In the last post we saw that the New Deal and Great Society presidents never used the occasion of Independence Day to sanctify immigration as a core element of our national creation myth, whether during its birth or its maturation. And they certainly did not use July 4th to call for a return to the Ellis Island period of mass immigration and its resulting Dickensian working and living conditions, as millions upon millions overwhelmed the labor and housing markets.
The major theme of the New Deal period was the pride and dignity of the working class. It would have been blasphemy to praise the Social Darwinism of the last period of mass immigration. Not until the elites began to worship the false idol of cost-cutting -- especially slashing the price of labor -- did our presidents sermonize about America being "a nation of immigrants" back to its origin, shamelessly equivocating between the founding settlers and the hordes of cheap labor brought in over 100 years later.
As far as the New Deal / Great Society leaders were concerned, immigration may have happened sometime in the past -- but that was then, and this is now, so let's not even mention it, let alone dwell on it. Just speaking the wrong words would have been a black magic spell that opened a portal through which the Social Darwinist devil would enter our glorious Midcentury world and corrupt it back into a Gilded Age hell all over again.
The shift in rhetoric during the mid-1970s accompanied the shift in policy toward opening the floodgates of immigration, allowing greedy and lazy employers in labor-intensive sectors to enjoy a higher rate of return on investment without having to "build a better mousetrap". It was not so much the end of the post-WWII expansion and the oil-driven recession of 1973-'75, since the economy would recover from that.
Rather, the lasting change was the increasingly globally interconnected market -- not only for goods and services, but for labor. To remain globally competitive, American employers in labor-intensive sectors wanted access to cheap labor in poor countries, whether that meant dismantling their factories in the US and rebuilding them in China, Mexico, and India -- or if the worksite could not be off-shored, such as a farm or a "small business" (fast food joint, retail outlet, construction, landscaping, domestic help, etc.), then bringing in the cheap labor here as immigrants.
To rationalize this betrayal of the American working class, and indeed to shield it from any criticism by elevating immigration into sacrosanct status, the elites needed a whole new creation myth of the American nation. In the new telling, we've always been a nation of immigrants who bust their ass all day long rather than go on the gubmint dole, humble and grateful to receive whatever table scraps our superiors are generous enough to hand out at the end of a long hard day of work.
This inverts the New Deal July 4th narrative of the lowly citizens uniting as a group in order to put constraints on their rulers, to assert and defend their inalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness. And the presidents of that era were keen to emphasize material prosperity, not just freedom from monarchical rule.
Now, we're supposed to just let our elites do whatever they want, since they know what's best for us and only have our -- not their -- pursuit of happiness in mind. They are allowed to organize into interest groups, while we are supposed to stay fragmented -- interacting with our families at most, but not with our fellow lowly members in order to put checks and balances on the power of our elites.
The neoliberal creation myth valorizes slavery, in which the common people are humble and deferential, whereas the populist creation myth valorized freedom, in which the commoners were proud and became confrontational if mistreated.
The new myth dovetailed with the policy of open borders and the need to culturally assimilate them into the mainstream, since the coming waves of immigrants were only allowed in as latter-day slaves. See, you and they are not such different groups of people after all -- both of you are slaves who embody spiritual richness despite material poverty. That's the way it always has been, and that's the way it always will be -- various descendants of immigrants toiling away for breadcrumbs, attaining higher moral status through being humble and deferential to their masters.
But the last thing that one group of slaves needs is a whole 'nother group of slaves to have to compete against. In fact, the new national creation myth rationalizes the policy choice of the elites to replace African-Americans with Asian and Hispanic immigrants. The valorization of "immigrants who bust their ass" is always a dog-whistle for, and sometimes overtly contrasted with, the picture of lazy blacks reliant on welfare, and who once upon a time got so uppity that they rebelled against the slave owners.
Proud blacks resent being replaced by immigrants, so the new creation myth is never preached in front of black audiences like the NAACP. This proves that the motivation for the policy, and the narrative, is not the cultural replacement of European-Americans, since black people are not so turned off by that idea, yet are viscerally turned off by the immigration idea. In pandering for black votes or donations, you can make fun of how bad white people are, but that must always be in contrast to black people as the superior group -- not Hispanic or Asian immigrants.
Rather, the motivation is purely economic -- to replace expensive American labor with cheap foreign labor. African-Americans understand that just as intuitively as white Americans do, and when they hear politicians or activists talking up immigrants as a group who "bust their ass," they know that their own ethnic group is being slammed as lazy and dependent on welfare. They know the message is really, "Why Hispanics or Asians should replace blacks as the non-white ethnic group in America".
That open-borders message does not make black people think more highly of the white elites who preach it, as though what mattered most to blacks were multiculturalism. Instead it only makes them take a dim view of the white elites, who are not-so-secretly saying they want to throw the blacks overboard and replace them with Hispanics and Asians for reasons of cost efficiency.
Mass immigration has never co-existed with economic populism and civil rights. The Gilded Age had open borders, grinding poverty and inequality, and Jim Crow laws. The New Deal had closed borders, prosperity and equality, and the Civil Rights movement. With the return of the Gilded Age under neoliberalism in the Reagan era, we once more have open borders, a falling standard of living for common people and soaring ill-gotten wealth for the top, and a steady erosion of civil liberties, disproportionately hitting African-Americans.
Any populist on the left who advocates for mass immigration, or who even valorizes immigrants as hard-working folks who bust their ass for little recognition, is only doing the bidding of the exploitative employer class and those who would like to just replace the black population already. Left populists may not want to bash immigrants as people, but they cannot advocate for open borders, cannot elevate immigrants over native citizens (a dog-whistle against "lazy welfare-sponging blacks"), and cannot feed the national creation myth about "a nation of immigrants".
They should follow their New Deal heroes and keep the borders closed on class grounds -- not wanting to swell the supply of labor or the demand for housing, which would lower the standard of living for most people while enriching the elites for free. Narratively, emphasize the birth of our nation with the Founding Fathers, and its maturation with the Lincoln era that ended slavery, industrialized the economy, and built major infrastructure like the Transcontinental Railroad. Simply don't remark on the ethnic and national origins of who built the country, since everyone already knows. And don't remark on the waves of immigration during the later Ellis Island period.
The message should be that after the Civil War, we are all Americans, not we are all immigrants.
In the next and final post, we'll examine the presidential July 4th speeches of the neoliberal period, and see just how intensely they began to re-write our national creation myth, with Reagan by far the charge-leading worst offender.