"Transnationalists" don't take immigration reform seriously

John Leo

4/3/2006 12:05:00 AM - John Leo
In his 1995 book "The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy," the late Christopher Lasch argued that America's political and cultural elites had opened up a gap between themselves and ordinary Americans. "Many of them have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense, implicated in America's destiny for better or worse," he wrote. They are increasingly detached from their fellow citizens and drawn to an international culture, Lasch said, or what we would today call a transnational culture.

Consider the current immigration debate in this light. In the transnational view, patriotism, assimilation and cultural cohesion are obsolete concerns. Borders and the nation-state are on the way out. Transnational flows of populations are inevitable. Workers will move in response to markets, not old-fashioned national policies on immigration. Norms set by internationalists will gradually replace national laws and standards. The world is becoming a single place. Trying to impede this unifying process is folly.

The term "transnationals" specifically refers to those working in and around international organizations and multinational corporations. More broadly, it indicates a cosmopolitan elite with a declining allegiance to the place where they live and work, and a feeling that nationalism and patriotism are part of the past.

To some extent, their worldview cuts across Democratic-Republican and liberal-conservative lines, and reinforces the other concerns that prevent immigration control: the desire for cheap labor and Hispanic votes. Old-line one-worlders and enthusiastic supporters of the United Nations hear the siren call. So do many academics, judges and journalists who attend international conferences and tend to adopt a common consciousness and world outlook.

The interplay between immigration and transnationalism is a flourishing subspecialty in the academic world. Ethnic studies departments, once conceived as a sop to campus minorities, increasingly stress transnationalism, though exactly what professors mean when they use the word is often not very clear. It is now common to hear that transnationalism will be to the first quarter of the 21st century what multiculturalism was to the last 25 years of the 20th.

The large-scale movement of populations is often seen as an indicator of the coming world society. To transnationalists, it is a positive development that reveals the weakness of the nation-state and adds to that weakness. Loyalties and commitments are diffused. One transnational scholar writes, "Traditional notions like citizenship, political activity, entrepreneurship and culture are de-linked from specific places and spaces."

This theme hums through some of the immigration debate, but transnationalists have hardly been frank in discussing their views. What appears to be primarily a problem of labor, border control and one particular failed economy -- Mexico's -- is to some people an inevitable and welcome stage in the decline of the nation-state. Besides, large-scale immigration helps to deconstruct the traditional historical narrative of the target nation, a traditional item on the multicultural agenda.

Partly because of immigration, the British government appointed a commission on the future of multiethnic Britain. It concluded that "Britishness" had "has systematic, largely unspoken, racial connotations." The report said Britain should be formally "recognized as a multicultural society" whose history must be "revised, rethought, or jettisoned."

John Fonte, of the Hudson Institute, notes that "transnationalism," like "global governance" and "multiculturalism," are presented by advocates as irresistible forces of history. Not so, he says. They are "ideological tools, championed by activist elites."

The astonishing aspect of the immigration debate is that the elites think they can override the clear and huge resistance of the American people. As columnist Tony Blankley wrote last week, the Senate was prepared to "legislate into the teeth of the will of the American public."

Lopsided majorities, which normally stay the hand of Congress, want the federal government to take charge and get tougher on illegal immigration. In last month's Quinnipiac University poll, 88 percent of all respondents said illegal immigration is a serious problem (57 percent "very serious," 31 percent "somewhat serious"). Among immigrants or their children and grandchildren, the figure was 83 percent. "Red state, blue state and purple state. Illegal immigration is a serious problem," said Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. If the majority really wants to win on this, all it has to do is raise the heat on Congress and defeat the amnesty-light non-reforms.