Open Borders or Build a Wall? The Democratic Party’s Crisis of Vision
Last month, Americans flooded airports across the country to protest President Trump’s travel ban. The protests were a spontaneous outpouring of anger, but many protesters struggled to articulate why they were so angry. Some spoke of the value of religious tolerance while others of the duty to protect refugees. Democratic Party leaders rushed to call the ban “un-American,” but the US government has long restricted the free movement of peoples into the United States. While West Virginians have the right to move to New York City for work, Mexicans do not. This is the central premise of the nation-state system that we have all been part of for our entire lives.
The Trump ban, though, felt different. Trump claimed the ban’s purpose was to make America “safe,” but the ban was obviously not about safety in any immediate sense. When Trump said “security,” he really meant security from demographic change. Sometime between 2040 and 2050, the United States will stop being a majority white country. The vision behind Trump’s ban, indeed, behind many of his ideas, is simple: to stop this from happening. Yet Trump’s white nationalism has left the country divided because many people living in the United States do not fit in his definition of “we the people” or don’t want to live in that country. But what is our alternate vision for the future? Democrats, we are all looking at you.
Trump’s election was both uniquely American and completely typical. From South Africa to Great Britain, from India to the United States, the world is struggling through another period of radical nationalism. This crisis is often mischaracterized as a response to “globalization,” which has created “winners” and “losers,” but the world has always been an interconnected globe. The Silk Road came long before NAFTA.
The era during which we all grew up, an era of unprecedented international and regional cooperation, is better seen as a struggle between opposing visions. In the first vision, international cooperation between states will lead to the peaceful settlement of disputes and prosperity for all. In the second vision, confrontation between empires inevitably produces an ever-shifting constellation of winners and losers through a never-ending process of devastating war. Under the first vision, cooperation between states is essential for our survival. Under the second, it is a fool’s errand. “We don’t win anymore,” Trump tells us.
Trump’s vision stands in stark contrast to the visions of world leaders in the period following World War II. The organization of the world into competing empires had brought nothing but war, colonization and misery. Envisioning a different future, the Roosevelts pushed for the creation of the United Nations to check the power of the Soviet Union, China and the United States. Meanwhile, leaders of colonial independence feared the division and recolonization of Africa by these new empires. In West Africa, Leopold Sedar Senghor, poet, statesman and Senegalese politician, railed against the “Balkanization” of Africa.
Calling for “diversity within unity,” Senghor laid out an alternate vision of Africa’s future: a federation of African states. Africans would be organized around “la patrie,” or traditional communities, which would be united by free movement, trade and common use of a single language. But the United Nations was unable to diffuse the Cold War and Africa was again caught up in a Great Game between empires. In 2016, Senghor’s vision of pan-Africanism has been revived in the form of an African Passport promising visa free travel within the African Union, the first step toward regional integration, if African states are willing.
Like Senghor, European leaders envisioned a future federation of European states to end the cycle of devastating war that had plagued the continent for centuries: the European Union. As visionary Jean Monnet, a long-time advocate of European integration, put it, “There will be no peace in Europe, if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty…” After a series of devastating wars in the former Yugoslavia, many of the countries in the Balkans are now in the process of becoming EU members, much to the consternation of Vladimir Putin. For what can the fading Russian Empire offer its people that the prosperous European Union cannot? Yet despite its success at keeping the peace in Western Europe, the European project is now under threat. Emmanuel Macron, an independent and newcomer to French politics, has called for a new vision of France’s future, one which recommits to internationalism and the European project. “We must once more dare to dream of Europe…”
Senghor, like Monnet, envisioned a future world united by a common set of principles, a united vision, a “dialogue of cultures, a meeting of giving and receiving.” That was a different time. Today, many people see international cooperation and the free movement of peoples not as part of a humanist vision for the future, but as deranged and dangerous fantasies. Yet it is nationalism that is the fantasy, as there has never been a mono-cultural country without immigration or the movement of peoples. Jon Stewart, the American political commentator, said recently that “America isn’t natural” because it is a nation of immigrants. But all nations are nations of immigrants. Where is this “natural” country of which he speaks? The rise of “nationalism” throughout the world masks the complex reality of the global system of nation-states, where the divide between “us” and “them” is rarely simple, the definition of a “nation” impossible to pin down, and “nationalism” is used by fading empires to justify war. “We are going to win, bigly,” Trump says, without explaining the enormous price in blood and money that must accompany the sort of “winning” he means.
A ban on Muslim immigration, a wall on the border with Mexico, a reduction in visas, the end of NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and an ever larger military make up Trump’s vision of America First. Instead of Franklin and Eleanor, Trump gave us Teddy charging up a hill. It’s a vision we have seen before, harking back to that earlier age of empire and colonies, of toy soldiers on a board, of the white man’s burden. It’s an age the Roosevelts, Senghor and Monnet tried to put behind us. But though Trump’s vision is backward looking, a vision of jackboots, bayonets and pith helmets, it is a vision nonetheless, and can only be countered by another vision of equal strength. And here we come to the crux of the problem.
While Trump burned down the Republican platform, the Democratic Party in 2016 was utterly at a loss, caught between competing and contradictory visions. Was the Democratic Party’s vision of America the global humanism of the Roosevelts, the “nation of immigrants”? Or was it, rather, a watered-down, nationalism-lite? The primary, ordinarily a snooze-fest of politicians offering multiple versions of the same muddle, exploded with surprising rancor. While Hillary Clinton dutifully trotted out Comprehensive Immigration Reform, that bugbear of the Democratic platform, where people who violate the law are not criminals, free movement must be paid for on the black market and the economy depends on prohibited activities, Bernie Sanders took everyone by surprise. Suddenly, an alternative vision of who “we” are was being offered not only by the political far-right, but also by the far-left. Under Sanders, “we” were now factory workers left behind by globalization. Multiculturalism was a distraction and “identity politics,” a term previously reserved for conservative commentators, was now being used by pundits on both sides. Blindsided immigration advocates held signs at rallies with an increasing air of desperation. Democrats who had never read the Trans-Pacific Partnership shouted at each other about it on Facebook.
The party was at war with itself, adrift without a clear vision. Were the Democrats internationalist or isolationist? Was America a nation of immigrants or the white working class? Did American workers automatically loose whenever foreign workers gained? Were “we” involved in some sort of death struggle with “them”? Throughout it all, Clinton kept smiling away, as though the rage uniting the left and right could be diffused through excessive politeness. “Stronger Together” remained an incomplete sentence, lacking a subject.
Then a bombshell hit. In a leaked email quoting a private speech, Clinton said: “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, sometime in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.” Here seemed to be the bold vision hidden behind the empty-sounding “Stronger Together,” a vision that united NAFTA with free movement throughout the entire region, an “American Union.” Yet the secrecy surrounding the statement made it seem like the Clintons were trying to sneak the future through the back door. Those sneaky Clintons! NAFTA had only been the start, soon there would be taco trucks on every corner, menus would be in Spanish and “we” wouldn’t have a job! Voters from the far right to the far left erupted in anger and Clinton quickly disavowed her statements. The Democratic Party was most emphatically not for open borders. International cooperation was quietly buried in the backyard. But what will fill this vacuum of vision remains to be seen. “For where there is not vision the people perish,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said, in a very different time.