The Elites Feed Anti-Immigrant Bias
As recently as the 1990s, Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont found that working-class men in the New York City area held generally positive attitudes toward immigrants, describing them as “family oriented” and “hard workers, just like us.” Yet real wage growth for the working class has been abysmal for a generation, and for many native-born blue-collar workers the culprit seems obvious—immigration. “My fiancé’s worked at the same company for 21 years and it’s a union [job], and they are hiring Mexicans,” one Trump votertold the Public Religion Research Institute. “And I don’t want to be racial, but that’s all they’re hiring. He makes like $31 an hour, and they’re coming in at making like $8 an hour.”
Economists have demonstrated immigration’s positive effect on gross domestic product, but that misses a crucial point: People don’t live the averages. They live where they live, and see what’s in front of them. In 2016 Donald Trump won far more counties than Hillary Clinton did—but Mrs. Clinton’s roughly 500 counties represented two-thirds of GDP. Mr. Trump won in regions left behind.
Today less than half of Americans born in the 1980s earn more than their parents did, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. Antitrade and anti-immigrant voices offer a clear explanation of why good jobs left the U.S. (free trade), and why the jobs that replaced them pay less (immigrants). Those who believe otherwise need to communicate an alternative explanation and recognize that anti-immigrant fervor reflects cultural as well as economic divides.
Global elites pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism. Some younger elites reject the notion of national borders entirely. Many blue-collar whites interpret this as a shocking lack of social solidarity. They are proud to be American because it’s one of the few high-status identities they can claim. Elites, on the other hand, seek social honor by presenting themselves as citizens of the world. And many are, with membership in global networks dating to their college years or earlier. But blue-collar Americans tend to stay close to home because they rely on a small circle of family and friends for jobs, child care and help patching that hole in the roof. These are problems elites solve with money.
Driven in part by their contrary lifestyles and networks, elites and nonelites hold radically different core values. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that elites focus on achievement and individuality, while the working class prizes solidarity and loyalty—values that bind members to their communities.
This class culture gap is also fueled by what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “feeling rules” in her book, “Strangers in Their Own Land.” These unwritten rules govern who deserves sympathy and who doesn’t. Elites’ feeling rules mandate empathy for immigrants, viewed as vulnerable people separated from their families or fleeing persecution, gangs or conflict. This empathetic human-rights lens contrasts sharply with the neoliberal lens elites use for blue-collar Americans, who are often viewed as dimwitted and fat. Homer Simpson is emblematic.
All this has created a toxic environment in both the U.S. and Europe. Three steps can help turn things around. The first is to recognize that the nation-state matters greatly for nonelites in developed countries. “You can’t put a Danish flag on a birthday cake without being called racist,” someone recently commented to me at a book talk in Denmark. Dismissing national pride as nothing more than racism is a recipe for class conflict and more racism. Better by far to embrace national pride, balance it with concern for those outside the nation, and refuse to allow racism to pose as national pride.
The second step is to highlight the ways President Trump’s immigration and trade policies are hurting red-state constituencies that voted for him. Critics can point to farmers unable to find farmworkers, small-business owners unable to find dishwashers, and construction workers hit hard by steel tariffs.
The third step is to fight the scapegoating of immigrants by ensuring that hardworking Americans without college degrees can find good jobs. Economist Branko Milanovic has found that people in the bottom half of rich, developed countries’ income distributions have seen “an absence of real income growth” since 1988. What’s happening, Mr. Milanovic argues, is the “greatest reshuffle of individual incomes since the Industrial Revolution.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that average wages fell last year for nonsupervisory workers in the U.S.
There’s no inherent reason why native-born blue-collar workers should be anti-immigrant. They often hold similar attitudes toward hard work and family values. Elites who sympathize with immigrants do themselves no favors by dismissing the working class as too bigoted or too stupid to recognize the economic benefits of immigration. Instead they should actually try to make the case and address the causes of anti-immigrant scapegoating.
Ms. Williams is a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, and author of “White Working Class” (Harvard Business Review, 2017).
Appeared in the July 10, 2018, print edition.