Do Democrats know what unites us?

Published Nov. 8, 2018

National identity is the most powerful force in world politics today. Most of the strong leaders around the world were swept to power with a strong nationalist story and govern in nationalist ways. This is true in Russia, China, India, the U.S., Israel, Turkey, Britain, Brazil and on and on. It's hard to see how any party could appeal or govern these days without a strong national story.

In this country, Donald Trump has almost nothing but a national story, which he returned to with a vengeance in the closing days of this year's campaigns. It happens to be a cramped, reactionary and racial story. Trump effectively defines America as a white ethnic nation that is being overrun by aliens — people who don't look like us, don't share our values, who threaten our safety and take our jobs.

Trump's blood-and-soil nationalism overturns the historical ideal of American nationalism, which was pluralistic — that we are united by creed, not blood; that our common culture is defined by a shared American dream — pioneers settling the West, immigrants crossing an ocean in search of opportunity, African-Americans rising from slavery toward equality.

The Republicans have flocked to Trump's cramped nationalism and abandoned their creedal story. That's left the Democrats with a remarkable opportunity. They could seize the traditional American national story, or expand it to gather in the unheard voices, while providing a coherent, unifying vehicle to celebrate the American dream.

And yet what have we heard from the Democrats? Crickets.

What is the Democratic national story? A void.

Why have the Democrats failed to offer a counternarrative to Trumpian nationalism? For two reasons, I think, one political and one moral.

First, these days nations often define their national identities through their immigration policies. Democrats have never liked to talk about immigration at election time. The immigration issue splits the Democratic coalition. Affluent progressive and liberal activists are for it, but working-class whites and African-Americans are more skeptical.

Moreover, those going to the polls in recent years who name immigration as their top issue tend to be much more restrictionist. If you're a Democrat, you don't get credit for being pro-immigrant from your friends, but you do get punished by your foes. So this year, as in past years, Democrats have tried to change the subject. In September, for example, 50 percent of the congressional pro-Democratic ads referred to health care. Only 4 percent mentioned immigration.

Second, over the last several years, Democrats have begun to think about nationalism and immigration differently. In the past, Democrats tended to see immigration as an economic issue. Most mainstream Democrats have always been pro-immigrant, but they also favored border enforcement as a way to protect working-class wages. Barack Obama deported more unauthorized immigrants in his first two years in office than Trump has so far. Bernie Sanders used to dismiss open borders as a "Koch brothers proposal."

But now, especially in the wake of Trumpian nativism, immigration is seen as a racial justice issue. Calls for law and order on the border are taken as code for racism. The phrase "illegal immigrant" has been struck from the Democratic lexicon. Anything that is pro-immigrant is seen as enlightened, and anything that restricts immigration is regarded as morally suspect. This framing unwittingly cuts the legs out from any position that falls short of open borders.

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Politically, Democrats have wound up in a place where they decry the policies that restrict undocumented immigration, but they don't really have any other policies to replace them. Progressives are for abolishing ICE and our current asylum-detention procedures, but what would they put in their stead?

After 30 years of multiculturalism, the bonds of racial solidarity trump the bonds of national solidarity. Democrats have a very strong story to tell about what we owe the victims of racism and oppression. They do not have a strong story to tell about what we owe to other Americans, how we define our national borders and what binds us as Americans.

Here's the central challenge of our age: Over the next few decades, America will become a majority-minority country. It is hard to think of other major nations, down through history, that have managed such a transition and still held together.

It seems that the Democratic Party is going to lead us through this transition. The Republicans have decided to pretend it's not happening. Trump had a chance to build a pan-ethnic nationalist coalition but went with white identity politics instead. Republicans have rendered themselves irrelevant to the great generational challenge before us.

But if the Democrats are going to lead this transition, they'll need not just a mind-set that celebrates diversity, but also a mind-set that creates unity. They'll need policies that integrate different groups into a coherent nation, with shared projects, a common language and culture and clear borders.

If you don't offer people a positive, uplifting nationalism, they will grab the nasty one. History and recent events have shown us that.

© 2018 New York Times