February 9, 2018

Anti-Democratic Populism Caused the Dreamer Impasse



Trump planted a ticking DACA time-bomb in September and announced that Congress had six months to defuse it with a permanent legislative fix. Americans overwhelmingly want a fix. 87 percent think Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the U.S. Among Republicans, two-thirds support a path to citizenship. In an era of extreme partisan polarization, this level of cross-party consensus is exceedingly rare. A straight-up vote on a bipartisan bill limited to the terms for legalizing Dreamers would easily pass both houses of Congress. Moderate Republicans have offered multiple proposals capable of getting to the president’s desk with bipartisan support. So why don’t we have a fix already?

A couple weeks ago, Damon Linker, a columnist for the Week, provoked a controversy when he wrote:

[A] surprisingly large number of liberals are … not claiming that cuts to legal immigration shouldn’t be made, but that the very act of proposing and defending them in the first place is morally illegitimate. These liberals appear to believe that immigration restrictionists should be excluded on principle from participating in public debate and discussion about immigration policy in the United States.

“The liberal position,” Linker went on to say, “amounts to saying that the U.S. should be forbidden from changing this policy, with the country locked into continuing on our current course, no matter what voters think or want.”

I believe this is completely backwards, and I’d like to explain why. The liberal position is simply the mundane small “d” democratic position. In a democracy, when a clear majority of the population and a clear majority of their democratic representatives in the legislature support a position, that position ought to win the day. The problem is that this mundane democratic principle has been implicitly rejected by conservatives in the grip of populist thinking that is, at bottom, hostile to ideals of political equality and equal democratic representation.

Our impasse on DACA, and immigration policy more generally, is driven in no small measure by the populist conviction that the majority position on immigration lacks legitimate democratic authority, and that the restrictionist minority—which sees itself as the authentic and authoritative source of American identity and American political authority—is morally entitled to prevail.   

Populism is hostile to democracy, especially multi-ethnic democracy

DACA concerns the legal treatment of a special class of illegal immigrants—young people, known as Dreamers, brought to the United States as children. The Trump administration has used the threat of stripping Dreamers of their limited rights under DACA, making them vulnerable to detention and deportation, as leverage to negotiate changes to the legal immigration system, including cuts to annual admissions. This hostage-taking strategy would not have been necessary were Congressional majorities in favor of cutting legal immigration. But they aren’t, and it is easy enough to see why. According to Gallup 73 percent of Americans want immigration levels to remain steady or rise. Just 35 percent wants cuts.

This minority is intensely motivated, however, and its constituents make up majorities in a number of GOP congressional districts where representatives risk primary challenges if they aren’t restrictionist enough. Immigration coverage on restrictionist outlets such as Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and Fox News makes it abundantly clear that this intense motivation is driven by alarm over the fact that the increase in Hispanic immigration since 1965 has been reshaping American culture and national identity in a way that challenges the centrality and dominance of white Americans.

These are the concerns behind Donald Trump’s ethno-nationalist populism, which is slowly taking over the Republican Party and the American right. For white-identity populists, such as the president, many non-white Americans, though technically citizens, lack the ethnic and cultural attributes that entitle them to full and equal standing as members of “the people.” As the Princeton political theorist Jan Werner-Muller has explained, populism is an anti-democratic impulse disguised in the garb of romantic democratic notions about “the people” and its exclusive claim to political authority. Populism is anti-democratic because it is anti-pluralistic, reserving full inclusion in the national community and the democratic public to a relatively culturally and ethnically homogenous population of true Russians, true Poles, true Hungarians, or true Americans. Populists gerrymander “the people” in a way that denies legitimacy to their electoral rivals’ claims to an equal share of democratic political authority.

Citizens who fall short of the populists’ exclusive ideal of national identity tend to be cast as alien, criminal, disloyal, corrupt, and corrupting. They don’t count. Those who do fit the mold of authentic national identity, but nonetheless oppose the populist agenda, are cast as faithless, degenerate, deracinated “elites” driven by a self-hating contempt for their countrymen. They don’t count, either.

Donald Trump is a master of the populist trick of the plausibly deniable denationalization of less-than-fully-loyal and less-than-fully-American Americans. He performed the populist’s sleight of hand again and again over the course of his State of the Union Address, a speech that was advertised as “unifying,” but was so only in the sense that it was engineered to unify the Americans who count against the Americans who don’t.

In his address to Congress, Trump ramped up to his offer on DACA with repeated, vivid fear-mongering stories about death-dealing Latin American drug gangs, communicating his low general regard for Hispanic people and supplying a clear and simple explanation of his desire to spend lavishly on a wall meant specifically to keep them out of American territory. To make the thrust of his remarks clearer, but not too clear, Trump threw in a healthy helping of classic populist identity politics doublespeak. “My duty,” Trump said, “is to defend Americans—to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.”

Uncloseted white nationalists, fluent in dog-whistle, heard the president loud and clear and responded with gratitude.

Why did these lines so please Richard Spencer and David Duke? Because they correctly grasped the not-very-sub subtext of Trump’s remarks and took it to articulate their own position: Dreamers, who have grown up American alongside Americans, don’t count as Americans, and count less than Americans, because they lack the right ethnocultural pedigree.They don’t even deserve a sympathetic name and should have that taken from them, too, because they are, after all, mostly Mexican by birth, and that, as Trump is always quick to suggest, makes them dangerous, more like MS-13 machete murderers than the salt of the earth they may seem to be. Therefore, neither the president nor Congress is duty-bound to defend their rights, their safety, their families, or their communities. On the contrary, to defend so-called Dreamers would be to fail in the defense of real Americans, whose dreams matter.     

Populist are always a majority of the gerrymandered people

Trump’s relatively overt embrace of an exclusionary, ethno-nationalist conception of political membership and democratic authority helps explain why Congress has failed, again and again, to pass immigration legislation supported by both a majority of the American people and a majority of Congress. From the populist perspective, the elements of the populist agenda can never really lack a democratic mandate, because the voices of those who oppose their platform are removed from the chorus of the authoritative democratic will. Therefore, despite the fact that nativist immigration restrictionism is indisputably a minority position, in Gallup’s sense, it is, for the populist, the majority opinion of Americans whose voices and votes count.

In the rigged anti-pluralist moral math of populism, the position that deserves to prevail is the one with the most Americanness behind it, not the one with the most so-called Americans. A majority made up of subpar citizens can technically win, but only with votes that should count less, or that maybe shouldn’t count at all. A legislative compromise that grants legitimacy and weight to the concerns of a dubiously American majority amounts to the surrender of the authentic people’s sovereign right of democratic self-determination. That’s why the nativist right is so fiercely resistant to allowing a clean DACA fix to go the floor for an up-or-down vote. It’s not just that they’d lose their leverage. For the populist, clearing away their artfully sinister Hobson’s choice and allowing a clean vote to go forward would amount to a sort of moral/cultural voter fraud, permitting the will of the people who don’t count to prevail over the will of the people who do.     

The fact that nearly 80 percent of Dreamers are Mexican helps explain why taking their rights hostage to negotiate a more restrictive immigration system, including a “wall” along the Mexican border, just makes sense to newly empowered ethno-nationalist populists. The problem they are trying to solve is that, by their lights, America has become too brown, too un-American, due in no small measure to immigration from Mexico, which has disrupted the cultural and political primacy those of us of European ancestry are entitled to.

If you lack the power to literally disenfranchise the un-American majority, the least you can do is to turn the majority’s will against itself. The fact that the majority is so determined to protect a huge group of “illegals” is, for populist restrictionists, evidence of the illegitimacy of majority rule on the question of the level of immigration. The majority is illicit precisely because it refuses to put the interests of real Americans first. Because cutting immigration and slowing the pace of America’s transition to a majority-minority country is the first priority of the ethno-nationalist populist agenda, it makes all the sense in the world to use the threat of stripping a huge group of mostly Mexican immigrants of their rights to legally exist in America as leverage to compel agreement to the populist minority’s demand for cuts. It’s a savvy strategy because, as long as they’re able procedurally to force this choice, it works out for them either way. If the populists manage to exploit the majority’s sentimentality about Dreamers to get permanent cuts in legal immigration, which an un-coerced majority would otherwise never affirm, they win. If they run out the clock, having blocked every proposal that doesn’t include cuts, and leave Dreamers bereft of DACA’s legal protections, they will have sent a clear and chilling message about who does and does not belong in America, about whose lives matter, whose rights are empty, and whose rights have worth. This would be a lesser but still substantial nativist win.

In either case, there’s an insidious subversion of basic ideals of democratic equality and majority rule. That’s why it is so important that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan allow a straight up-or-down vote on a bipartisan compromise DACA fix. In particular, the House’s “Hastert Rule,” which requires a majority of the majority party to support a bill before sending it to the floor for a vote, offers the populist minority a powerful tool with which to stymie democratic majorities and extort changes to policy that most Americans, and most members of Congress, don’t support.  There is no remotely defensible justification of this kind of minority-veto thuggery.   

None of this suggests, as Linker contends, that liberals believe that the “U.S. should be forbidden from changing this policy, with the country locked into continuing on our current course, no matter what voters think or want.” Because the beliefs and desires of voters are so important to liberals, who tend to be enthusiasts for democracy, most of them have come to the unremarkable conclusion that a third of the electorate shouldn’t get to shut everything down until it can finagle whatever it wants from a stoutly opposed majority. Healthy democracies don’t work like that. But that is how populists, committed to the moral de-nationalization and disenfranchisement of political opponents, need our democracy to work.  

American democracy is already two wheels in the ditch. If Republican leadership refuses to permit a clean vote on a bipartisan DACA compromise, it will have capitulated to the noxious ethnocentric, anti-democratic populist ideology driving restrictionist demands. Moderate Republicans need to pressure their party’s leaders to bring a bipartisan DACA fix to the floor, whether or not the White House has signed off in advance, whether or not there is clear majority-majority House support. Republican leadership are duty-bound to let the legislature legislate, to let our representatives to represent us. To refuse to do so is to affirm and strengthen the pernicious and divisive idea that some Americans count more and that the votes and rights of others hardly count at all.  

Will Wilkinson is Vice President for Policy at the Niskanen Center