The Guardian published an interview with Hillary Clinton last week that either signaled her intention to pursue the Democratic presidential nomination once again or, as critics would have it, secure a columnist job at Breitbart.com.
“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame” of right-wing populism, the former secretary of state told the British newspaper. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
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Cue outrage. A “sickening capitulation,” fumed Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith. “A death sentence for millions and millions of people,” wrote Osita Nwanevu of The New Yorker. Clinton’s words “drew criticism and a dose of surprise from an array of scholars, pro-immigration advocates and pundits on both the left and right,” reported The New York Times. “So perplexed by the comments” were the great and the good, the Times continued, “that they wondered aloud whether Mrs. Clinton had perhaps misspoken.”
Did I miss something? It is a testament of the degree to which a certain dogma about immigration has lodged itself into the collective mind of the transatlantic liberal elite that the only conceivable explanation for a former U.S. secretary of state’s divergence from said dogma is that she had “misspoken.” Like much of what Clinton says, her observation about the political dynamics of immigration in Europe—while intended to sound brave and provocative—was rather banal. It brought to mind her clumsy endorsement last month of incivility in American politics, a realization she arrived at long after leading lights of the Democratic Party and liberal media had endorsed such tactics as shouting at senators in elevators, yelling at Republican officials in restaurants, and banging on the doors of the Supreme Court.
The former Democratic presidential nominee’s endorsement of a stricter European immigration regime bore another Clinton hallmark, in that it was transparently poll-tested. If Clinton’s comments riled American liberals, most Europeans shrugged. Since the great migration crisis of 2015, European publics across the continent have overwhelmingly supported tougher border enforcement and reduced external immigration into the European Union, and their leaders have largely delivered those policies to them—including Merkel. That’s why “Clinton Wants Europe to Get Tough on Migration. It Already Has,” was the headline on the second Times story about the Clinton interview. If her remarks were newsworthy, it’s because they seemed to be at such cross-purposes with the pro-immigration rhetoric she deployed during the 2016 campaign.
But Clinton’s tough words about immigration in Europe needn’t negatively affect her standing with an increasingly pro-open borders, progressive Democratic Party base back in the United States. That’s because the issue of immigration is dramatically different on either side of the Atlantic, for reasons having to do with geography, economics and culture.
Let’s be clear about one thing first, though: As a matter of pure political analysis, there was nothing remotely controversial about what Clinton said. Had the migration crisis of 2015 not occurred – and had Merkel not welcomed more than 1 million migrants and refugees into the EU—it is highly unlikely that Britain would have voted for Brexit, that a far-right party would be the third largest in Germany, that the fiercely anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen would have doubled her father’s share of the vote in France’s 2017 presidential election, that Italy would be governed today by a coalition of populist parties, and that Donald Trump would be president of the United States. As for Merkel herself, she has been forced to announce her imminent departure from the Chancellery solely due to the simmering public anger over her 2015 decision. Like it or not, images of endless lines of dark-skinned, desperate people descending upon Europe had a traumatic effect on the psyche of many voters, the effects of which are still felt today, and likely will be far into the future.
Clinton is being criticized not so much for her evaluation of the objective political situation, however, as for her subjective policy prescriptions, which aim to neutralize the issue of immigration so that right-wing populist demagogues can no longer exploit it. This is sound political advice for the European mainstream, which pro-immigration liberals (and conservatives) in the United States can support without worrying that they will sound hypocritical. For one, Europe has a more precarious geographic position (situated next to North Africa and the Middle East) than the United States (surrounded by oceans). A caravan of several thousand migrants fleeing violence in Central America may generate hysterical headlines in the United States, but it is substantively nothing compared with the deluge of humanity Europe received over the course of 2015-2016, and which it could potentially receive again and again as global warming, political instability and natural population growth drive more people to Europe over the coming decades.
Another important factor distinguishing the European immigration situation from the American one is economics. America’s less-regulated business environment, (relatively) low unemployment, and tighter labor markets make the U.S. economy naturally welcoming to immigrants, particularly low-skilled ones. While immigrants to the United States have a higher labor force participation rate and lower unemployment rate than native-born Americans, in the European Union, the figures are reversed. This is not necessarily the fault of immigrants who come to Europe. Stronger labor union power, more onerous regulations, and bounteous welfare states might constitute the European social market economy consensus (one long admired by American liberals). But such a system makes it harder for immigrants to find jobs (indeed, disincentivizes it), and breeds the sorts of negative social pathologies (ghettoization, crime and, in the case of a few Muslim immigrants, terrorism) which are seized upon by right-wing populists. See, for instance, Sweden.
Finally, there is the matter of the immigrants themselves. The population of people living illegally in the United States is predominantly of Hispanic Catholic origin. These people derive from a cultural-religious community that currently constitutes 17 percent of the American public. The immigrants whose presence in Europe has sparked the growth of right-wing populism come from the North African Maghreb, the Middle East and beyond. The cultural differences between the native and immigrant communities in Europe are vaster than those separating the immigrant and native communities in the United States, where the “native” culture, such that it can even be said to exist, is permeable and evolving. It is easier, frankly, for a Guatemalan Catholic (or her children) to assimilate into the rich tapestry that is the American melting pot than it is for, say, an Afghan Muslim to find a place for himself in Sweden.
All of which is to say: Just because Hillary Clinton said something “controversial” doesn’t make it wrong.
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