- - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Greg Ip of The Wall Street Journal had a provocative piece in the paper last week in which he debunks the myth — as myth it surely is — that economic considerations drive most of the opposition to the country’s immigration policies. The current backlash against immigration, suggests Mr. Ip, “has less to do with jobs and wages and more to do with concerns about national identity and control of borders.”

In other words, it’s mostly about cultural sensibilities — or, as Mr. Ip puts it, “worries about ‘social, cultural, and linguistic cohesion.’ ” He quotes two academics — Stanford’s Jens Hainmueller and the University of Pennsylvania’s Daniel Hopkins — as saying there is little evidence of a link between economic circumstances and anti-immigration attitudes. The professors call this a “zombie theory.”

Yet this zombie theory undergirds Hillary Clinton’s view of the issue. As Mr. Ip points out, the putative Democratic presidential nominee typical explains the success of Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance by saying such things as: “These are hard times that folks are going through.” True, but that’s not why the presumptive Republican presidential candidate has managed to force the issue to the forefront of American politics at a time when most mainstream politicians wanted to keep it in the shadows. Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to get the underlying cultural force of the issue. Mr. Trump does. It’s about “culture and assimilation,” as Mr. Ip puts it.

He suggests the same was true of the “Brexit” vote in Britain. Britons likely would have stayed in the EU’s single market if they could have confined cross-border movement to goods, services and capital — in other words, if they could have opted out of the single market just for labor. But that wasn’t an option, so they pulled out entirely. Mr. Hainmueller and Mr. Hopkins write that the growth in any country’s immigrant influx also drives voter sentiment. When governments seem to lose control, anti-immigration sentiment rises.

For example, they note, the news in May that net immigration in Britain hit a full-year record of 333,000 — as opposed to a target of 100,000 — helped spur the Brexit vote.

Mr. Ip argues that anti-immigration feelings soften when national policies focus on bringing in migrants who are more likely to assimilate, based on whether they speak the native language, have valuable job skills, and enter the country legally. That points the way to a more restrictive vetting process similar to policies followed in Canada and Australia, countries with high immigration numbers but low populist agitation on the issue. This may suggest, writes Mr. Ip, “a move away from the idea of open borders that globalization advocates and the European Union have long dreamed of.”

Perhaps. But Mr. Ip’s piece should be read in conjunction with another provocative article on the subject — Thomas B. Edsall’s June 1 commentary on The New York Times website entitled, “The Anti-P.C. Vote.” The piece explores, among other things, the quizzical reality of Mr. Trump’s rise at a time when, as Mr. Edsall puts it, “immigration liberalization ostensibly has majority support in most polls.” He quotes a Berkeley lecturer and data fellow named Lefteris Jason Anastasopoulos as saying that support for immigration “may be greatly overestimated.”

The problem, says Mr. Anastasopoulos, is that polls focus on abstract sentiments and gloss over the geographic context of immigration — in other words, they don’t assess the sentiment of people about what’s happening in their own cities or neighborhoods, as it affects them. The conventional abstract framing, writes the Berkeley lecturer, gives “a significant underestimation of the backlash against newly arriving immigrants and an overestimation of the support for immigration among the public.”

But the main focus of the Edsall article is the impact of political correctness on the issue — and on the rise of Mr. Trump in more general terms. Writes Mr. Edsall: “Trump has capitalized on the visceral belief of many white voters that government-enforced diversity and other related regulations are designed ‘to bring Americans to submission’ by silencing their opposition to immigration” and other coercive governmental actions.

Mr. Edsall explores a psychological theory called “reactance” — the backlash of people when they are told to stop doing something they have been doing and perceive that they are being subjected to unacceptable domination. Mr. Edsall quotes New York University professor Jonathan Haidt as explaining, “Translated to the Trump phenomenon, I would say that decades of political correctness, with its focus on ‘straight white men’ as villains and oppressors — now extended to ‘straight white cis-gendered men’ — has caused some degree of reactance in many and perhaps most white men.” He suggests that “the accusatory and vindictive approach of many social justice activist and diversity trainers” may have contributed to Mr. Trump’s success in galvanizing support among such people by stomping on political correctness.

What all this suggests is that the immigration issue extends far deeper into the American political consciousness than most people have realized, and that it is tied to other deep-seated sentiments and convictions that get right to the definition of America. Those social justice activists and diversity trainers noted by Mr. Haidt may have thought that the game was over, that mass immigration and the diversity it was fostering had become facts of American life, that those who didn’t like it would simply have to accept it.

But they were wrong. The campaign year of 2016 will be seen by history as the year when that conceit was killed. The open-border activists and diversity warriors may get all they want in the end — but not without a fight.

• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

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