Americans at the end of 2016 are more supportive of immigration than they have been at any time in the last 20 years. This was the surprising finding published last week by Pew Research. In the December poll, 63 percent said that immigrants “strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents”; only 27 percent said that immigrants are “a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing, and healthcare.” In 1994, the numbers were almost exactly the opposite: 63 percent said that immigrants were a burden and only 31 percent said they were a strength.
Pew isn’t an outlier: Gallup recently found that 72 percent of Americans now consider immigration “a good thing,” up from only 52 percent in 2002; last year, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 62 percent of Americans supported a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. But the polling seems hard to reconcile with last month’s harsh electoral reality: Did we not just elect a nativist demagogue who pledged to build a wall on the border and make Mexico pay for it? And yet it is not so strange. Policies don’t need to be broadly popular in America to become law — they just need to dominate one of the two political parties.
Until recently, immigration wasn’t a partisan issue: The anti-immigrant vote was split between Republicans and Democrats; leaders in both parties generally supported immigration, while voters generally opposed it. “Something that’s crazy,” said David Shor, a senior data scientist of Civis Analytics, “is that in 2006 Republicans were actually slightly more supportive of immigration than Democrats.” If you go back to the ’90s, Shor pointed out, you’ll find plenty of campaign ads from Democrats warning that a flood of cheap-labor immigrants would put Americans out of work.
In the Obama era, though, the parties have gone separate ways. The Democratic rank-and-file has come around to the elite position and is now overwhelmingly supportive of immigration (Shor calls this “a standard Zallerite story,” referring to the political scientist John Zaller, who has argued that people tend to tell pollsters what they think party elites want to hear); with the Republican Party, though, the reverse has happened — party leaders have come around to the rank-and-file position. The result is that even though restrictions on immigration are less popular than they used to be, they’re more influential. “This is mainly a consequence of primary electorates,” said Shor. “Historically, the anti-immigration share of the electorate was split, which meant that they weren’t dominating any party’s primary, but now that these people are predominantly Republicans, there’s a base for them to win.”
Even though restrictions on immigration are less popular than they used to be, they’re more influential.
The same kind of partisan separation happened in the ’80s with abortion. Overall attitudes toward abortion have barely budged over the last 50 years. Beneath the hood, though, there’s been a partisan coalition. “If you look at both parties in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Shor, “both were relatively in favor of socially liberalized views on abortion.” (Many now forget that the Equal Rights Amendment was an official part of the GOP platform for most of the ’70s.) That all changed with Ronald Reagan. “We saw a realignment on moral issues where a lot of pro-choice Republicans became Democrats, and a lot of pro-life Democrats became Republicans.” Even though popular opinion barely moved overall, partisan realignment meant that the pro-life position came to dominate Republican primaries.
Ever since Reagan, the pro-life movement, spearheaded by evangelical Christians, has been the indispensable rump of the Republican coalition. With Trump, we face the possibility that immigration is edging out abortion, and that Steve Bannon’s white nationalist crowd are the new kingmakers. On one reading, the later stages of the Republican primary were a proxy war between immigration (Trump) and abortion (Cruz). Immigration won, and while Trump paid lip-service to evangelical positions, it’s notable that some of the only non-Putin compliments Trump gave during the entire campaign were to Planned Parenthood. Lyin’ Ted Cruz still tried to play the woman card against Trump, but that strategy never made much sense: Trump was the candidate for race antagonism; Cruz was the candidate for regressive gender roles. Trump might have been a creep, but he had not made a political issue of gender in the way that Cruz had. (Marriage to Trump typically results in divorce; marriage to Cruz, according to reports, results in being found on the side of the road, head in hands, by police officers afraid you’re about to commit suicide). In any event, the triumph of anti-immigrant forces was a good thing for Republicans in the general election: It's unlikely that Ted Cruz would have done as well as Trump in places like Macomb County, Michigan, home of the “Reagan Democrats,” where hearts beat to racism, not theocracy. There, Trump converted what had been a 20,000-vote margin for Obama to a 50,000-vote margin for him — a swing roughly equivalent to Trump’s entire winning margin across Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Trump was the candidate for race antagonism; Cruz was the candidate for regressive gender roles.
If Hillary had won — and had been able to fill a Supreme Court vacancy — the evangelical political agenda would have been dead. Roe v. Wade would have been taken off the table for a generation, leading some to speculate that evangelicals might effectively retreat from public life. Immigration, meanwhile, would have continued to roil the Republican electorate. Hillary lost, though, so Roe v. Wade is back on the table — and could end up dominating Trump’s first 100 days. According to Reince Priebus, Trump will announce his Supreme Court pick either shortly before or shortly after his inauguration; meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are scheming to defund Planned Parenthood within weeks of reconvening in January.
A big, nasty abortion fight is a bad look for Trump who, earlier this year, refused to answer questions about whether any of his partners have ever had occasion to exercise a woman’s right to choose. Trump wants a race war, not a war on women. Part of what's confusing to the media about the world right now is that on the one hand we’re witnessing a revolution in gender roles that is unprecedented, worldwide, and seemingly unidirectional. At the same time, we’re seeing perplexing volatility in race relations. Racial tolerance has ebbed and flowed throughout history: Some of the most tolerant societies on record are from the ancient world and the middle ages, while genocide has proven to be disturbingly compatible with modernity. Does the arc of history bend toward justice when it comes to ethnic and religious minorities? The evidence is weak. The gender revolution, on the other hand, may prove all but irreversible. Donald, Ivanka, and Steve Bannon know that racial strife promises them a bright future; abortion and gay marriage, by contrast, are legacy investments with diminishing returns.