Politicians of both left and right used to agree a nation’s immigration policies should advance the interests of nation and people. That was yesterday. A new morality has taken hold throughout the West, advancing open borders as a moral imperative and equating patriotism with racism. Progressives have all-but abandoned the interests of working men and women. Bradley Betters scrutinizes this strange metamorphosis and examines the radical implications of a morality that subordinates a nation’s interests to a universalist ethic.  

Patriotism as racism: the left now says you must feel exactly the same way about a stranger from 10,000 km away as about your next-door neighbour or best friend.

A sign of just how the open-borders narrative has swept the public conversation is that it seems like news to hear that the left used to support immigration policies that protected workers and advanced the national interest. But the liberals and socialists of old did so and, for decades, also stridently opposed illegal immigration. Among may U.S. voices, JFK advisor and Democratic Party fixture Arthur Schlesinger devoted a book to the problems mass immigration imposed on the liberal agenda. Civil rights icon Barbara Jordan used a blue-ribbon committee to recommend cutting immigration in half. And for his efforts to physically block illegal aliens from being transported to industrial farms near the U.S. border, celebrated farm labour activist Cesar Chavez was called the original “Minuteman.” Other voices cautioning against untrammeled immigration were Coretta Scott King and Gaylord Nelson, the Democratic Senator who would go on to found Earth Day. The story was not much different in Canada.

Today, there’s growing recognition of the American left’s immigration radicalization. Substantial articles have explored the issue, including by ex-Canadian David Frum writing for the Atlantic, U.S.-based Irish progressive Andrea Nagle in American Affairs, and the editors of the quarterly journal The Social Contract, who dedicated their last issue to the subject. A big question the recent discussions raise but don’t answer is whether today’s liberals and progressives can ever return to the former stance. For reasons rooted in a shift in the movement’s fundamental moral outlook, the chances appear slim. This has clear implications for Canada’s politics. The tendency to support open borders and to denounce patriotism as indistinguishable from racism is gripping most Western countries, ours included.

Rooting immigration policy in moral psychology

Social psychologist Haidt has concluded the left is so fixated on empathy and “justice” that it believes putting one’s country first is immoral.

 New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s renowned work on the psychological divisions between left and right helps unravel today’s immigration debate, especially the former’s relatively recent rush toward open borders. Haidt’s research found that the public policy-related motivations of liberal moral psychology today are mainly a mixture of kindness/empathy and the left’s view of justice (which is to say, outcomes that the left favours, rather than the traditional definition of due process). These are the virtues contemporary liberals tend to elevate above all others, such as group-loyalty, patriotism and the rule of law, historical virtues which conservatives still tend to emphasize. They represent big shifts in the liberal moral paradigm over the years. Today’s liberals, Haidt argues in his groundbreaking 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, not only de-emphasize a virtue like loyalty, they view it as immoral. For them, he says, “[L]oyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle [and] is the basis of racism and exclusion.”

This shift is perhaps most pronounced in the immigration debate. Speaking before Congress in the early 1990s, the late, far-left senator and 1972 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy stated: “The moral priority for this nation is to address the needs of that segment of the descendants of slavery who remain mired in the underclass…to the extent that largescale immigration interferes, the poor in other countries must wait.” (Emphasis added.) Such citizen-first sentiment was still common on the left at the time.

These sentiments were long echoed among Canada’s left. Early 20th century Western Liberal party figures such as William Gallagher, Robert Macpherson and “Fighting Joe” Martin long assailed Ottawa over the union-busting effects of the federal government’s mass immigration policies. Along with scores of regional unionists, they would successfully push Ottawa to curb immigration, a policy that held until the 1960s. Contemporary U.S. labour activists like Samuel Gompers were able to do the same, also in the name of workers’ rights.

Like much of the historical left, CCF (later NDP) founder J.S. Wordsworth placed Canadian workers clearly ahead of immigrants.

In his polemic Strangers Within Our Gates, J.S. Woodsworth, founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (later to become the NDP), attacked the practice of what he called
“unnatural immigration” or the importation of “paupers and assisted emigrants…induced and brought about by the unscrupulous and greedy” and “those who desire to obtain cheap labor or to sell land.”

Speaking to big business interests, Woodsworth put the issue this way:

“[A]s more and more [immigrants] remain in the cities, we shall find competition keener…[w]ithin a few years the people with lowers standards of living will drive out other competitors. The economic question becomes a social question…Can we afford, for the sake of immediate gain, to sacrifice those standards and ideals which we have most faithfully cherished? True prosperity cannot be measured by the volume of trade or bank clearings. It consists in the social and moral welfare of the people.”

The NDP (in immigrant-heavy B.C., at least) would openly discuss restrictionism until the mid-1970s. Since then, having become preoccupied with appearing open and inclusive, the contemporary left has so elevated the principles of empathy and justice that even the concepts of “fellow citizen” and “national borders” are considered too discriminatory to be justified. There is little doubt NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is channelling a strong strain of his party’s sentiment when he lobs charges of racism even against critics of the risible practice of “birth tourism.” What might normally be interpreted as rank opportunism may well represent the members’ authentic emotions.

In a recent New York Times piece entitled “There’s Nothing Wrong With Open Borders”, opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo (an Indian immigrant to the U.S. by way of South Africa) exemplified this preoccupation when he wrote that having immigration standards and limits “assumes that people born outside [the U.S.’s] borders are less deserving of basic rights than those inside.” He called it a “mere accident of geography” that native-born Americans “were given freedom” under that country’s Constitution “and others were denied it.”

Elsewhere, writing originally in the Guardian, leading British leftist George Monbiot took a more strident tone when it comes to considering those “born inside” and “outside” a given country (well, his own U.K., at least). Haidt cites Monbiot:

Internationalism…tells us that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington….Patriotism, if it means anything, tells us we should favour the interests of British people [before the Congolese]. How do you reconcile this choice with liberalism? How…do you distinguish it from racism?

Supporting open borders, or something very close: Men of the left Fardad Manjoo, George Monbiot and Jagmeet Singh.

Such a willing erasure of Western countries’ national boundaries, all in the name of generalized ideals like tolerance or anti-racism, received perhaps its most official endorsement when our own prime minister proclaimed our country to be a “post-national” one and without a “core identity” of its own. While Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, had disdain for both English- and French-Canadian nationalism, he still recognized the distinction between fellow-citizen and foreigner. As prime minister, he proved willing in the early 80s to reduce immigration because of the country’s poor labour market conditions. This policy was to be reversed and immigration numbers dramatically increased by the pro-big-business Progressive Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney. By contrast, Trudeau Jr. has increased immigration to the highest it’s been since 1913.

The historical willingness among people on the left to put nation-first “parochialism” ahead of universalist considerations has all-but evaporated. Haidt writes that it’s American liberals’ fundamental lack of patriotic loyalty and their zeal to ostensibly liberate the oppressed and embrace the excluded which motivates them to continuously “fight to break down arbitrary barriers.” The fight against any and all perceived inequalities is paramount, even if it “weakens groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital.”

Among these groups are some that historically formed core constituencies of left-leaning parties, such as blue-collar unions. Their members (and former members) have especially borne the economic costs of virtually unrestrained immigration, especially illegal immigration. The left’s abandonment of these long-time supporters – indeed, their denunciation as ignorant, bigoted “deplorables” in the infamous word-choice of Hillary Clinton – has helped drive the populist waves in multiple countries, most notably the U.S.

You love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others.’ Ultimately, limiting immigration and putting citizens first is a ‘real moral commitment’ and not simply ‘a pose to cover up racist bigotry.’

The white left’s shift in the U.S.

Racial politics have blessedly been a relatively minor feature in Canada, but they are often front and centre in the U.S. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that American views on immigration appear to divide somewhat along racial lines, for the newfound open-borders zeal among the left is to be found largely among whites. As Canadian-born political scientist Erik Kaufmann, a professor at the University of London, has found, “Support for immigration among Democrats has broadly risen, but that rise is much more pronounced for white Democrats than for black Democrats.”

Kaufmann has found, for instance, that on the question of increasing immigration, white Democrats differ from blacks by an almost 2-to-1 ratio — with a comparable discrepancy on the question of diversity. A 2018 survey found that only 32 percent of black Democrats favour increased immigration versus 56 percent of white Democrats. Similarly, Kaufmann found that only half of Hispanic, black and Asian Americans surveyed thought white Americans who wanted to reduce immigration harboured racial animus towards out-groups. Considering the ease with which Democrats and the major U.S. media wield charges of racism against immigration restrictionists, such a result is quite stunning.

Other surveys Kaufmann references show that American whites actually feel “warmer” toward minorities than to people like themselves. African-Americans, by contrast, are most loyal to one another. According to political scientists interviewed by Vox, white liberals “have warmer feelings about immigrants than Hispanics do” and are “much more enthusiastic about the idea that diversity makes the United States a better place to live than are blacks or Latinos.”

It’s not known whether there is any similar, racially-based division of opinion in Canada, but it seems less likely. Many Canadians of colour are themselves immigrants, whereas the vast majority of American blacks are native-born. Many are poor and bear the economic brunt of immigration, such as downward pressure on hourly wages in lower-skilled job categories – a phenomenon they have in common with poorer whites and others, and which may at least partially explain the apparent racial divide in opinions about immigration.

Either way, the phenomenon complicates the narrative for confirmed Trump-haters such as Frum, whose Atlantic piece claims that Democrats are tilting toward open borders solely because of Trump’s “demagoguery.” Not only does the left’s shift clearly have deeper roots, if it were merely a function of Trump-hatred, it would not be dominated by white demographics. African-Americans and Hispanics have taken note of Trump’s policies, but not in the way leftists want. His popularity among those demographics seems to be strengthening, a trend that has received little media coverage.

While Trudeau senior despised both French and English-Canadian nationalism, Trudeau junior declared that Canada was a ‘post-national’ country and that Canada lacked a ‘core identity’of its own.

Yesteryear leftists versus the contemporary paradigm

The left’s moralistic reorientation has led to muddled thinking on immigration, which combined with its stridency on nearly all issues portends further years of political conflict and upheaval. It would seem the heightened sense of injustice and intense focus on equality – not just of opportunity but of outcomes – has led towards outright dismissal of the idea of immigration limits, no matter how well-argued or solidly based.

When Vox editor and progressive millennial Ezra Klein interviewed old-school socialist Senator Bernie Sanders years back, the former put to him that, by opening its borders to the impoverished world, the U.S. could help shrink global wealth-disparities. Responding as many leftists from yesteryear would, Sanders dismissed Klein’s argument completely, calling it a globalist idea – a “Koch Brothers proposal.” It is also mathematically non-sensical. The U.S. takes in almost 1.5 million legal migrants per year while the global poor number about 1.5 billion. Klein’s level of “immigration innumeracy” was years ago addressed by former Truman- and JFK-advisor George Kennan who pointed out that “even the maximum numbers we could conceivably take would be only a drop from the bucket of the planet’s overpopulation.”

The Klein-Sanders exchange illustrates the waning of loyalty and patriotism among today’s young left. When Klein asserted that, “[Open borders] would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?” Sanders replied, “[I]t would make everybody in America poorer” and that such an idea would “[do] away with the concept of a nation-state.” The stridency with which contemporary liberals, social democrats and socialists approach immigration today oddly make them bedfellows with some traditional constituents of the right, namely industries that profit from cheap labour.

Avowed socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a hard leftist who honeymooned in the Cold War-era Soviet Union, formerly railed against uncontrolled immigration, denouncing it as a self-serving scheme by big business.

Examples of such warping of the traditional left’s principles are numerous, a vivid one being Vancouver’s disastrous housing situation. Academics such as University of British Columbia professors David Ley and Dan Hiebert have offered persuasive evidence that the city’s lack of affordable housing is closely linked to immigrant-fuelled demand. The problem came to a head in 2016 when Simon Fraser University professor Andy Yan published a study making this connection explicit. Yan’s findings were immediately met with charges of racism from city mayor and former NDP MLA Gregor Robertson, liberal Vancouver columnist Pete McMullin, and a host of Lower Mainland property developers and real estate industry public-relations figures.

Current municipal, provincial and even federal politicians, such as NDP leader Singh, still won’t speak out about the connection among immigrant-demand, housing affordability, and the exodus of relatively poor native-born Vancouverites from the city. The comparison with previous Vancouver mayors like Mike Harcourt (NDP) or Art Phillips (Liberal) is stark. Both men railed against Ottawa, as B.C. union leaders before them had done, to adjust federal immigration policy after intake numbers to the city rose dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s.

We see a similar muddle when left-leaners raise America’s historical “theft” of its southwestern states from Mexico in order to justify mass Hispanic immigration, as argued in this recent New York Times op-ed. But as the late liberal restrictionist, environmentalist, and Tragedy of the Commons-author Garret Hardin liked to say to younger leftists, such an absolutist approach to the idea of justice is a reason why we created the concept of the statute of limitations. To carry the past-imperialism argument for open-borders to its logical conclusion would mean, as Hardin once wrote, “The present inhabitants of every country in the world…would have to pull up stakes and try to set up home elsewhere.” An analogy in Canada can be found in the Trudeau government’s rush to Indigenous “reconciliation,” an apparently open-ended offer in which there may be no limits.

Stamping out disagreement in the name of “anti-fascism”

In many Western countries, the left’s moral sphere has expanded so much that many of the traditional restrictions on immigration can no longer be contemplated. Nor, it seems, can even their advocacy be tolerated. The left is unlikely to listen to voices of reason like Haidt’s. “[N]ationalists see patriotism as a virtue,” he writes. “They think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving.” That’s partly because countries and cultures are similar to marriage: “You love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others.” Ultimately, limiting immigration and putting citizens first is a “real moral commitment” and not simply “a pose to cover up racist bigotry.”

Leftists think otherwise, however. The movement’s fringes have internalized the open-borders narrative with gusto, with masked and armed street warriors setting upon opponents with increasing acts of violence in the name of “anti-fascism” and “anti-racism.” While these instances have been more common and intense in the U.S., Canada isn’t all that far behind. Even federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer has been accused of harbouring sympathy for “white supremacists.”

Given the increasing vitriol leftists are directing at their opponents, including hate-filled descriptions and violent imagery, reconciliation seems highly unlikely. Avoiding large-scale violence must be the immediate goal. In the U.S., more success may be had in trying to win over private-sector working-class voters of all races, by promoting economic policies that help these segments and reminding them of the destructive effects mass immigration has on the less-skilled portions of the workforce.

Due to the Left’s near-complete volte-face on immigration and its current hyper-moralistic approach, discussion has become almost invariably unproductive. In Canada, at least, left-wing stridency means that merely raising the topic creates unease. But the contemporary left has no moral monopoly on this issue. The right’s approach to immigration can be described in moral terms just as easily as the left’s. Conservatives’ widespread desire to put fellow citizens first, like members of a family, is an honest, principled and ethical one. It continues to be held in nations around the world, and remains official policy in most non-Western nations. By becoming more confident and assertive in this position while reminding liberals and progressives of their restrictionist forbearers, perhaps conservatives can bring the left back to more serious thought and reflection on this issue.

Bradley Betters is a lawyer who lives in Toronto.