Earlier this week, Michael Gerson, formerly a speechwriter for George W. Bush, now a scribbler for The Washington Post, trained his sights on those he termed “Rust Belt revivalists.” These are the Republicans who have noticed that “the GOP has been dominated by corporate interests and needs to identify more directly with the economic frustrations of working-class voters.” Gerson doesn’t seem to take issue with the first part of this proposition. How could he, after Mitch McConnell and John Boehner pulled out all the stops to get congressional Republicans to give President Obama the Trans Pacific Partnership? But Gerson does take issue with the second half of the proposition, because that would require noticing that trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership and mass immigration have harmed working-class voters. Indeed, it was our abandonment of the tariff, beginning with the Kennedy Round of GATT, that was largely responsible for transforming the formerly prosperous industrial Midwest into the “Rust Belt” that denizens of the Beltway like Gerson love to deprecate.
Gerson writes that the “Rust Belt revivalists” have noticed that “high levels of immigration consume public services and depress native-born wages” and that some have even embraced “protectionism.” Gerson is appalled by this, even though he does admit that mass immigration brings down wages. Gerson doesn't bother to explain why we should continue to have mass immigration, given this undoubted harm to Americans. Instead, Gerson says that the downward pull on wages from mass immigration “is easily overstated,” because such a downward pull is “overwhelmed by other economic trends that have put downward pressure on wages, such as automation and the globalization of labor markets.” Once again, Gerson doesn’t say why “protectionism” is a bad thing if globalization is driving down American wages. Perhaps the reason for Gerson’s silence is that no one who questions globalization or mass immigration could long remain a columnist at The Washington Post, or a speechwriter in the Bush White House. In Gerson’s world, the inherent goodness of mass immigration and globalization are simply taken for granted.
According to Gerson, Republicans who want to increase the GOP’s share of the vote among the white working class by questioning mass immigration and free trade are engaged in “a political appeal that encourages division,” a manifestation of “fear and exclusion,” reminiscent of “the old Southern strategy” that Gerson abhors, even though it helped the GOP win presidential election after election. By contrast, Gerson lauds those Republicans who are “advocates of a demographic pivot” and who believe “that the Republican coalition will need to become browner.” In other words, more white votes, bad, more brown votes, good. Gerson later writes that campaigning against mass immigration would involve pitting the white working class against “rising minority groups.” But this is only true if those “rising minority groups” identify with their kinsmen who have come to America illegally or who still want to come to America more than they identify with Americans who will be harmed by continued mass immigration. There is reason to doubt that this is true—many polls show that immigration is not particularly important to Hispanic voters, who primarily vote for the Democrats because they like Big Government. More fundamentally, though, we do not need immigrants who fail to understand that the purpose of American immigration law is to benefit Americans, not foreigners.
Rather than campaign against mass immigration and free trade, Gerson wants Republicans to offer voters “wage subsidies,” “a larger child credit,” and “education reform.” In other words, the GOP should embrace Big Government. This is not surprising, coming from a veteran of the Bush White House. But doesn’t it make more sense to address the causes of declining wages rather than their effects? And if, as even Gerson admits, mass immigration and globalization drive down wages, shouldn’t Republicans begin to question those shibboleths? In any event, they have nothing to lose from trying a different approach. George W. Bush followed Gerson’s advice, and both the GOP, and the country, are still trying to recover from all the damage he caused.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.