Andrew Sullivan Discusses Social and Political Upheaval in the U.S.

By Jerry Kammer on May 16, 2017

We who work at the Center for Immigration Studies attempt to make the case for reasonable immigration limits. Some of us, motivated by concerns for the labor market prospects of Americans and permanent residents, consider ourselves to be liberal restrictionists. Others, concerned with maintaining social cohesion and the rule of law, identify as conservatives. (There is, of course, some overlap.)

Today, we present extensive excerpts from an interview broadcast last week by San Francisco public radio station KQED. Conservative intellectual Andrew Sullivan, in conversation with Michael Krasny, host of KQED's "Forum" program, talked eloquently of his concerns about social and political upheaval in the United States, his adopted country. (He's originally from the UK.) As you will see, he is particularly concerned about cultural warriors on the left who attack as racist anyone who challenges their multicultural dogma regarding immigration and other issues. KQED does not post "Forum" transcripts, so any transcription errors are mine.

Sullivan — Economic pressure can be the backdrop to real cultural anxiety and make it much worse. And I think the trouble is that people have not fully grappled with the enormous changes that happened in this country over the last 50 years. This is going to be the first white-majority country to become the first white-minority country in the history of the world. The kind of mass immigration we've had — a lot of it done illegally — over the last 30 years, has been extraordinary. We're now at the highest point of foreign-born population in the United States that we've ever been in and I'm one of them. I'm an immigrant. I came here in 1984, but I still count as an immigrant. I'm a citizen of the United States. But, of course, that has changed dramatically the racial composition of this country. We're not allowed to talk about this. But this is what people clearly are responding to. You can call it racism in a way. But you can also say that it's simply an instinct, that they don't want their entire society to be radically changed overnight or over a couple decades. The America that they grew up with is not the America that they see winning. And I think combined with the rather aggressive — more than rather, extremely aggressive — attempts by the sort of social justice crowd, to implicate anybody with this discomfort as utter racists and bigots and fascists, has only entrenched their sense of cultural isolation and siege and made the resilience of the support for Trump even greater.

We're in a bad, bad dynamic here. And I think it's perfectly legitimate to argue that in order for the wave of immigrants that we've had over the past couple of decades to be properly integrated and assimilated into this country, we could do with a pause. We could do with stronger enforcement against illegal immigration and we could do with, I think, a decline of legal immigration. That is simply a matter of digesting this kind of social change. It can't be done overnight without a backlash, a huge backlash. That's what we're dealing with. And I think we have to be realistic about that, to understand that combined with that is also an enormous revolution since the 1960s in the role of women, in the rights of homosexuals, in the sexual revolution, in the way in which Christianity has become essentially a minority practice in this country in a way that was never understood or conceived of before.

All these things come together to make people feel really under siege. Now, you can criticize that. You can lambaste it. But it's very human. It may not be defensible, but it's very understandable. And I think we should not so much condemn people as try and understand it and try and adjust our policies to make sure it doesn't have the kind of awful effects that it just had in electing this hideous buffoon to the presidency.

Krasny — Racism is real. And it can indeed metastasize. What should be done about it then?

Sullivan — I'm not sure whether politics can shift what's going on within people's souls and minds. I think that what you have, more than simply permanent racism — although I'm not denying that it exists, of course — and it's widespread in many ways. But it's a response to the sense of the otherness taking over what they believed was their America. Now, I don't have any problems with that. I think America is a multicultural, multiracial wonder in many ways. But I am worried, given what we know about human nature, given our tribal instincts, given our instinctive in-group and out-group feelings, that if we rush this process too fast, if we do not allow people some space and time to digest this and to understand it, we're going to provoke a reaction, which is leading across the world to reactionary politics in the ascendant. You see it in Britain. You see it in France. You're seeing it in Germany as well, where mass immigration is turning otherwise rather moderate and liberal and centrist countries into countries that are polarized between the far-right and the aggressive left. And that's not good for anybody. And I believe in arresting that, addressing that. I mean, take Britain ...

Krasny — Was there a slip there, Andrew? A little Freudian slip, when you said "arresting".

Sullivan — We should reduce it. I don't see any reason why that isn't a complete legitimate argument, that we should have a pause, that we should attempt to assimilate and integrate those immigrants who are already here, myself included. The last time we reached something like 14.9, 15 percent of the population foreign-born was in the 1920s. And that resulted in a very draconian anti-immigration law in 1924. That was liberalized in 1965 dramatically. And I think to avoid a kind of draconian shutdown we should make sure that the laws are enforced and that we should perhaps reduce the amount of legal immigrants we take every year, to keep the society together, to allow the possibility for this experiment in multiculturalism, an unprecedented experiment, I might add, in the history of the world — to succeed.

People don't realize that multiracial societies and multicultural societies are very rare in history. Almost never happened before. There were cities and ports in which it happened. There were empires in which it occurred. But no actual country defined itself as a multicultural society. And it's a very difficult thing for human beings to grapple with. And that's what we need to understand, if not agree with.

Krasny [asking about the forces driving support for Trump] — You say that more than anything else it's ... a love of the past.

Sullivan — Yes, it is. A love of the past over the present is sort of a conservative instinct. This is a real loathing of the present and a sort of very profound belief that if we just go back to a very distant past we can somehow, to coin a phrase, make America great again. That is a pure reactionary slogan. And reactionism is very powerful in the human soul, especially when it's combined with exactly these social, cultural, and racial changes that are happening in our society and many others.

Krasny — We've seen a pattern all along, as you've pointed out in your writing, even in places like Japan and Poland, let alone throughout Europe with Brexit and so forth. But a shift back in France, with Le Pen being defeated?

Sullivan — Well, you can see it as that. You can see it as a reprieve, and I would. But the forces underlying this are not going away. And the forces of this — that the economy is separating out a lot of people into two zones: college-educated and non-college-educated. And the non-college-educated, people who rely often on physical labor for their work and their livelihood, are really in the losing end of our current economy. At the same time, those who are college-educated, who are smart, have unprecedented access to wealth and they have managed to create in certain cities, including San Francisco to some extent, as well as New York, Washington, London, a sort of multicultural vibe in which very low-paid immigrants serve this very wealthy cognitive elite. And increasingly those places become their own bubbles. They don't even understand the people that are outside of it.

And increasingly those who are in the heartland also don't understand these people, but they know that they're elites. And they know that the elites in this country have been, at the very least, incompetent over the last 25 years. And they believe their country is being taken away from them. And that is a powerful recipe for reactionary politics. And we need to understand that. And I don't see any of those trends diminishing. I see them actually accelerating. I see the decline of the non-college-educated in the economy becoming worse and worse, aided and abetted by globalization and by technology and automation. I also see the influx of mass immigration in many countries intensifying, the demographics in each of those countries becoming different. I mean, for example, the most common baby boy's name in Britain right now is Mohammed. That's a real shift in what England means. And there's going to be a reaction to it.

Sullivan [on extremes of conservative support for the free market] — What the right is beginning to understand is; the market is not the ultimate authority, that we don't just live in an economy, we live in a country, and that politics always has to take precedence over economics. And that's always been a sort of tension within the right over the last 30 years. On the one hand, they have traditional values. On the other hand, they're in favor of free-market capitalism that erodes those values more quickly than any other force we've known in human history. They're in favor of a more homogeneous, coherent society and yet the needs for imported cheap labor have overruled and been allowed to completely trample any sense of the notion of a country with borders or a country that's dedicated to its own citizens more than to those abroad.

Sullivan [lamenting the intolerant left] — The intolerance and loathing and hatred of vast numbers of people who are generalized across the country — anybody outside the cities. The way in which I hear in Manhattan or in DC or in these liberal elite centers the contempt and what I can only call bigotry toward large numbers of people throughout the country. The idea that some poor, struggling, white, working-class man has to be reminded by an upper-middle class college student that he is in fact privileged is an assault. [Sullivan expresses understanding at those who are angry at] the over-reach and smugness and self-righteousness and near bigotry of many on the left toward, for example, ordinary religious people or people that want to see their country stay roughly as it was when they grew up. ... The reaction to it is incredibly powerful force here. It's cultural. ...

Studies that have come out ... that look into the motives of voters in the last election are coming to the conclusion that, yes, it's cultural anxiety that is really fueling this; a sense of beleaguerment, a sense of being held in contempt by those who are running the country. And they put Trump up. Really, he was a murder weapon. He was a way to say, "We don't care how completely moronic this person is because we are issuing a signal of distress. ... If 46 percent of the country vote for such a person, it is our duty and responsibility to understand that 46 percent and to engage, not condemn.

Sullivan [distinguishing the hard left from the moderate left] — I'm talking about the hard left here that controls Berkeley, that controls most campuses in this country and that tends to dominate the elite. ... The discourse seems to be driven increasingly by the radicals and by the extreme progressives. And so many liberals are too scared to take on the left, to say, "Hold on a minute. Why are you calling half the country bigots because they have a different point of view than you? And the intimidation factor is quite high. ... I think that understanding that other people might have a different point of view is critical for our liberal democracy to survive. It's not just Trump that's threatening it. It is the far right and the far left who are together setting the agenda in this country in a way that the center has been completely eclipsed. And the center must hold if our democracy is going to hold. Liberals have got to be more courageous in standing up to the left. And conservatives really have to be more upright in confronting Trump extremism.