As disastrous as the Brexit vote was (so disastrous that I can’t believe Britain will go ahead and actually leave the EU), there was one message sent by the “Leave” camp that I think progressives in Europe and the U.S. should heed: There is a limit to how many immigrants a country should try to absorb.
For all the xenophobia in the “Leave” campaign, the average, working-class, white Britons outside the big cities, who made up the bulk of the “Leave” vote, cannot be blamed for feeling that their country is being swamped by immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They can’t be blamed for fearing the future in an EU where everybody living in it has “freedom of movement” from one country to another, and to which masses in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East are desperate to arrive. Some 630,000 immigrants settled in Britain last year – 1% of the population – after the same number moved there the year before. In the U.S. last year, 1.7 million newcomers arrived, about 0.5% of the population.
It’s the “common people” – the whites who tend not to have college degrees, whose income puts them in the precarious middle class or lower, and who tend to live away from the big cities or certainly from the more prosperous urban neighborhoods – who believe that their jobs and wage levels are threatened by the new arrivals. Whether or not that threat is real – different economists say different things – the cosmopolitan achievers don’t have to worry about it.
Also, it’s the whites of the heartland, who’ve grown up in fairly homogeneous, conservative communities, who tend to care most about such things as national character – language, culture, patriotism – and who feel alienated when they see the immigrant population growing up around them. For liberal college students and professionals in the big cities, white and non-white, their idea of the national character is diversity, or multiculturalism; more immigration doesn’t change the country for them.
Incidentally, it’s not just struggling whites who have a problem with mass immigration; in America, poor and lower-middle-class blacks have been known to bridle at Mexican immigrants moving into their neighborhoods. Also at Korean immigrants opening up shops in their communities. (The enmity between poorer blacks and the new immigrants in their midst is known to run both ways.)
It’s not racism
You don’t have to be a racist in Britain or America to think there are too many immigrants coming in. Over the years I’ve been surprised to hear some of my ultra-liberal Jewish friends in L.A., two of whom have had close personal relations with Mexicans their whole adult lives, say with a lack of enthusiasm that around the city they seem to hear as much Spanish as English.
Any one of them would rather cut off their arm than vote for Trump. But not so the whites of Middle America. They feel inundated by foreign arrivals, especially Latinos, and the Obama administration offers them no relief, so along comes Trump who speaks to the worst in them and promises to wall off Mexico and kick out 11 million illegal immigrants. Finally, they figure, somebody’s listening to them.
Maybe the cosmopolitan liberals in the U.S., Britain and Europe should recognize that the Brexiters, Trump voters, Le Pen supporters and the like, even though they’ve chosen radical, destructive, xenophobic solutions, do have a real problem: There are too many immigrants around for their comfort. Racist appeals should not be listened to, but appeals of economic fear and bruised national identity should be, especially when they’re coming from such a huge number of people in the West, from tens upon tens of millions of citizens who evidently feel very insecure at home.
So Western liberals should listen to the white people who mistakenly voted for Brexit, who voted Trump and will again, who support Le Pen in France, Wilders in Holland, Pegida in Germany and the other European anti-immigration movements – and show a little solidarity. Stop being afraid of being called racists; it’s not racist to say there should be limits on immigration and that these limits have been passed. It’s not even “nationalistic” to say this, it’s just a matter of recognizing that nations are different and want to remain different, at least to some extent, which is something progressives need to learn.
Western left-liberals should come out for reasonable curbs on new immigration – and stop handing the field to demagogues who turn vulnerable people’s frustrations into fascism, and who offer not limits but expulsion, walls and disastrous retreat from the world.