Living With Nationalism

National Review, April 22, 1996

Republished on on August 18, 2004

By David Frum

YOU DON'T have to like Pat Buchanan to learn from him. In 1992 and again in 1996, Mr. Buchanan has proved the power and importance of a new cluster of issues, "national" issues, that a Republican Party dominated by social and economic conservatives has until now ignored. Condemn Mr. Buchanan's positions on these issues as much as you like. The discontents to which he speaks are real.

But what precisely are they?

Many of Mr. Buchanan's otherwise fiercest critics believe that it's his bleak economic message that galvanizes his followers. The New York Times ran a five-part front-page series on the "downsizing of the American economy" soon after Mr. Buchanan's New Hampshire win, essentially endorsing his grim description of the labor market. One question, though: If the American people have been waiting with bated breath for someone to come along and tell them that the economy stinks, that big business is to blame, and that protectionism will set everything to rights, why isn't Ralph Nader President? Why didn't Tom Harkin sweep to power in 1992? Or Dick Gephardt or Pat Robertson in 1988?

All of those characters trumpeted the same Midnight in America tune that Mr. Buchanan has made his own in 1996, and none of them came anywhere near equaling his success. But while Democrats began dabbling with economic nationalism in the early 1980s in a desperate attempt to find a populist basis for their otherwise thoroughly unpopular views, Mr. Buchanan's economic nationalism is something very different. It is just one component of a coherent philosophy, a "nationalist conservatism," that is now for better or worse taking its place alongside social conservatism and economic conservatism as a component of the Republican coalition.

It has taken twenty years to integrate religious conservatives into the Republican Party, but by now even pro-abortion Republicans have come to accept the need for restrictions on the practice. Republicans of all stripes agree that public institutions have to tolerate more religious expression than the Supreme Courts of the 1960s and 1970s would tolerate. And in school choice, Republicans created a brilliant mechanism to harmonize the need for higher educational standards with the desire of many parents for education that respects religious faith.

Something similar will need to happen between free-market and nationalist conservatives. What might such an understanding look like?

Some of Mr. Buchanan's nationalist themes resonate with all conservatives, such as recognition of English as the sole official language of the United States. If not all, then nearly all conservatives would probably also sympathize with an interest-based foreign policy -- even if they drew the lines of American interest in less parochial fashion than Mr. Buchanan would, to include the Persian Gulf, Western Europe, and East Asia.

Other Buchananite themes will never be acceptable to economic conservatives. Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council has repeatedly asked why free trade can be a litmus test when abortion isn't. But free trade isn't some technical issue of public policy -- it is the foundation of world peace and prosperity. The horror of the catastrophe that American protectionism could touch off today -- that it did touch off in the 1920s -- makes protectionism an issue on which compromise isn't possible. And, as the experience of Harkin et al. suggests, it's an issue on which economic conservatives don't need to compromise: the American voter is securely with them.

Furthermore, there is something about the intellectual logic of the protectionist position that draws adherents, almost against their will, from McKinley Republicanism to Jerry Brown kookery: from attacks on Mexican avocado growers to alarm over the international machinations of the bankers at Goldman Sachs and the sinister, secretive plotters behind the New World Order.

But in between those issues on which the conservative movement is already nationalist (like official English) and those on which it ought never to flirt with nationalism (like trade and paranoia), there is an intermediate zone that responsible politicians should be willing to investigate. And the most important issue in that zone is immigration.

According to exit polls, immigration ranked second only to abortion in motivating Mr. Buchanan's voters. It may be irrational -- to a very considerable extent it is irrational -- but these people see in immigration an important cause of the sense of social balkanization to which the editors of Commentary were moved to devote their fiftieth-anniversary issue. They believe, not altogether without evidence, that immigration is helping to hold down their wages. They believe, with considerably more evidence, that immigration is fueling the growth of the welfare costs under which local government groans. And they believe -- and who can honestly say that they are wrong? -- that the sheer mass of newcomers is remaking the American social fabric in unpredictable ways and at high speed.

Economic conservatives can believe that immigration's benefits exceed its harms. They should struggle to remind American voters how much immigration's harms can be explained by the welfare-state temptations that big government extends to newcomer and old-stock American alike. But it's hard to go on insisting that the anxieties and concerns that motivated Buchanan's anti-immigration voters should be altogether ignored. Some of those voters may well be bigots. So are some of the voters opposed to affirmative action. But most anti-immigration voters, like most Americans, are fair-minded people who would like social change to proceed at a slower pace than the pace at which it has been proceeding these past twenty years.

To these nationalist voters, economic conservatives should hold out a four-leafed olive branch:

1. The laws on immigration already on the books ought to be enforced, as all valid laws should be. On the campaign trail, candidates promise to get tough on illegal immigration. But an effective crackdown will oblige economic conservatives to accept something that they have so far been reluctant to accept: employer sanctions.

2. The case for immigration has been gravely weakened by the evidence amassed by George Borjas about the rising propensity of immigrants to end up on the dole. Republicans should take up again their determination to limit the benefits of the welfare state to citizens. Perhaps prospective immigrants could also be asked to demonstrate that they are unlikely to become public charges.

3. Improving the quality of the immigrants to the United States may alleviate some concerns over quantity. More than five-sevenths of the legal immigrants to the United States are admitted because a more or less close relative got here first, not because they offer skills or capital from which the American economy can benefit. Canada and Australia weight their immigration quotas heavily in favor of skilled workers; there's no reason the United States can't likewise switch away from family-reunification immigration policies to a more remunerative alternative.

4. By great bad luck, the last rise in the main immigration quota -- from 500,000 to 700,000 -- occurred in 1991, just as the U.S. economy was slipping into five years of slow economic growth. If 500,000 legal immigrants a year sufficed to fuel the Reagan boom, that number is very likely to be more than sufficient for the economic growth of the 1990s. Furthermore, most of those spots should be reserved for skilled workers and immigrants with capital rather than the relatives of those already here.

The politics of Pat Buchanan are, and should be, repugnant to economic conservatives. The tone and style of his politics, if emulated, would condemn the Republicans to fringe-party status: and rightly so. When George C. Wallace, a figure like Buchanan in some ways, erupted into national politics in 1968, William F. Buckley Jr. observed that anyone who figured out how to capture the eight million votes that Wallace won, baptize them, and turn them into honest Republicans would have done the Republic a mighty service. The service needs to be repeated. And compromise on immigration will be an indispensable element of it.