Ending Family Separation Won't Solve Racial Nationalism in the U.S.

While many enjoyed Father's Day with their families, Democratic members of Congress visited immigrant detention centers in New Jersey and Texas. Meanwhile, Republicans can't inspire a single member to support legislation to end family separation at the border. Many were surprised, including Republicans, when outspoken white supremacist, Corey Stewart, won the GOP nomination for US Senator during the June 12 Virginia primary.  Meanwhile, Democrats saw a wave of progressive nominations in key districts. These aren't just anomalies in the GOP.  Support for white national sentiment is still a non-trivial factor to contend with in America, even post-Charlottesville. Which means looking toward November, opposition to family separation and dog-whistle policies cannot simply be wedge issues. If Democrats are going to take this stand, they need to acknowledge and address the racial nationalism underpinning all of it.

How did Freitas not win?!

Stewart is a quintessential Trumpian Republican. He supports a crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities” and a ramp up in deportations. He personally brags about his efforts in Prince William County that detained and handed over 8,000 people to ICE. And his vehement support for preserving confederate monuments was the cornerstone of his failed run for VA Governor in 2017. He lost the primary just two months before the infamous Unite the Right white supremacy rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.

Even his Tea Party-embracing challenger, Nick Freitas, called out Stewart for engaging in the “dog-whistling of White supremacists, anti-Semites, and racists.” Freitas is a libertarian-leaning, two-tour Iraq war veteran, Virginia House Delegate from District 30—which Trump won by more than 25 points in 2016—who received massive, late-game money from the Koch brothers and Senators Rand Paul (KY) and Mike Lee (UT).

Stewart certainly had better name recognition statewide, but we're clearly ignoring the likely role of his apologist take on white supremacy and dog-whistle support of Southern heritage and immigration had in his win.

White Nationalism is More prevalent than we Realize

Racial nationalism is a form of nationalism in which citizens hold an affinity toward their nation and national destiny based on definitions of race and ethnicity. It doesn't have to be just the color of one's skin, but also culture, language, and religion.

Not only does America have a long history of racial nationalism to contend with but also persistent racial sentiment. The University of Virginia Center for Politics conducted polling of racial attitudes after Charlottesville that revealed troubling realities. While they found only(!) 8 percent of respondents support white nationalism and 4 percent support neo-Nazism, a surprising share of respondents—39 percent—felt that “white people are currently under attack in this country”. Thirty-one percent strongly or somewhat agreed that the country needs to “protect and preserve its White European heritage”, despite 89 percent agreeing that all races should be treated equally.

Evidently, a rejection of racism does not imply a rejection of racial identity.

Stewart found an effective cultural wedge issue in confederate monuments—as 67 percent of white respondents want to keep the monuments. Self-identified Republicans were more passionate than Independents to keep the monuments—81 percent over 62 percent—while identified Democrats lacked passion to remove them—only 46 percent.

Greater post-stratification is needed within the data, but eyeballing Virginian demographics would indicate a higher likelihood of support for white supremacy. A closer look would be good, too, at Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties. You wouldn't expect high racial nationalism in these DC-establishment districts that enjoyed large Clinton margins in 2016, but they threw the election to Stewart.

Restrictive Immigration is More popular than we admit

Recent research out of Harvard took a broader look at popular American nationalism. It looked at the aspects of pride that inform a strong sense of nationalism—e.g., economic and technological achievements, military pride, strong democratic institutions, and our status in the world. But it also explored how Americans define what it means to be "truly American": to be born in America, to hold U.S. citizenship, to speak English, and to respect America's legal and political institutions.

The most interesting insights of this research arose when they organized respondents into different nationalism classes—Ardent, Restrictive, Disengaged, and Creedal.  The archetypal Ardent was an older, white, Southern, male, observant of Evangelical or Mainline Protestantism with little formal education, self-identifying as Republican. The archetypal Disengaged was a younger, less religious, resident in the Northeast or the Pacific West, with more education, self-identified as a Democrat, and more likely to be non-white or born outside the U.S. The other two classes fell within the spectrum between these two. 

There are at least two important observations that matter to the issues of nationalism and immigration. Firstly, even among the Disengaged—those who take less pride in American achievements and whose nationality is least linked to their sense of self—a slight majority felt it was important that membership in this country required U.S. citizenship, the ability to speak English, and respect for U.S. laws and institutions. Those feelings only got stronger in the other three classes—over 90 percent—and feelings about other elements were also strong—e.g., membership requires being born in America (76 percent), having lived in America for most of one's life (80 percent), and being Christian (65 percent).

The second and more unsettling observation is about the largest class, the Restrictive, who made up 38 percent of respondents. This class expressed only a moderate sense of national pride but exhibited a particularly exclusive definition being "truly American". The unsettling piece is that this class represented Americans who are typically disadvantaged with respect to race, gender, or income. They were over represented by women, Black Americans, and Hispanics, and the second-lowest education and income levels. Unlike the Disengaged, they have enough education and financial security to pay attention to politics, but lack enough to still worry about the effect of immigration on their livelihoods.

The Restrictive also exhibited demographic range—they are everywhere and everyone. They are spread across every age bracket, every geographic region, every religion, and every political party affiliation, but more likely than the other groups to have been born in America.  

The Harvard researchers found it likely that this form of nationalism reflected less ideology and more ressentiment—a form of hostility and suppressed envy directed at a group of people who are wrongfully blamed for one's frustrations. When individuals fail to achieve the American Dream for themselves and their families, even it is directly due discriminatory American institutions, immigrants—the "others"—are often blamed. 

Voters know demographics are changing

The challenge that Democrats have in articulating a position on immigration is when Americans see images of foreigners crossing the border into America illegally, which violates widely held beliefs that membership requires U.S. citizenship, the ability to speak English, and respect of American laws. This would explain why detaining illegal migrants never generates as much fervor as the outrage over family separation or the support for children protected by DACA. 

Apparently our biological affinities are stronger than our national ones.

Rising income inequality and stagnant wage growth put more economic pressure on everyday Americans. It's not hard to predict how restrictive attitudes, particularly by white Americans, will change in light of worsening economics and rising diversity.

The current majority of Non-Hispanic whites—61 percent—will dip below 50 percent around 2045 and continue sliding to 45 percent by 2060. Similarly, the share of foreign-born population will reach 17 percent by 2060—the highest level since monitoring began in 1850. Per the Census Bureau, two-thirds of population growth will be net immigration by 2060.

This all indicates that immigration and Trumpian economic nationalism are going to be key factors in the 2018 general elections and for some time into the future. If this weren’t true, why is there a non-trivial amount of white nationalists and isolationists who feel empowered to run for office in 2018, and why are some getting elected?

Ironically, more pride could mean less extreme nationalism

The legal and moral reasons to end family separation are self-evident—hence I will not list them out.

Democrats should take the moral high ground in treating people, especially children, with dignity and respect. And yet, if Democrats succeed in securing a majority in the House and Senate and pass legislation to end family separation, they will still be challenged to propose a solution to immigration that will satisfy the stark public sentiment about it.

The Harvard study contains a potentially useful tool to fight restrictive nationalism, which the authors failed to note:

People's view of immigration become less restrictive with increasing diversity, an improved economic situation, and a greater sense of pride in American achievements. 

Fighting white nationalism means implementing progressive policies that actually equalize the playing field for everyone, protect minorities, and improve widespread economic well-being, all of which are broadly popular.

Democrats have the opportunity to reclaim nationalism from the right, and that includes a ramp up the prideful boasting about all things great about America, including our scientific and technological achievements, our shared history, our support for our troops and sport teams, as well as pride in our moral standing in the world.

Ending family separation is an important step in that final regard.

If Democrats pair their rebuke of racial nationalism with a support of popular progressive policies voters in Virginia and other states actually want, they can promote positive conceptions of American identity that Americans actually share.

A positive sign is it appears that young Americans acknowledge and reject racism, and are much more comfortable with a more diverse America. White anxiety is overblown. And most are confident Stewart’s nomination sets up an easy reelection win for America’s Dad, Tim Kaine.

The campaign attack ads practically film themselves.