Nationalism and Anti-Immigrant Movements

by Ivan Light

To be a nationalist – to root for the good old USA for instance – must you be anti-immigrant?  Contrary to the usual view, that is not so.  Sometimes being a strong nationalist requires being in favor of immigration and immigrants.


Nationalism enacts the nation-state’s self-interest.  A nationalist advances the interest of his or her nation-state against counter-interests and claims whether from other nation-states or from the moral order. However, few nationalists care about the nation-state as such. They really care about the nation that the nation-state serves and protects, e.g. the people. Since many historic nation-states represent or are thought to represent an ethno-cultural tradition and a phenotypic stock, say Christianity and white race, the nationalist protects the nation-state that exists to benefit that ethno-culturally and phenotypically defined stock, usually his or her own.  The Serbian nation-state exists to benefit Serbs so Serbian nationalists protect it; the Russian nation-state exists to benefit Russians so Russian nation-state protects it; the Italian nation-state, the Italians, and so forth.  In an extreme version of nationalism, as Hitler put it, “justice is what serves the German people,” the German nation-state exists to serve the German people so whatever the German nation-state wants is right, not just what Germany wants.  We call these linked ideas, ethno-nationalism.  


Popular ethno-nationalism supports nation-states, granting them legitimacy as when Hungarians support the Hungarian state because, unlike the United Nations, it serves exclusively Hungarian interests.  But nation-states can also stoke popular ethno-nationalism to promote public acceptance of their policies “Join the British army to save civilization from the Hun.” Even if nation-states do not deliberately stoke ethno-nationalist fires, routine international war arouses and strengthens ethno-nationalism in the home population. This population measures itself against enemies who likewise experience heightened ethno-nationalism thanks to their nation-state’s counter mobilization for war.


Ethno-nationalism always has many vociferous adherents in the public; few have thought through the implications. But like all political theories ethno-nationalism requires evidence for validation. In the discussion that follows, I show that the theory of the ethno-nationalist state, while not flatly wrong, overstates and distorts the extent to which the nation-state can or does rest securely upon popular ethno-nationalism, and, conversely, the extent to which popular ethno-nationalism defines the actual self-interest of the nation-state. As political science, the theory of ethno-nationalism simply ignores many and recurrent instances in which the self-interest of the nation-state requires it to ignore, dampen, or even suppress the ethno-cultural or phenotypic conservatism that allegedly provides the source of the state’s legitimacy and its raison d’être. In such cases, very numerous indeed, states discourage or deny what, according to the theory of ethno-nationalism, their very existence and claims to legitimacy compel them to serve and cherish.


To illustrate this point, I address anti-immigrant social movements and immigration policy in the United States.  Anti-immigrant social movements arise when non-immigrants feel threatened by immigration. A social movement is anti-immigrant when it seeks the drastic reduction of immigration, the speedy end of immigration, the rapid and complete assimilation of existing immigrants, and/or the expulsion of existing immigrants. Needless to say, judged by this standard, many North Americans and Europeans are anti-immigrant. Anti-immigrant movements rise and dissipate but when they rise they are serious political forces that can write their agenda into public policy.


Anti-immigrant movements put forward economic and political arguments to buttress their case, often very successfully, and those arguments always allege the repugnance of the existing immigration to the economic, political, or cultural welfare and well-being of the non-immigrant population. If an economic objection is raised, then the immigrants take jobs or income away from non-immigrants. But the nation-state exists to serve non-immigrants so immigration should be discontinued. If a political objection, then immigrants may outvote the non-immigrants, but the nation-state exists to serve non-immigrants so immigration should be discontinued. If cultural, then the immigrants will change the culture in ways obnoxious to non-immigrants so the immigration should be discontinued.  In every case, the underlying logic is the same: immigration should be discontinued because it damages the non-immigrants whom it is the nation-state’s primary responsibility to serve and benefit.


There is often good justification for these complaints which must not be dismissed out of thoughtless and unreflecting generosity of spirit. Anyone who supposes that unrestricted immigration cannot damage the life-circumstances of non-immigrants should ask the Pequot Indians about the English Pilgrims in 1620. In the short-run but even in the long-run, mass migration often threatens key economic and political interests of the non-immigrants as well as the ethno-cultural or phenotypical continuity of the host nation. Until and unless they are fully assimilated, Muslim immigrants will reduce the extent to which the United States remains a Christian nation, disturbing and upsetting some Christians. As matters already stand, there are more Muslims in the United States than Episcopalians, and, should the Muslims overtake the Catholics too, the United States will have become a predominantly Muslim nation. If they intermarry with the non-immigrants, immigrants also change the dominant phenotype, disturbing and upsetting some people. Anti-immigrant movements resist changes in the dominant phenotype of their nation and its ethno-cultural character out of intense loyalty to both as well as out of perceived self-interest, broadly understood. In this sense, anti-immigrant movements are conservative because they cling to existing economic and political relations, existing phenotypes, and existing ethnic culture, seeking to protect them from unwanted change as a result of immigration. Anti-immigrant movements assume and assert exactly what the theory of ethno-nationalism identifies as the core legitimacy of the nation-state. If Serbia exists to benefit and protect the Serbs, then the economic and political dominance in Serbia of the Serbs, the continuity in Serbia of Serbian culture, including orthodox Christianity, and perpetuation in Serbia of the dominant Serbian phenotype defines a core purpose of the Serbian nation-state, and so forth for all the nations of the earth.   


Anti-immigrant movements have existed in the past and exist now everywhere in the world. Chief Geronimo headed a violent anti-immigrant movement in what is now Arizona. In contemporary Europe and North America, anti-immigrant movements, once quiescent, are now regrouping and regaining political influence in the context of accelerated migration from developing and war-torn countries. The National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, the Alternative for Germany, the Donald Trump political campaign, and the official English movements in cities of North America all represent anti-immigrant movements. Indeed, the anti-immigrant movement in the United States now threatens to take over the Republican Party and reshape the party to its purposes.


At the cultural level, signs of popular opposition to immigration are also present in all the immigrant-reception countries. In Canada, Sikh boys were refused permission to wear turbans during school athletic contests. Even if the boys play rugby, a traditional English sport, players in turbans represent unwelcome cultural change to many Canadians. In France, Muslim girls have been denied permission to wear headscarves to school for the same reason. In Germany and Texas, skinheads have attacked immigrants on the streets and in some cases torched their homes and religious institutions in hope of driving them away.  In the United States, “patriot militias” and “Christian identity” churches brew together guns, racism, religious fanaticism, and anti-immigrant fervor. Light-Up-the-Border sends citizen members to illuminate the US/Mexico border at their own expense in hope of deterring illegal immigration.


Anti-immigrant movements proclaim their nationalism but that proclamation really means that the nation-state should serve the interests of the non-immigrants. In Germany, anti-immigrant marchers chant, “wir sind das Volk.” In other words, we are the people whom the state exists to benefit, not the immigrants. Anti-immigrant movements show the flag and sing the national anthem as outward displays of a nationalism said to justify their restrictionism. Now we are getting to the core. Although rarely challenged directly, this identification of nationalism and anti-immigrant fervor is unfounded because the economic, political, cultural, and phenotypical interests of non-immigrants cannot and do not always dictate the policy of the nation-state, even one that privileges the non-immigrant population. Similarly, the ethno-cultural or phenotypical continuity important to non-immigrants are not invariably identical with either the self-interest of the nation-state or even of the non-immigrant population.


Quite to the contrary, the self-interest of the nation-state and even of the national population often require immigration even at the cost of cultural and phenotypical change. National self-interest is complex and rarely unambiguous. For the most part, in pursuing its self-interest, a nation-state has to make trade-offs between different and conflicting advantages only one of which is ethno-cultural or phenotypic fidelity. Acknowledging that nations and nation-states have political and economic interests in addition to cultural and phenotypic interests, we set the stage for an examination of trade-offs among competing and antithetical interests. A phenotypic interest means here a preference for a dominant racial stock and phenotype. A cultural interest means its preference for cultural continuity, especially of language and religion. But nation-states also have political and economic interests that conflict with the economic, political, cultural or phenotypic interests of the non-immigrant population.  As a result, a nation sometimes requires immigration for economic or political reasons and rejects fidelity to cultural and phenotypic conservatism, or vice-versa. In either case, a nation-state and the nation it represents never had a simple self-interest. It chose between competing interests which of its self-interests to practice and which to neglect.


For example, when debating the racially motivated exclusion of Asian immigrants in 1912, the U.S. Congress decided that the Pacific Coast’s loudly proclaimed racial and cultural interest in Japanese exclusion was worth antagonizing the Japanese Empire to obtain. President Taft did not agree so he vetoed the bill. Under pressure from voters, Congress passed a more exclusive immigration bill in 1916, but President Wilson vetoed it for the same foreign policy reason as had President Taft. Congress overrode Wilson’s veto writing into law the Immigration Act of 1917 that created an Asian “barred zone” from which immigration to the United States was permanently excluded. It had taken the U.S. government five years of debate to decide whether to sacrifice the foreign policy interest of the United States to the ethno-nationalism of the Pacific Coast voters, or vice-versa. As both Presidents expected, the exclusionary and racist immigration law enraged the Japanese and embittered US/Japan relations for decades. Bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941 was to some extent Japan’s revenge for the humiliation that Congress had imposed upon Japanese ethno-cultural and phenotypic pride. Arguably, World War II was not worth the local advantage of excluding Japanese immigrants from the Pacific Coast.


What was the interest of the United States in 1912 and 1917? Clearly, in both years the nation-state’s main diplomatic and foreign policy interest was cultivation of good relations with the Japanese Empire. This interest collided with the interest of the Pacific Coast states in reducing the perceived economic, cultural, and phenotypical threat posed by Japanese and other Asian immigrants. The interest of Pacific Coast restrictionists was not synonymous with the national interest of the United States, and wrapping themselves in the flag and singing the national anthem did not change that contradiction. The anti-immigrant movement on the Pacific Coast thought wrongly that the nation-state existed to protect them, but in reality the nation-state’s interests were much broader and more inclusive than that. True, the restrictionists prevailed politically in 1917 but the collision of interests did not go away.


Early in the Vietnam War, Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State, went before Congress to request a change in the existing laws that excluded Asians from immigration. Rusk explained that the United States was bombing North Vietnam in hope of preventing Asian dominoes from falling to Communism. The North Vietnamese angrily rejoined that the United States was bombing them out of racial hatred, and pointed to the exclusionary immigration laws in proof of their claim. According to Secretary Rusk, a successful prosecution of the war in Vietnam required the United States Congress to craft a non-discriminatory immigration law that would prove to the world that the United States was not a racist country. Partially because of this claim, Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. This act abolished the national origins quota system and opened the United States to immigration from all countries outside the western hemisphere on an equal and equitable basis.


As a result of this legal change, immigration from Asia accelerated to an astonishing extent, and the Asian population of the United States increased seven fold between 1965 and 2000. Most of the new Asian immigration settled in the Pacific Coast states which became, as a result, much more multi-racial and multi-cultural than they had been in 1965. Whatever the wishes of the non-immigrants in these states, and there was some resistance, Congress imposed political, economic, cultural and phonotypical change upon the inhabitants of the Pacific Coast states in the greater interest of the United States and, in this sense, even in the greater interest of the non-immigrant population of the United States that the nation-state existed to serve. The political judgment reached in 1917 was reversed in 1965 precisely because the political interest of the United States trumped the proclaimed interest of non-immigrants in ethno-cultural and phenotypical continuity. Moreover, the long-term interest of the non-immigrant population of the United States were arguably better served by this political decision than they would have been by continued immigration restriction. The Pacific Coast could not be a tail that wagged the dog.


The national interest of any country is complex and many-faceted and often does not equate with the strident conservatism of anti-immigrant movements. Sometimes it does; sometimes it does not. The simple and apparently thoughtless claim that the nation-state exists to protect the non-immigrant population from any and every inconvenience of mass immigration patently cloaks a special interest in the flag and national anthem. Special interests have a right to exist and to express themselves in the political arena. But when they hide behind the flag, whether out of internal confusion or a desire to confuse others, they must be rejected and exposed by exhibition of some greater good that immigration serves.  Bad for you, yes, but good for the country is the proper rejoinder in such cases.