Tyler Cowen and I have an ongoing dispute about “immigration backlash.”  Reading these June Gallup poll results, I’m tempted to hail a “backlash to the backlash.”

Though preventing illegal immigration was one of the president’s key
campaign promises, the general desire to decrease immigration is near
its historic low in Gallup’s trend over more than half a century.

If you look at the numbers, however, they’ve been quite steady for the last five years.  We’re not living in a period of rising hostility to immigration.  We’re not living in a period of rising support for immigration.  We’re living in a period of stable but relatively high support for immigration.  The numbers speak:


If public support for immigration is so high, why has political opposition become so vocal?  Because public support for immigration, though relatively high, remains absolutely low.  And that’s all it takes for anti-immigration demagoguery to work.  The real puzzle isn’t, “Why did Trump take a strong anti-immigration stand in 2016?” but “Why doesn’t every presidential candidate take a strong anti-immigration stand in every election?”  And the obvious solution to this puzzle is elite-on-elite pressure: elites are more cosmopolitan than the masses – and shame fellow elites who dissent.  Trump won by being the sort of elite who treats elite shame as a badge of honor.

Of course, you could flatly declare that polls are meaningless, and insist that “real” public opinion has indeed turned against immigration.  But this is mere circular reasoning.  There are endless ways to explain Trump’s victory.  And the best theory is that Trump was a maverick who defied elite norms to tap into a vast but dwindling reservoir of nativism.

P.S. When I first became interested in the immigration issue in the mid-90s, support for “more immigration” had been stable at 7% for decades.  Since then, my eccentric view has more than tripled in popularity.  I still doubt immigration is the next marijuana, but I’m mildly hopeful.  Who knows, maybe we’re just one fine graphic novel away from freedom!