Brexit, Sovereignty, Identity and American Politics

Brexit, Sovereignty, Identity and American Politics

There has been some interesting speculation about the lessons of Brexit for the November elections in the U.S. Some point to the role immigration has played in both campaigns as evidence that Brexit foreshadows what will happen here this fall.

My own cloudy crystal ball suggests that, while immigration policy is likely to play a role, the apparent power of the issue for the Brexit vote is not indicative of a similar power here. There are two fundamental reasons for my murky forecast.

First, many of the objections to immigration policy in the UK had much to do with the immigration policies of the European Union. Even people who were not deeply troubled by immigrant flows might have objected to the extent to which British policy on immigration was determined by its relationship to the EU, rather than by exclusively national interests. National sovereignty was and remains one of the themes of the anti-EU movement, not only in the UK, but on the Continent.

No analogous issue exists for the U.S. The federal government determines our policy with regard to immigration; the Constitution grants that authority. National sovereignty simply is not at stake. The question of immigration for the U.S., in other words, is simply a question of immigration.

In addition to national sovereignty, national identity appears to have played a role in the Brexit vote, and national identity has been an issue here as well. Yet even this analogy is complicated by the distinct differences in what constitutes the national identity of the two countries.

According to the 2011 official census, 86% of the population of England and Wales is “white,” with the overwhelming majority of those (93.5% of all whites; 80% of the total population) classified as “white British.” In other words, for a super-super majority of British voters, appeals to a British white national identity would be appeals to their identity (whether individuals embraced that appeal or not).

By comparison, the 2010 U.S. census revealed that 72.4% of the U.S. population is “white” . . . a super-majority, but less than three-quarters of all residents. And the “white American” identity is rather complicated. The 2000 census indicated that the largest single group of European “whites” in the United States is of German ancestry, followed by Irish, English, Italian, Polish and French (other countries contributed substantially smaller numbers).

My point: even if we focus exclusively on “whites,” the sense of a shared “national” identity in the U.K. is markedly more simple and uniform than in the U.S. Our “white” population, even if we focus only on those of European ancestry (the vast majority of all whites), retains a powerful diversity of cultural identities.

Beyond that, most of the U.K.’s non-white population reflects the country’s colonial past, with over half coming from a handful of countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the former British colonies of Africa). And the Hispanic population of the U.K. (a matter of ethnicity, not race; it’s complicated) is vanishingly small.

On our side of the pond, the origins of the largest non-European groups are Hispanic or Latino, (16.3% of our population), African (12.6%) and Asian (4.8%). People of Mexican origin actually making up the third largest national group, at least as of 2000, after the Irish and before the English.

In short, one distinctive characteristic of our national identity is our extraordinary racial and ethnic diversity. We are, as a nation, vastly more diverse than any other Western industrial democracy and, for that matter, the overwhelming majority of countries around the globe.

With each wave of immigrants, some of our political leaders have responded with legislative action that has treated new immigrants brutally. We have denied equality before the law and within our society not only immigrants of “color,” (whether slave, indentured servant, or free) but also to white immigrants from various countries in Europe. Anti-immigrant sentiment and political action is as American as apple pie (which, arguably, originated in England, not the U.S.).

What also is true, from an historical perspective, is that we have tended to come to terms with each wave over time. Repressive and discriminatory laws give way as each successive wave demonstrates the contribution it can and does make to our society and our economy, and as each successive wave gains an understanding of our political process and of their potential economic and political power. For some (think, for example, of Irish immigrants of the 19th century), the struggle for fair treatment has been won completely, even to the point where particular cultural traditions of their homeland (think St. Patrick’s Day) have become fully a part of the broader American culture. We sometimes forget that Irish-Americans once were explicitly denied access to the rights they now enjoy as a matter of course.

For others, there are only isolated and residual issues left to resolve. And for some, the battle still rages, even after centuries.

But such struggles, and such gradual victories, are as American as hot dogs (which, arguably, originated in Germany, not the U.S.).

What, then, is the American national identity to which one can appeal, and to which contemporary immigration is a threat? The argument can be made, but the risks of so doing are greater. Many projections of our national identity will alienate millions of Americans and a much larger proportion of the electorate than was the case in the UK.

Does advocating for or against various immigration policy reforms mobilize various segments of the U.S. electorate? Absolutely.

Will gaining stricter control over immigration prove to be a defining issue for November 2016? Perhaps. . . but we can’t look at Brexit to know.