An interview by Jason Willick in the Wall Street Journal with historian David M. Kennedy echoes some of the concerns I’ve aired above:
Mr. Kennedy doubts the “psychological distance” between groups in America is greater now than then. Imagine if we could compare the perception of Germans in 1785 to that of Poles in 1905 to that of Asian and Hispanic immigrants today. “My instinct is that the sense of difference is pretty comparable over time,” Mr. Kennedy says.
Then why are the politics of immigration so fraught today? One answer is polarization. As American identity fractures deeply into red and blue versions, new arrivals are losing a common ideal of citizenship into which they can assimilate.
Immigrants are also regarded by the political parties not only as workers or neighbors but as a voting bloc. Democrats tout America’s declining white share of the population as a key to their long-term governing majority; Republicans fear the opposite. Restrictionism on the right is rooted not only in cultural difference but also a fear that more immigration risks a loss of political power.
Immigration politics didn’t always sort neatly along party lines. During the wave of immigration between 1890 and 1914, immigrant votes were “up for grabs,” Mr. Kennedy says. “The political identity of immigrants and immigrant-descended communities really didn’t solidify” until the New Deal, after a 1924 law and the Great Depression reduced immigration. Franklin Roosevelt appointed a far larger number of Catholic judges than had the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations. This showed that Democrats were “out trying to recruit loyalty in these immigrant communities, which were largely Catholic and Jewish.”
Mr. Kennedy sees today’s Republican Party as having all but “conceded that they will not make any inroads in immigrant communities,” as “nativist elements” in the GOP “seem to have gained the upper hand.” Yet the left’s changing approach has also made the politics of immigration more divisive. “In the last generation or two,” Mr. Kennedy says, “diversity became not just an observed fact, but something to be valorized in its own right.”
The dominant American view until the late 20th century was that “we welcome all kinds of people but we expect them to assimilate into some range of standard values, behaviors, aspirations, ambitions.” Now, diversity itself has become the paramount value in parts of American culture. When celebrating difference replaces creedal values like liberty, fair play and respect for the Constitution, that undercuts “the project of assimilation,” Mr. Kennedy says.
Diverse societies need stories, even myths, to articulate what they have in common or what they are working toward collectively. Mr. Kennedy suggests that academic historians no longer contribute to this national understanding. When he was trained in the 1960s, most historians agreed on a “master narrative about American history.” It was based on the “perfection of the idea of democracy of this country.” That process was “incremental, slow, back and forth” but you could “still trace the arc.” And it gave Americans a way to talk about their national project.
Academic history is dominated today by “subsidiary questions” about “ethnic or racial or gender” groups, Mr. Kennedy says. These are “all interesting and legitimate stories in their own right,” but they have “squeezed energy out” of “the big, integrative, long-term project.” He worries that “the history of America is no longer the history of America—it’s about things that happened in America. But the fact that they happened in America is kind of incidental to the story.”
Mr. Kennedy is clearly alarmed by Donald Trump’s anti-immigration politics. But from “a purely analytical or historical point of view,” he says, it should not be surprising. “There seems to be a threshold percentage of immigrants in the population that triggers a pretty robust nativist reaction. And the threshold,” based on the reactions in the 1850s, 1920s and today, “seems to be somewhere in the 11%, 12%, 13% range.”
Additionally, the difference between an English and German population and Irish immigrants or an English, German, and Irish population and Italian immigrants is a lot less than the difference between our pre-1965 population and the mass immigration from Mexico we’ve seen over the last half century or the present immigration from China and India.
We are presently testing the limits of our society in its ability to assimilate new immigrants. Today’s Chinese immigrants come from a country less diverse than we have ever been and accept levels of surveillance and repression like nothing we’ve ever seen before in a society more diverse than ours has been in more than a century. Don’t be surprised if the friction increases.