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Our polarized views on immigration

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from my book Defusing American Anger about our polarized views around immigration. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


One major reason many liberals see conservatives as xenophobic or racist is due to conservatives’ stances on immigration. Many conservatives want significantly lower levels of both legal and illegal immigration, and this is often framed as being related to racial or cultural bigotry. But there can be rational objections to immigration that don’t involve racial or cultural prejudice. 

And, on the other side, many liberals are pro-immigration, and those stances are often framed by conservatives as being for cynical reasons—like Democrat leaders wanting more votes—but it’s possible to see the genuine, compassionate reasons for why liberals have those stances. 

A belief that immigration hurts American wages

Bernie Sanders is a very politically progressive politician and yet he has, for most of his political career, supported drastically reducing immigration, both legal and illegal. The following is from a 2020 piece by Nicole Narea: 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sees himself as a champion of American workers first and foremost. For years, that also made the third-term senator reflexively skeptical of increased immigration, viewing it as a potential threat to American jobs and wages.

Sanders broke with prominent Democrats to oppose a key comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007 that would have provided a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the US. He opposed measures to increase the number of guest workers and offer green cards to citizens of countries with low levels of immigration. And he once voted for an amendment supporting a group of vigilantes that sought to take immigration enforcement into their own hands along the border (though he has since disavowed the group.)

Whether immigrants actually drive down wages for American workers, or put them out of jobs entirely, is a question that continues to divide economists. But Sanders’s public statements and voting records over his nearly three-decade career in Congress suggest he thinks they do—a belief historically shared by American labor groups but an uneasy fit with a modern Democratic Party positioning itself against President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Sanders has called “open borders” policies “a “Koch brothers proposal.” The following is from a 2015 article by Dylan Matthews: 

The idea, he argued, is a right-wing scheme meant to flood the US with cheap labor and depress wages for native-born workers. "I think from a moral responsibility, we've got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty," he conceded, "but you don't do that by making people in this country even poorer." 

(A note on the open borders language: it’s important to recognize the ambiguity in this term. An open borders policy simply means one in which legal travel across the border is pretty easy and border security is pretty light. It doesn’t imply that there are no restrictions at all. For that reason, there are a range of stances that different people can qualify as open borders stances, from fairly comprehensive security and restrictions to almost no restrictions. But the open term can make it sound like it’s a belief in no restrictions whatsoever, and this perception may be adding to our divides. I’ve sometimes seen conservatives who interpret that term in that way, and this drives their perception of liberal stances. From the other side, it’s possible to see how some liberals, in seeing other liberals express support for “open borders” policies, and believing that to mean “no restrictions at all,” may be unintentionally influenced to have more “no restrictions at all”-type stances.)

After being anti-immigration for so many years, in recent years Bernie Sanders has adjusted his views on immigration and become more aligned with the Democratic party. This is often described by liberal pundits as Sanders’ views “evolving”. For example, the following is from Nicole Narea’s Vox article: “As Sanders runs for president for a second time, though, his views have evolved to integrate his old-school labor protectionism with a more diverse and pro-immigration Democratic Party.” 

In Ezra Klein’s book on polarization, he writes: 

Sander’s evolution on these issues reflects both the broader trajectory of white American liberals and the strategic incentives facing any candidate trying to win the Democratic primary. Joe Biden, for his part, spent much of the early primary praising Obama’s leadership while distancing himself from the Obama administration’s early deportations (a policy Obama himself had disavowed by the end of his presidency). Being a national Democrat in 2020 means holding positions on race and immigration that would’ve been considered lethal as recently as 2008.

We can see some bias in these framings. Is it objectively accurate that switching to the current Democrat party stance on immigration is an “evolution”? As we’ll examine, there are rational arguments to be found on each side about immigration. 

And are we sure that Sanders actually abandoned a position he steadfastly held for such a long time? Or is it possible he saw that it was simply a politically expedient decision that he deemed necessary in the current political environment? 

Hopefully you can see that Sanders’ immigration-critical stance is likely not motivated by bigotry. And if you can see that, hopefully that makes the case that wanting stricter immigration controls does not inherently indicate xenophobia or racism. All it requires is a belief that an influx of immigrants, due to their willingness to work more cheaply than the average American citizen, will result in reducing American wages. 

And even if you believe the data and research don’t support that stance, hopefully you can see how it’s an understandable point of view. Viewed from just a basic economics point of view, an influx of cheap labor would, all things being equal, seem to lower wages. Obviously it doesn’t mean that that stance is right—clearly things are often much more complex than they seem on the surface—but hopefully you can see how a rational person is able to believe that. 

Immigrants don’t only fill low-income jobs. Legal immigrants are employed in a lot of our high-paying technology and engineering jobs. It’s possible to see how there can be an incentive for American companies to hire immigrants for skilled jobs if they’re willing to work for less. Again, even if you don’t agree that that’s a problem, it’s possible to see how one might perceive that immigrants are also taking skilled jobs that would have otherwise gone to Americans, and that this can also be lowering wages. 

In a 2016 Politico piece titled Yes, Immigration Hurts American Workers, George Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, made the case that both political sides tend to tell only part of the story, and miss the nuance of the reality of immigration. As he put it: 

Here’s the problem with the current immigration debate: Neither side is revealing the whole picture. Trump might cite my work, but he overlooks my findings that the influx of immigrants can potentially be a net good for the nation, increasing the total wealth of the population. Clinton ignores the hard truth that not everyone benefits when immigrants arrive. For many Americans, the influx of immigrants hurts their prospects significantly.

This second message might be hard for many Americans to process, but anyone who tells you that immigration doesn’t have any negative effects doesn’t understand how it really works. When the supply of workers goes up, the price that firms have to pay to hire workers goes down. Wage trends over the past half-century suggest that a 10 percent increase in the number of workers with a particular set of skills probably lowers the wage of that group by at least 3 percent. Even after the economy has fully adjusted, those skill groups that received the most immigrants will still offer lower pay relative to those that received fewer immigrants.

Both low- and high-skilled natives are affected by the influx of immigrants. But because a disproportionate percentage of immigrants have few skills, it is low-skilled American workers, including many blacks and Hispanics, who have suffered most from this wage dip. The monetary loss is sizable. The typical high school dropout earns about $25,000 annually. According to census data, immigrants admitted in the past two decades lacking a high school diploma have increased the size of the low-skilled workforce by roughly 25 percent. As a result, the earnings of this particularly vulnerable group dropped by between $800 and $1,500 each year.

But that’s only one side of the story. Somebody’s lower wage is always somebody else’s higher profit. In this case, immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants—from the employee to the employer. And the additional profits are so large that the economic pie accruing to all natives actually grows. I estimate the current “immigration surplus”—the net increase in the total wealth of the native population—to be about $50 billion annually. But behind that calculation is a much larger shift from one group of Americans to another: The total wealth redistribution from the native losers to the native winners is enormous, roughly a half-trillion dollars a year. Immigrants, too, gain substantially; their total earnings far exceed what their income would have been had they not migrated.

In short, these things are complicated, and the more one is aware of that, the more it’s possible to see simplistic us-versus-them takes on this issue as contributing to our divides.

Mexican border concerns 

Aside from economic concerns, there are rational and well meaning concerns about what it means for America that we have so many illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border. In the fiscal year of 2021, there were a very large number of illegal immigrants taken into custody: 1.6 million. That’s a rough average of 138,000 people arrested per month, or roughly 4,500 per day.  

If you’re liberal, you might be wondering, “Why do people care about this so much? Is this really a problem?” Here are some of the reasons people care about these issues:

  • The possible negative economic impacts to American workers (previously discussed). 

  • Tax dollars spent on services used by illegal immigrants, such as education and medical care, law enforcement, and incarceration. The main concern here is that illegal immigrants don’t pay income tax. Some conservative groups give estimates for how much illegal immigration costs various states, ranging from around $1 billion per year in Arizona, to $20 billion per year in California. (Some pro-immigration research examines how illegal immigrants may actually increase U.S. wealth by adding to revenues in various ways but there can be debates about that. Even if wealth is added, is it primarily adding to the profits of big business owners and others who are already wealthy? How much is that actually helping poor and middle-class Americans?)

  • Concerns about crime. There are a significant number of illegal immigrants in federal prison. Also, a lot of fentanyl and meth is known to come up from Mexico. Research has shown that illegal immigrants commit crimes at lower numbers than citizens (likely due, at least in part, to not wanting to be deported) but it’s understandable that some people feel that any amount of crime that can be reduced with stricter immigration policies is too much, even if it’s relatively uncommon. (We can see this concern as comparable to how liberals can be very concerned about violence that affects a racial minority group, no matter how statistically unlikely.) 

  • Concerns about terrorists entering America. 

With regards to concerns about crime and terrorism, the very large number of illegal immigrants arrested at the border can be concerning, considering that it likely points to there being a pretty high number of people who are not caught. And considering that committed criminals and terrorists are likely to be amongst the most skilled and coordinated border crossers, it’s possible the people not being caught include some of the more dangerous people. 

One way to see how anti-immigration views don’t require bigotry is to consider anti-immigrant sentiment in South America. A 2017 piece on was titled Anti-immigration rhetoric spreads across Latin America, and discussed this kind of rhetoric in Argentina and Chile. In a 2017 Guardian piece about Argentina, it talked about how some Argentinians want to build a wall on the Bolivian border, to address concerns about crime and drugs. In Chile, a 2016 poll by the organization Cadem found that 75% of those surveyed said Chile should adopt stricter immigration policies, and 45 percent said immigration was bad for the nation. 

Again, it’s possible to debate the validity or importance of all of the points mentioned. But the point for our purposes is only that it’s possible to see how rational, well meaning people can have these concerns. We tend to overcomplicate these arguments: it’s very easy to understand why it is that people can be upset that many poor people are coming into their country.

One Trump supporter I talked with told me: “I get very mad when liberals say that conservatives are bigoted because of our stances on immigration. I’d bet good money that I’ve donated much more to immigrant and refugee charities than your average liberal.” And this kind of frustration is common. 

On the other hand, if you’re conservative and have that frustration, it’s worth thinking about how the belligerent and insulting language of Trump and other Republican leaders and citizens is part of what forms liberal perceptions about these things. 


For many liberals, conservative-side views on immigration seem especially callous when considering the massive number of struggling refugees in the world. The thinking can go, “Those conservatives don’t want to help suffering refugees; they must be heartless.” 

But many conservatives see their own compassion as what drives their views on these issues. They see themselves in the position of having to take a “tough love” approach to the refugee topic (and on many topics in general). It’s not that they don’t care about refugees, they’d say, but that they don’t think it’s feasible to help a significant number of refugees without damaging America and Americans in the process. They can view America as a metaphorical ship surrounded by thousands of drowning people, and perceive a risk of those drowning people overturning the ship and hurting everyone. 

A good summary of conservative views on this topic can be found in a well known video from 1996 made by Roy Beck. Beck is the founder and president of the organization NumbersUSA, which criticizes liberal-side stances on immigration. I wanted to include Beck’s points because I think they can help liberals see the well meaning concerns conservatives can have on these topics. In his video, Beck uses gumballs to make his points in a visual way. He says the following: 

This gumball represents the 1 million legal immigrants that the United States has taken every year on average since 1990. 

Now who in the world deserves our humanitarian compassion? The World Bank has one measure of the desperately poor of the world. They make less than $2 a day. And how many people make less than $2 a day in the world? We'll start with Africa. In Africa alone there are 650 million people who make less than $2 a day, 650 million. And in India another 890 million people are desperately poor. China adds another 480 million people making less than $2 a day and unfortunately the rest of Asia has a heartbreaking 810 million people who the World Bank says make less than $2 a day. And finally there's 105 million of Latin America's population that are desperately poor. 

All total, the World Bank says that there are 3 billion people in the world: 3 billion people who are desperately poor, making less than $2 a day. That's 3 thousand gumballs. And every year we take a million and suggest that we've somehow made a humanitarian difference. 

Of course, we don't pull our immigrants from these desperately poor populations, do we? These people are too poor, too sick, too disconnected to make it here as immigrants. We tend to pull our immigrants out of the better off poor of the world. And Mexico tends to define the type of immigrant we bring here because the plurality of people come here from Mexico and Mexico is poor. How many people in the world live in countries that have average incomes lower than that of Mexico? The World Bank tells us that that number is these [previously counted] 3 billion, plus another 2.6 billion people. 5.6 billion people in the world who live in countries with average incomes below that of Mexico. That's 5,600 gumballs.

So what is it the elites are telling us? They're telling us when we take this 1 million immigrants that we somehow or another are tackling world poverty and we have to do it regardless of the effect on our unemployed, the working poor, the most vulnerable members of our society. Regardless of the effect on our natural resources. 

Even if we went by the most radical proposals in Washington, which are to actually double our immigration to 2 million a year, which would totally overwhelm our physical, natural, and social infrastructure, we couldn't make a noticeable difference. 

And we may be really hurting the impoverished people of the world because the million that we do take are among the most energetic, often the better educated, certainly the most dissatisfied people that if they did not immigrate would be the agents for change to improve the lot of all the people in these countries. The true heroes in the global humanitarian field are the people in these countries who have the wherewithal to immigrate to another country but instead stay in their countries to apply their skills to help their fellow countrymen.

Unfortunately, our immigration system tends to entice these very type of people to abandon their countrymen. The impossibility of making even a dent is actually worse than it looks here because last year when we took 1 million immigrants, these countries added, births over deaths, 80 million more people into the impoverished population.

And this year Congress is bringing in a million legal immigrants and this year according to the United Nations these countries are expected to add another 80 million people and next year you can be quite sure that Congress unless stopped by the American voters will bring in another million immigrants and these countries unfortunately will be adding another 80 million people into these impoverished nations.

We could take 5 million a year but we'd never get ahead of what's happening in these countries. Not in this century.

Again, we can disagree with these stances, and you can find smart and knowledgeable people who do, but the point for our purposes is being able to see why conservatives can see their stances on immigration as stemming from compassion, and a belief that they are facing tough realities that liberals don’t want to face. 

Views that immigration can make society less cohesive

Conservatives also often want lower rates of legal immigration, not just illegal immigration. This can add to the liberal perception that conservatives are motivated by xenophobia. What could be wrong, the liberal thinking goes, with more legal immigrants and more diversity? 

But there are some intellectual theories about how a high number of immigrants and a lot of ethnic diversity can hurt a society in various ways. In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, he has a section about the way in which community bonds are formed and how they can be frayed. And because this is an important topic, I’ll share a rather long passage from it: 

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. 

Conservatives understand this point. Edmund Burke said it in 1790: 

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

Adam Smith argued similarly that patriotism and parochialism are good things because they lead people to exert themselves to improve the things they can improve: 

That wisdom which contrived the system of human affections… seems to have judged that the interest of the great society of mankind would be best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it, which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding.

Now that’s [utilitarianism aligning with sociologist Emile Durkheim’s ideas]. It’s utilitarianism done by somebody who understands human groupishness. 

Robert Putnam has provided a wealth of evidence that Burke and Smith were right. In the previous chapter I told you about his finding that religions make Americans into “better neighbors and better citizens.” I told you his conclusion that the active ingredient that made people more virtuous was enmeshing them into relationships with their co-religionists. Anything that binds people together into dense networks of trust makes people less selfish. 

In an earlier study, Putnam found that ethnic diversity had the opposite effect. In a paper revealingly titled “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. That may not surprise you; people are racist, you might think, and so they don’t trust people who don’t look like themselves. But that’s not quite right. Putnam’s survey was able to distinguish two different kinds of social capital: bridging capital refers to trust between groups, between people who have different values and identities, while bonding capital refers to trust within groups. Putnam found that diversity reduced both kinds of social capital. Here’s his conclusion: 

Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle. 

Putnam uses Durkheim’s ideas (such as anomie) to explain why diversity makes people turn inward and become more selfish, less interested in contributing to their communities. What Putnam calls turtling is the exact opposite of what I have called hiving

Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race, and more recently on sexual orientation). But their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital. 

[Haidt includes some examples here.] 

On issue after issue, it’s as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive. Such “reforms” may lower the overall welfare of a society, and sometimes they even hurt the very victims liberals were trying to help. 

(If you haven’t already read The Righteous Mind, and if you’re serious about understanding political conflicts, I highly recommend it. For anyone interested in depolarization, it’s an important work.)

One obvious aspect of how a highly ethnically diverse population might reduce societal bonds is that it becomes harder for people to talk to each other. Studies have shown that groups of people who don’t speak the same language have a harder time solving problems (for example, a paper by W. Quin Yow titled Sharing the same languages helps us work better together). This point may seem obvious, but it’s seldom mentioned in mainstream liberal-leaning culture. 

These communication difficulties can impact many aspects of society. To take one example: it makes teaching harder. A 2018 piece from the education site was titled Educators face new challenges in 'superdiverse' classrooms where multiple languages are spoken. “The report includes a survey of 173 teachers in the SEAL program and highlights common challenges teachers face in superdiverse classrooms.” The article says that “one of the most common challenges teachers face is difficulty communicating with families.” These types of problems can result in people thinking high diversity can result in the children in these settings receiving a worse education. 

In the book Alienated America, Tim Carney makes the case that social isolation was a key factor in early support for Donald Trump. He writes:

Some analysts concluded that Trump support and anti-immigration sentiment were highest where immigration was lowest; this analysis fed the conclusion that Trumpy immigrant haters were ignorant rural whites getting their attitudes from too much Fox News. 

This analysis, though, was too simple, and thus flawed. There was a complicating factor here. It turns out that immigrants flock to wealthy places, where the jobs are, and those wealthy places were places where Trump did poorly. 

Look at Virginia, for instance. The two counties with the highest immigrant population are Fairfax and Loudoun Counties right near D.C., with 32 percent of Loudoun being foreign-born, according to the 2010 census. Sure enough, Fairfax and Loudon were Trump’s two worst counties in the GOP primaries: He lost them by 15 and 12 points respectively while carrying the whole state. 

So what if we controlled for income and education? That is, what if we separated out counties by income and education, and within those groups, we compared Trump votes and immigrant population. 

Political scientists Brian Arbour and Jeremy Teigen did something like that (but more complicated). Looking at all the early GOP primary states, they found that controlling for income and education, the higher the immigrant population, the higher the Trump support. 

Put simply, among wealthy counties, those with a higher portion of immigrants voted more for Trump. Among middle-class counties, too, those with a higher portion of immigrants voted more for Trump in the early GOP primaries. And so on. 

If Arbour and Teigen are correct, it tells us something about alienation. The simplest conclusion is that native-born voters in high-immigrant places were part of Trump’s early core support, backing him in the primaries over the other Republicans such as Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich. 

If the early Trump vote was an expression of alienation and a reaction to weakening community ties, this makes sense. It’s not that immigrants are bad at community—you could say the opposite, because immigrants who live near immigrants of the same background tend to be more close-knit than average Americans. Instead, we can say that new immigrants in a community, especially in a smaller community, can make community solidarity and cooperation harder to achieve. 

Most obviously, there’s the Tower of Babel effect. While hearing many languages as you walk down the streets of Geneva or Manhattan can be exhilarating, a common language is a pretty fundamental condition of community. Literally being able to speak to others, especially in one’s first language, is pretty important for forming bonds and doing things together. [emphasis added]

Also, people born in different parts of the world will have different customs, traditions, and celebrations. This presents challenges to group cohesion. 

Again, none of this is meant to make the case that immigration or diversity is bad, but it is just to show how there can be well meaning and legitimate arguments against high immigration rates, and having those views doesn’t mean one is a bad person. Some immigration-skeptical stances can be seen as being driven by compassion, just as liberal-side stances can be, but with a compassion that’s defined and applied in different ways.  

Beliefs that Democrats are pro-immigration to get votes 

One contributing reason for conservative stances on immigration is likely the simple fact that immigrants are more likely to vote for Democrats. This alone would probably be sufficient to explain a lot of conservative-side immigration stances, especially the stances of Republican political leaders. 

If you’re liberal, let’s examine this from a different angle: let’s imagine a world in which immigrants were more likely to vote Republican. 

And if this strikes you as outlandish, it may not be as strange an idea as you think. Remember that there was a substantial increase in Trump support amongst racial minorities between 2016 and 2020. Additionally, many immigrants are from cultures that are fairly traditional and conservative in nature. To quote from a 2020 article in the New York Times: 

Across the United States, many areas with large populations of Latinos and residents of Asian descent, including ones with the highest numbers of immigrants, had something in common this election: a surge in turnout and a shift to the right, often a sizable one.

So let’s say that somehow, however it happened, immigrants were most likely to vote Republican. It’s easy to imagine a rapid waning of liberal support for immigration, when faced with the fact that the more immigrants we accept, the more elections Democrats would lose. 

In that imagined world, it’s possible to imagine Republicans using language like, “Immigrants, with their respect for traditional values and dedication to their families, are helping make America great again,” while Democrats would use language like, “Republicans are cynically using immigrants like pawns to advance their agenda.”

Many conservatives do genuinely believe that Democrat leaders are using immigration as a political tool, to gain and retain power. This is often a talking point of conservative media. For example, Tucker Carlson has espoused this view about Democrat strategies. Here’s a snippet from his show: 

Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement—if you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the third world. But they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually. Let's just say it. That's true.

Liberals will often frame these kinds of conservative-side narratives as promoting a “white replacement theory,” which is an idea common amongst white supremacists that there’s a conspiratorial agenda to eliminate white people. Carlson has defended himself and said that he’s not promoting racist ideas. One of the quotes he used to defend himself was that “the U.S. would be better off if Brown University’s upper-middle-class student population were replaced with industrious Nigerian immigrants.” 

The pertinent question for depolarization purposes is: Is it racist or xenophobic to believe that Democrats’ policies on immigration may be partly motivated by cynical motivations to try to get more votes? Is it racist or xenophobic to want to reduce immigration if doing so helps your political party win more elections? 

When it comes to beliefs that Democrat leaders are using immigration to get votes, you might think that’s not correct and even downright paranoid. Or you may believe that Republicans are just using such concerns as an excuse, and don’t actually believe such things. But hopefully you can see how a rational person might come to believe such things. Anything that makes it harder for a political party to win elections will inevitably be a major driver of that party’s us-versus-them beliefs and rhetoric. 

On the left, there can be a framing that aggregates all these kinds of views under one roof. For example, that would mean viewing Tucker Carlson’s statements about the Democrat party “replacing” voters as equivalent to white supremacist views that there’s an attempt to make white people go extinct. 

But for any issue we’re very polarized around, it’s possible to see a spectrum of beliefs and animosity there. For example, for liberal-side beliefs about police and racial justice, it’s possible to see a spectrum ranging from the more measured and rational to the more extreme, irrational, and violent. And some conservatives will try to lump all of this together. This would mean, for example, blaming liberal-side anti-police and anti-racism rhetoric as being directly related to, for example, the actions of the Dallas, Texas cop killer who killed five police officers.

We could do similar things for any other issue we’re highly polarized around. For abortion: we could take violence done by people on either side and tie it to the rhetoric of the activists on that side. For trans issues: we could take the worst behaviors of people on both sides and tie it to the wider us-versus-them rhetoric of that side. 

So with that in mind, it’s good for us to recognize that there will always be these spectrums, and there will always be people on any side of an issue capable of being on the more extreme and radicalized ends of those spectrums. And we should avoid, as much as we can, our instinct to view the other group as “all the same” just because their rhetoric can be similar. 

There can be perceptions that Tucker Carlson, and others, are being deceptive: that they couldn’t possibly believe that Democrats are trying to use immigrants for votes, and that they’re simply using such divisive narratives to rile up anger and get votes. And that amplifies our anger. “Not only are they promoting hateful narratives,” we think, “they’re lying, too!” And yes, it’s possible that Carlson and many other people are lying. But we simply don’t know that. The nature of polarization is that it makes us more paranoid about the other side: it makes people on both sides think the other side is often being deceptive.

So I’d argue that we should tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, and engage with their ideas seriously, because often, we’ll find that people on the other side really do believe these things, just as we believe things that the other side interprets as strange and deceptive.

For conservatives: it’s worth recognizing that Tucker Carlson, and others, who use words like “replacement” are using the same language that’s used in white supremacist circles. This is related to a belief that there’s a grand, hidden conspiracy by powerful forces to literally make white people go extinct, and a belief that white people need to fight back against this plot. And these kinds of beliefs have been held by some far-right mass murderers, including the person who killed ten black people in Buffalo, New York in 2022, and the person who killed 51 people in 2019 in New Zealand, and the person who killed 20 people in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. Considering how this “replacement” language is known to be associated with such disgusting beliefs, you’d think that Tucker and others might attempt to make the points they want to make without using that language. 

Considering this association, it’s not at all surprising that Carlson’s decision to use this language provokes criticism and anger. You should consider the possibility that Carlson, and others who use similar language, are fully aware of this connection, and know that it will speak to some of the most angry people on their side, and also, in the process, rile up liberals. You should be willing to consider that there’s the possibility that they do desire all this riling. 

If you’re conservative and want America to heal, you should consider that maybe we need more conservatives willing to criticize these kinds of things. But, as we know, and as you can likely feel in your own life, it takes a lot of bravery to criticize your own side. It’s easy to understand why few of us are brave enough to do it. 

When I talked to one Trump voter, he told me about his immense distrust for Democrat leaders, that he felt “they would do anything to get elected.” One of the things he held up to make his point was the 2022 New York City law that, for local, municipal elections, gave the right to vote to 800,000 non-citizens: people who were legal permanent residents. To him, and to many conservatives, this law made it clear what Democrats true goals were and what they were willing to do to win. 

And that law has been controversial even amongst liberals. A piece in The Atlantic by Russell Berman about this law and the controversy was titled The Voting Rights Debate Democrats Don’t Want To Have. It talked about Democrat leaders’ silence on this, which seemed to be about some embarrassment and views that the law had gone too far. To quote from that article: 

“It is a fraught debate,” Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at New York University’s Migration Policy Institute, told me. “It has actually gotten less introspection in New York City than it deserves, and I think part of it is that it is politically incorrect to raise doubts about anything that on its face looks pro-immigrant.”

The article described quite a few liberal-side criticisms that the law went too far, even though not much was said publicly by liberals about it. And here we can see some of the effects of polarization. When a topic involves a highly polarized issue, we tend to avoid questioning the passionate activists on our side, even when we may disagree with them. 

And maybe worth mentioning for conservatives who viewed this law as a sign of things to come: In June of 2022, that law was struck down by a state judge for violating the state constitution, and I haven’t seen any more news about similar laws being passed. This is to say: often we can have highly pessimistic, sky-is-falling views that are informed by our emotions and that are completely unrealistic. 

Hopefully all of this has helped some liberals better understand what it is that scares Trump voters, and to see what they’re using to build their narratives about the left. For what it’s worth, my personal belief is that many of these conservative views about Democrats’ using immigration are wrong and cynical. Some are irresponsible and dangerous. But I think it’s also possible to see how our polarized environment naturally leads to many pessimistic interpretations. 

How Trump’s immigration rhetoric can hurt conservative goals 

As discussed earlier in the section on race, I believe there’s much to criticize about Trump and his supporters for their often hateful and divisive language. 

I’ll talk more about Trump himself in a bit, but if you’re a conservative who wants to lower immigration, it’s worth thinking about how Trump may have hurt conservative goals on immigration.

For one thing: by using so much us-versus-them and me-versus-them language, Trump has probably caused more liberals to be adamantly pro-immigration. Liberals became significantly more pro-immigration in their views starting in 2016 (and some other shifts towards more liberal stances might also be explained as responses to Trump). It’s easy to imagine a leader with Trump’s same stances but with a less polarizing communication style: that person would be better able to persuade people, or at least make people less likely to hate them and their beliefs.

Trump has also lost support amongst some of his most anti-immigration supporters for not being effective at the things he promised his supporters. For example, conservative pundit Ann Coulter has harshly criticized Trump for what she views as his stupidity and lack of political skill. 

And a major reason Trump had trouble making political headway on that topic is that his behavior is so polarizing. (And one could make similar points about Trump’s inability to accomplish other things, like his failure to overturn and replace Obamacare.)

If you’re someone who’s angry that liberals denigrate you for your immigration stances, consider how Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants, which is often divisive, may contribute to those perceptions. Consider how there are Trump supporters who speak in bigoted, hateful, or even just mean ways about immigrants, and how those people contribute to liberals’ perceptions. Hopefully this book convinces you of how important it is for more of us to speak up and criticize the divisive language of people on our side. 

And it may help if you’re able to see that immigration is a complex debate with points on both sides. To take just one example of a lesser-heard pro-immigration debate that might appeal to some conservatives: If you’re someone worried about how America might fare in its future competition with China, and other countries, there’s an argument that we may need a lot more immigration to remain competitive. The book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger is by Matthew Yglesias and was published in 2020. In that book, he argues that in order for America to compete with China and India and stay relevant, we should attempt to gain many more citizens. 

Liberal-side news coverage of immigration topics 

When it comes to understanding why conservatives are often so frustrated and angry at liberal-leaning mainstream media, it can help to look at how such outlets have covered immigration topics. You’d be hard-pressed to find much examination in the New York Times or the Washington Post or on CNN of some of the understandable concerns people can have about immigration. 

There’s occasionally some discussion of these topics, but mostly liberal-leaning mainstream outlets discuss anti-immigration stances from the angle of xenophobia and anxiety about cultural change. You won’t find much serious examination of the more rational concerns I’ve included in this section. And this avoidance and denigration of conservative points of view can be seen as a piece of our polarization puzzle.

This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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