Breaking Immigration Policy's Spiral of Silence

By Stanley Renshon on August 25, 2010

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a specialist in German public opinion research, published a book in 1984 with the University of Chicago Press, entitled The Spiral of Silence. In it, she tried to understand why ordinary Germans had not been more vocal in their opposition to the gradual rise and consolidation of Hitler's regime.

Her answer was that ordinary people were reluctant to express opinions that they thought were too different from those they thought constituted the majority of views out of fear of social stigma and isolation. Not hearing the controlled media or anyone else express a view contrary to supporting the regime, most of those who thought differently kept quiet. Their quiet self-censorship then became a self-fulfilling prophecy reinforcing the "prevailing" pro-Hitler view, and those who differed but kept quiet added their contribution to the Spiral of Silence.

Obviously, America is not Germany and current immigration debates are in no way comparable to the momentous life or death questions associated with the rise and consolidation of the Third Reich. Still, the Spiral of Silence is an apt conceptual aid to understanding the state of what has been in the United States a very one-sided immigration debate. That debate has, for the most part, been framed and discussed from the standpoint of bedrock assumptions that are most typically and legitimately associated with the political left.

All of those assumptions, in more or less strident or soft-peddled form, became the enforced conventional wisdom of American's immigration debates. I use the word "enforced" because the Spiral of Silence depends not only on ensuring that those who have dissenting thoughts to keep quiet about them, but also that those who do speak up are silenced.

The most effective way to do the first is to ensure that public debate toes the party line. That means invitations to conferences and debates aren't issued, or if they are they are such persons are sure to be in a very small minority (a ratio of three or four to one is typical), grants aren't funded, book proposals turned away, and positions in academia, think tanks, or news organization are a political gauntlet that few with different views survive. For those who survive these experiences with their views intact, there is always the marginalization of name-calling. "Anti-immigrant" is the kindest epithet that someone who disagrees with conventional immigration wisdom can expect.

The efforts to narrow the premises of the immigration debate and marginalize dissenting views have been remarkably successful up until recently. But there has been a dramatic and potentially debate-altering shift underway for the last few years.

A number of factors account for this. There has been the effective rise of conservative think tanks, radio and television news organizations, the demise of the traditional news outlets, and the rise of informed and effective web-based alternatives. But most of all the change has resulted from a determined and vocal effort by a lonely "minority" to challenge the conventional wisdom that another mass amnesty was necessary and inevitable as part of an immigration "grand bargain." That group included another lonely "minority" housed in the United States Senate, whose opposition side-tracked President Bush's 2007 bill that would have granted immediate amnesty to between ten and twelve million illegal immigrants.

I put the word minority in quotes because when, suddenly, the Spiral of Silence cracked, the minority found out that it was, actually, a majority. Americans found that amnesty was not inevitable. Moreover, many began to ask why it was necessary at all. Increasingly, Americans began to ask why the government couldn't control our own borders and keep unauthorized immigrants from getting jobs that legally they shouldn't have.

And suddenly, through the din of debate, Americans who had been wondering for many years about the wisdom of government immigration policies and the truthfulness of its immigration promises found that they were not alone:

  • Do you believe that the Federal government is not doing enough to secure the nation’s borders? Seventy-five percent of your fellow Americans agree with you.

  • Do you think that gaining control of American borders is more important than legalizing the status of undocumented workers in this country? Sixty-three percent of Americans agree with you.

  • Do you believe that illegal immigrants should "be prosecuted and deported for being in the U.S. illegally?" Sixty-nine percent of Americans agree with you.

  • Do you think that local police should be able stop and verify a person's immigration status if they come into contact with the police because of some infraction? Sixty percent of Americans agree with you.


One could add to this list, but the point is clear. There is now a major and quite vocal alternative voice speaking out against immigration policy's Spiral of Silence, and it is a majority voice.

It is the clear and long-silenced voice of the American people.