‘A Humble and Honest Populism’ Would Be a Winner

By Mark Krikorian on August 20, 2014

National Review Online, August 20, 2014

The in-depth polling on immigration released by Kellyanne Conway finds little support for Obama's unilateral amnesty scheme and significant backing for more consistent enforcement. But as important as the law-and-order findings are, what I found most interesting was the depth of support for what Senator Jeff Sessions has described as a "humble and honest populism." His push for a Republican approach to immigration that would "speak directly to the real and legitimate concerns of millions of hurting Americans whose wages have declined and whose job prospects have grown only bleaker" would appear to have political potential. As Conway's memo on the poll findings put it, "Immigration is an issue unto itself AND as part of an overall economic message."

Among the relevant findings

  • 77 percent of respondents said jobs should go to current U.S.-born workers or legal immigrants already in the country – instead of bringing in new immigrants to fill those jobs;
  • 88 percent of conservatives, 78 percent of moderates, 78 percent of independents, 71 percent of Democrats, and 62 percent of liberals said current U.S. workers should get jobs preference;
  • 80 percent of respondents said businesses should recruit the currently unemployed instead of expanding the labor supply with new workers from other countries;
  • 86 percent of black voters, 73 percent of white voters, and 71 percent of Hispanic voters said companies should raise wages and improve working conditions instead of increasing immigration;
  • Three in four respondents wished to see substantial reductions in immigration rates.

Incorporating immigration reduction into a broader pro-worker, pro-middle-class economic agenda is the right thing to do as a matter of policy, but it's also politically beneficial because it helps reverse stereotypes about the parties – a significant source of the GOP's recent troubles, not just with Reagan Democrats but with longtime Republican voters as well. A responsible economic populism that includes a consistent focus on mass immigration's harm to Costco shoppers (contrasted with its benefit to Cartier shoppers) can help the party get beyond its image as the home of top-hatted Monopoly Man (and Car-Elevator Man). A conservative reform agenda, whichever version it might be, must include reductions in legal immigration (rather than doubling it, as the Schumer-Rubio bill would have done) if hard-pressed Americans are to take it seriously.

The flip side is that a more populist GOP immigration message would put the Democrats on the defensive, helping paint them – accurately – as the real party of oligarchy. Obama, after all, is the one consulting with his corporate cronies on ways to hold down Americans' wages through immigration. Democrats are the ones seeking to import more foreign workers for the Silicon Valley wage-fixing cartel, even as tech firms lay off Americans. Democrats are the ones trying to make sure Michael Bloomberg's country club doesn't have to raise wages ("who takes care of the greens and the fairways in your golf course?").

This necessary project of reversing the commonly held stereotypes about the parties is not helped when Paul Ryan says we need even more immigration because someday there might be a labor shortage, or Karl Rove says he doesn't want his son to have to soil his hands with manual labor, or Haley Barbour justifies mass worker importation because "Colonel Sanders needs these guys."

A sober, ethnically neutral, wage-focused agenda of lower immigration is needed to help the GOP become a party that speaks to people who commute by bus rather than private jet. Conway's polling shows its enormous appeal. It remains only for the party's grandees to get the message.