First Salvos of the Next Culture War

If immigration is really part of the next culture war, liberals have reason to be optimistic.

By Nathan Pippenger

Earlier this week, E.J. Dionne pointed out that although House Republicans clumsily stumbled in their recent attempt to pass a harsh abortion bill, they managed to pass without difficulty a similarly harsh measure on immigration. The contrast yields what I think will turn out to be a prescient prediction:

Notice, however, that House Republicans were able to pass without much difficulty a remarkably restrictive bill that would overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration. It was aimed not only at his measures to keep families together but also at a highly popular provision for the “dreamers” brought to the United States as children.

This is the new culture war. It is about national identity rather than religion and “transcendent authority.” It focuses on which groups the United States will formally admit to residence and citizenship. It asks the same question as the old culture war: “Who are we?” But the earlier query was primarily about how we define ourselves morally. The new question is about how we define ourselves ethnically, racially and linguistically.

As Dionne goes on to note, national identity is actually an old issue in American politics, and it’s usually linked to waves of immigration. It’s only “new” insofar as it’s reemerged as a major front in a new kind of culture war. And like the familiar culture war issues, this one is so charged because its combatants imagine it to be zero-sum: to be American is my birthright, and if they are Americans, then something deep within me has been stolen, corrupted, diluted. (Just notice the logic at work here: to carve up disputes into “me” versus “them” is to abandon the idea that “we” are a political community—and so there can only be victory or defeat, not give-and-take among members of the same group.)

Like all culture wars, this one gets ugly pretty quickly, and scholarly work on national identity has catalogued the manifold ways in which Americans panicked about immigration and demographic change have historically converted their fear into restrictive conceptions of national identity. It’s not a new phenomenon for a self-proclaimed “core” of “real Americans” to announce that national identity just happens to overlap with their particular ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, and other attributes—drawing a rigid boundary around “American” that has historically excluded many, if not most, of the other people who actually live in America. It still happens today, and it’s still ugly, but at least in our time it’s (often) a symbolic-cultural move—not without its nasty political implications, but not carrying the full force of law, either.

A major exception to this is the way we treat immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants. This is a population which bears the weight of our collective fears and confusions about national identity and civic membership, and which experiences the results in the form of brute law. (To face deportation is to encounter the power of the state up close and personal.) Undocumented immigrants and their advocates feel, and not without reason, that the combined forces of American business and government have long extended something of a tacit invitation, and the conflicted way in which we treat undocumented workers today is evidence of that fact. We have policies which privilege family reunification, grant relief to DREAMers, and encourage agencies to focus enforcement resources on criminals instead of workers and those who have resided in the U.S. for a long time. These measures reflect an appreciation of what scholars sometimes call “social membership”—the idea that although an individual may lack formal citizenship status, they can still nonetheless have deep community ties.

Such communal ties are not only the strongest ethical reason to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; they are also at the heart of its most effective political argument. It’s a rare stroke of good luck for ethics and political strategy to coincide in such a way, and it bodes well for an emerging generation of young liberals who are far more interested in a conception of national identity that is not defined in the restrictive racial and ethnic terms of earlier eras. Their lack of interest in those categories is, as much as anything, a result of long-term demographic trends that are changing the nation, and will continue to do so regardless of what either party does.

Still, the left would be unwise to remain smug or blasé about this: Although these changes are overwhelmingly likely to benefit liberal causes, they will also require us to continue reworking our conceptions of national identity. Incorporation into local communities aside, there remain good reasons to resist, at a larger level, the emergence of a nation of strangers. And even if older constructions of shared national identity were unjust and restrictive, it doesn’t follow that the entire project is wrongheaded. There is serious intellectual work to be done if we are to be prepared for the future.

But as of now, liberal views on immigrants and immigration are far better suited for that future. Restrictive ideas of who “counts” as an American, offensive references to “real America,” racially-coded language, and a growing dependence on a shrinking white electorate are not a recipe for long-term success. The House can pass all the restrictive immigration bills it wants, but each one only hardens its losing position in a culture war whose end, in the broadest strokes, is already clear.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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