Can Republicans Afford to be Pro-Immigrant?
By Bryan Caplan
This is a slightly redacted email from a social scientist who prefers to remain nameless. Reprinted with his permission.
I just finished Open Borders last night and I want to say great job! […] I’m a conservative/libertarian who was convinced by the arguments that Ann Coulter and others made that demographics change America will be forever liberal.
One thing that changed my view was “The Great Awokening,” seeing how white liberals changed their views on gender, race, etc. in a radical direction practically over night. This was a nice demonstration that political views are a lot more malleable than we suspect, and the static model in which you can calculate how many people vote Republican by looking at census information does not take into account that fact.
I’m writing because I want to share a few thoughts on the question of whether Republicans can actually win immigrant votes. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and, despite the Great Awokening, I don’t see a realistic scenario in which immigrants become Republicans, or even a case in which Republican can become pro-immigration without them being basically wiped out politically.
In your book, you frame the question as “Why do immigrants favor Democrats?” I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. As you show in Myth of the Rational Voter, the vast majority of the public is anti-market. The Republican Party, or at least the ideology it presents, is extremely pro-market by world standards (i.e., even conservatives in Europe support socialized medicine). Given this is the case, the real question is why do white Americans vote Republican? Clearly, as most political scientists agree, there is a backlash to Democrats on cultural and racial grounds. In particular, liberals are seen as anti-white male, really anti-white, by large portions of the public.
Since white support for Republicans is so unusual from a comparative perspective and is based on unique sociocultural dynamics, there is thus little reason to suspect that immigrants will similarly start to support the radically pro-market party. Perhaps it could happen if immigrants assimilated so completely that in their patterns and behavior they became little different from white Americans. It’s hard to see that given where cultural power lies, in a media and education system that promotes identity politics. Even a 180 degree turn away from the Trump strategy for Republicans would be very unlikely to overcome the effects of the education system and media. Political parties just aren’t that powerful in changing cultural dynamics, especially when they’re the party disfavored by opinion makers!
There is also the question of whether Republicans actually can shift to a pro-immigrant position and not be obliterated in the short run. Once again, the important thing to consider is how incredibly unpopular the Republican economic agenda is. If Republicans become Democrats-lite on immigration, or even more pro-immigration, what will they run on? Republicans have won elections by shifting attention away from economic issues, to foreign policy (see Cold War and post 9/11) or social issues like gay marriage, back when Republicans had majority support here. Yet the public has shifted left on gays, and foreign policy is not very salient anymore the further the Cold War and 9/11 rescind into the past.
Republicans’ current strategy in the Trump era is to run on immigration, with mixed results. Even though the public has shifted here too towards the left wing position, Republicans are much better off talking about immigration (which will gain them votes in some places, lose them votes in others), then talking about cutting funding for education or gutting Obamacare (which will lose them votes everywhere, see Matt Bevin). If Republicans surrender the immigration issue, they forfeit their only real strength, which is support from those who object to Democrats on cultural issues and are worried about a changing country. Politics then just becomes about economics, in which case Republicans will have to make their peace with socialized medicine, etc. or be wiped out.
Again, I agree with the book, as the economic and humanitarian arguments are too strong to refute even if you think immigration will create a permanent Democratic majority.
I have some thoughts on how you can win over far right to be less strenuously anti-immigration, given my own journey, but I’ll save that for another time.