Ronald Reagan dreamed of an open border with Mexico and Republicans loved it. This isn’t some notion he scribbled down secretly in a journal. It isn’t a quiet longing he muttered to a biographer. Reagan actually said “open the border both ways” on the campaign trail in 1980. In a primary. His comments came in the midst of a national immigration panic over waves of refugees arriving from Vietnam and Cuba.
Reagan, like Republicans of the era, embraced an expansive vision of America, an optimistic and confident understanding of our place in the world. Reagan saw our border as an obstacle limiting the reach of a colossus, not a castle to protect vulnerable cowards. The man who stood at the Berlin Wall and taunted a dictator believed a world with fewer barriers was a world Americans would dominate. That was the Republican Party I joined as soon as I was old enough to vote.
On the other side was the Democratic Party. Jerry Brown spent much of his first term as California Governor battling measures to settle Vietnamese refugees in his state. Leftist icon, George McGovern said, “I think the Vietnamese are better off in Vietnam.” Ralph Nader’s neurotic consumer group, Public Citizen, warned that refugee children were bringing diseases. Senator Robert Byrd insisted on more screening to keep out “barmaids, prostitutes, and criminals.” Republican President Gerald Ford, in an angry jab at Brown, personally traveled to San Francisco in 1975 to welcome a planeload of Vietnamese orphans.
Today, our two parties have reversed their positions on trade and immigration, as they have on many other issues. Some leadership figures, like Jerry Brown, have been in public life long enough to have played a key role on both sides this one issue. What changed?
The short answer is that members of America’s perennial third party, Southern Conservatives, executed a tectonic shift in the late 20th century from their former alignment with the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift, which began at the top of the ticket in the 60’s and slowly penetrated down to the precinct level by the late 90’s, changed the composition of both parties. That pivot, paired with decline of the Cold War global order, has scrambled the poles of our political alignments in ways we still haven’t fully appreciated.
That short answer still leaves us a bit confused. How does a pivot in the Old South explain the pressures that pushed Jerry Brown, a California progressive, from 1970’s anti-refugee demagogue to 21st century advocate for the undocumented? Unraveling that conundrum presages a struggle unfolding inside the Democratic Party now, as it absorbs a younger, more liberal generation of affluent white voters.
Why did Jerry Brown in 1975 build his national profile around anti-immigrant hysteria? Brown wasn’t merely the Governor of California. He had big, national plans. To achieve those goals he meant to balance to the three dominant forces in the Democratic Party at the time, the anti-war left, big labor, and the hyper-conservative Democrats of the Solid South. Immigrant-baiting presented a chance to unite all three in a way that wouldn’t be possible today.
Labor leaders dominated the infrastructure of the DemocraticParty. They had inherited a deep skepticism of both trade and immigration from the fight to unionize the nation’s labor force. The Sanders wing of today’s Democratic Party still retains this tradition. Capital owners in the late 19th century regularly used pools of penniless new immigrants to break organization efforts in their factories. Despite the fact that many if not most union members were from recent immigrant families, that experience left them feeling threatened by new migrants. The notion that immigrants “take jobs” may not have been empirically true, but migrants had in fact been used consistently to weaken the bargaining and organizational power of labor. Labor voters’ reticence toward this new wave of immigrants was deeper than mere bigotry, but bigotry was enough to keep it alive.
Anti-immigrant demagoguery was an excellent way to attract union support while retaining some pull with Southern Conservatives, restive and angry over the party’s embrace of desegregation. Vietnamese refugees were beginning to arrive on the Gulf Coast, stirring waves of KKK activity. As a child, this was the first time I saw the KKK out in force, working to destroy immigrant fishermen around Port Arthur, Texas. Immigrant panic was perfectly configured to act as a proxy for the region’s simmering racial resentments.
Democrats’ most frustrating challenge at the time was balancing the interests of these two groups with the demands of anti-war and civil rights activists. What tipped the balance for the progressives was the character of this refugee wave. A large percentage of these refugees had ties to the South Vietnamese government and military, a prospect that cooled the hearts of an audience otherwise attuned to social justice issues.
There were bigots in the Republican Party, but that party’s larger composition muted their influence. Business and commercial interests sitting at the heart of the party were increasingly global in outlook, driven by the competition for trade. Republican Cold War hawks saw America’s attractiveness as a destination for immigrants as a bright contrast with our enemies who were forced to build walls to keep their people in place. Though it’s hard to imagine this today, the GOP’s geographic core in the 70’s was Southern California, Illinois and New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. These were the country’s main centers of trade, business and of course, immigration. Among Republicans at the time, enthusiasm for global business and Cold War posturing were enough to tamp down the influence of their racists. It was politically safer for a Republican than for a Democrat to embrace a pro-immigration platform in the Seventies.
Political parties, like any other institution, are moved by their inputs and incentives. We tend to imbue them with moral or relational qualities which they don’t actually possess. As the membership, funding, and interests of a party change, their positions also change, though often with considerable lag due to inertia. The Iron Law of Oligarchy tends to slow institutional transformation, sometimes building up pressures toward change that can burst rather suddenly.
Take the Southern Conservatives out of the Democratic Party and weaken the influence of organized labor, and Jerry Brown circa 2016 faces institutional pressures very different from those he navigated in the Seventies. After signing California’s “sanctuary state” bill into law last year, this is what today’s Jerry Brown had to say about undocumented migrants, “It’s time to just chill, recognize the fact that they’re here. They are human beings. They have families.”
With the unifying force of the Cold War lost and the flight of the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party completed, our two party system has crumbled into an incoherent mess. Republicans are now the party of white racist paranoia. The GOP’s center is no longer the Northeast and the Pacific West, but Dixie and its sympathizers in the big empty middle of the country.
Democrats still pivot around a much-weakened axis of organized labor and social justice progressives. An affluent rising generation of educated urban and suburban whites are linking up with refuseniks from the GOP’s former business coalition out in a political no-man’s land. Uncomfortable with the cult hysteria sweeping the Republican Party, they remain an awkward fit with the Democratic Party’s traditional farm and labor priorities. Further complicating the picture is the relative conservatism of the Democratic Party’s black and Hispanic base, who quietly chafe at their limited range of political expression. How will Democrats balance the affluence of a white, urban progressive movement centered in places like New York and Silicon Valley with its embedded tradition as a party of labor interests, anchored around the industrial Midwest? We live in interesting times.
What we’re likely to see emerge first is an accelerated decline in both parties’ relevance. Political parties have lost much of their internal coherence as outside groups assume a larger role in political activism. Their persistence at the national level is itself an open question as the struggle to assemble coalitions across an increasingly diverse population. No party lasts forever, and these two may be reaching a necessary evolutionary breakdown.
In the meantime, it would be helpful to remember that political parties are not immutable. Thirty years ago David Duke, Rick Perry and Roy Moore were Democrats and Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Not so long ago Democrats were the Party of Jim Crow and Republicans were the Party of Lincoln. Life moves pretty fast.