing illegal immigration was one of the president's key campaign promises, the general desire to decrease immigration is near its historic low in Gallup's trend over more than half a century.
If you look at the numbers, however, they've been quite steady for the last five years.  We're not living in a period of rising hostility to immigration.  We're not living in a period of rising support for immigration.  We're living in a period of stable but relatively high support for immigration.  The numbers speak:

gallupimmig.jpgIf public support for immigration is so high, why has political opposition become so vocal?  Because public support for immigration, though relatively high, remains absolutely low.  And that's all it takes for anti-immigration demagoguery to work.  The real puzzle isn't, "Why did Trump take a strong anti-immigration stand in 2016?" but "Why doesn't every presidential candidate take a strong anti-immigration stand in every election?"  And the obvious solution to this puzzle is elite-on-elite pressure: elites are more cosmopolitan than the masses - and shame fellow elites who dissent.  Trump won by being the sort of elite who treats elite shame as a badge of honor.

Of course, you could flatly declare that polls are meaningless, and insist that "real" public opinion has indeed turned against immigration.  But this is mere circular reasoning.  There are endless ways to explain Trump's victory.  And the best theory is that Trump was a maverick who defied elite norms to tap into a vast but dwindling reservoir of nativism.

P.S. When I first became interested in the immigration issue in the mid-90s, support for "more immigration" had been stable at 7% for decades.  Since then, my eccentric view has more than tripled in popularity.  I still doubt immigration is the next marijuana, but I'm mildly hopeful.  Who knows, maybe we're just one fine graphic novel away from freedom!




COMMENTS (10 to date)
MikeP writes:

"Why doesn't every presidential candidate take a strong anti-immigration stand in every election?"

Uh, they do. Every single presidential candidate, besides the Libertarian candidate, takes a strong anti-immigration stand in every election. And even for the Libertarian Party, there are anti-immigration candidates that need to be culled out in the nomination process.

Not a single Republican or Democratic presidential candidate has campaigned on eliminating immigration quotas or immigrant employment restrictions. None has even suggested the more modest step of raising all quotas by a factor of ten. The entire United States government, top to bottom, has been anti-immigration for a century. We are left only with being happy with the politicians who don't want to be even more anti-immigration.

Floccina writes:

I think MikeP is right. Republicans and Democrats all promising to reduce immigration (and international trade BTW) but (maybe to Martin Gilens' chagrin) they don't govern as bad as they promise. I think thee are two reasons, the one you point out, and they do not the press running stories about deportations of people most votes will feel sympathetic toward.

Thaomas writes:

Even a few years ago you would not have people in the streets shouting "No hate, No fear, Immigrants are welcome here."

I even think Trump may rehabilitate support for trade agreements.

MikeP writes:

Even a few years ago you would not have people in the streets shouting "No hate, No fear, Immigrants are welcome here."

Pure posturing.

Ask any of them whether he would support allowing people to immigrate at will and you will get a response like Bernie Sanders': that it's "a Koch Brothers proposal."

But "Complete disregard, Considerable fear, Almost no immigrants welcome here" isn't as catchy.

MikeP writes:

Take NPR, which constantly virtue signals their support for undocumented immigrants and refugees. Yet this morning NPR had a piece on the illegal participants of "the largest migration in human history" -- the move of hundreds of millions from the west of China to the cities of the east.

Steve Inskeep says...

We also asked if Helen thought the hukou system was fair and she seemed baffled by the question. She seemed to think of household registration rules like the weather. It simply is the way of China's government.

...completely ignoring the fact that Helen wouldn't be able to come to the US legally either. Indeed, he seemed to think of restrictions on immigration like the weather. It simply is the way of the United States' government.

Thaomas writes:

@Mike

Unlike Libertarians who think about immigration, the people doing the shouting were presumably thinking marginally, that the immigrants currently here and presumably a relatively small percentage increase are "welcome."

It is possible to be in favor of more immigration (especially as it can be skewed to young high-human capital folks) w/o being in favor of unlimited immigration.

I suspect (yes it is wrong to question motives) that Libertarians like to talk about open borders rather than marginally more immigration in order to preserve their precious "pox on both your houses" stance rather than seem to support a Liberal political position.

Mark writes:

Thaomas,

You're right that you're wrong about libertarians' motives (speaking at least for myself). We don't inherently need more people, and there's nothing innately good (or bad) about marginally more immigrants, just as there's nothing innately good or bad about importing more than we export (or vice versa). The principle is the free movement of people across borders. Not the same as just "more immigrants."

MikeP writes:

Thaomas,

You will forgive me if I don't find the recent change of heart of labor toward illegal immigrants as they look to increase union rolls an entirely positive development. And Democratic politicians' holding immigration reform hostage to a path to citizenship rather than a path to legality is actively counterproductive for freedom of migration even as it generates more apparently pro-immmigrant rhetoric.

But O how these shifts in the political winds make it safe for the thoughtless and unprincipled to march in the streets in support of people they vilified a decade ago.

Somehow I suspect that many if not most illegal immigrants would rather they were completely ignored, as they were in the 1990's, and allowed to live their lives without attention or persecution by government.

Niko Davor writes:

Is it demagoguery for a politician to offer the policy that voters prefer? That is the transparently honest approach. The alternative is to actively deceive voters.

Quoting Dr Caplan's definition of demagoguery that he links to:

"What then is demagoguery? Embracing Social Desirability Bias to gain power. Making a career out of praising what sounds good and attacking what sounds bad."

That is precisely what all politicians do all of the time. Politicians exploit perceptions and use rhetoric to gain power. If a politician isn't willing to exploit perceptions to gain power, he/she would be non-competitive and pushed out.

Dylan writes:

MikeP,

You might have wanted to pick a longer time frame than a decade ago, since I think the immigration reform protests of 2006 were made up mostly of liberals. And going farther back, Republicans support for Proposition 187 in 1994 has been suggested as one of the reasons for their decline in California. Yeah, this is one of the issues where Unions and Labor might have had a different view, but Democrats on balance seem to have been at least rhetorically supportive of immigrant issues for at least a couple of decades now.

And anecdotally, when I talked to people at the airport protests last winter, they seemed to have pretty liberal views on opening up immigration in general. True, no one actively was advocating for open borders, but the people I spoke with did want to see more immigrants of both skilled and unskilled variety.

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