Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War?

Book Review by L.A. Pesch 

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President Trump’s first term has been a divisive time for the right. The Never Trump Conservatives have continued to complain about his character flaws, even as their media channels either die (e.g. The Weekly Standard), wane in influence (e.g. National Review), or are co-opted by pro-Trump personalities (Tucker is the leading voice on Fox News’ evening lineup). Trump’s use of America-first and economic nationalist rhetoric to attract blue collar voters in the Midwest was hailed by many as a novel strategy for the Right, but it was not without precedent. 

The Tea Party was, at root, a populist effort and the seeds it planted were nurtured on the right during the Obama administration. Among the erudite, well-educated conservatives who latched on to this populism was Reihan Salam. In 2008 he and Ross Douthat wrote Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. This book argued that the big-government G.W. Bush GOP was a dead end for conservatism and that the party needed to woo blue collar conservatives by replacing its elite-friendly economic platform with one more suited to supporting the traditional family.

Salam’s new book tackles a particularly contentious issue: immigration. Salam draws on his personal experience as a son of Bangladeshi immigrants to New York City as he discusses assimilation, race, automation, and his three-pronged solution to the immigration policy debate. Salam’s commitment to free markets is evident throughout the book; in February of 2019, he became the incoming president of the Manhattan Institute, a free market think tank in NYC. 

Salam could be considered a libertarian centrist on immigration; the old and nearly forgotten concept of America as a “melting pot” is a major theme in the book. Salam believes that assimilation was relatively easy in the past for two reasons: the newcomers had similar religious convictions and the birthrate of the mostly-Anglo American population was still high compared with today’s rate. It’s easy to tolerate German Protestants if you’re an Anglo Protestant with nine children.

Salam wisely points out that children are at the center of the immigration debate in the U.S. If immigrant workers merely showed up, worked, and disappeared, much of the debate over immigration would not exist. Singapore uses policy to ensure this outcome. Guest workers are just that: guests. Pregnant guest workers are often deported, ensuring that Singapore maintains its cultural and ethnic heritage. 

Here in the U.S., however, immigrants start families. They build communities and, one way or another, they assimilate. Assimilation, Salam tells us, takes two forms: amalgamation and racialization.

Salam has a near-religious belief in the concept of the melting pot. In the title of chapter 1, he claims that America’s melting pot is “unfinished.” He laments the “arbitrary racial categories” that divide Americans, reminding us that, at least in the progressive worldview, the melting pot of yesteryear was whites-only. Once the flow of immigrants from Europe was corked in the 1920s, the walls between European ethnic enclaves fell. He claims that whites built ties among themselves during the mid 20th century thanks to a common racism against blacks. 

What we need here in America, Salam tells us, is an end to these bright racial lines. With any luck, we will get assimilation in the form of amalgamation not racialization. Currently, Salam tells us, whites (Or is it whites and Asians? He can’t seem to make up his mind) are wealthy and that mass immigration from the third world only improves the wealth of upper-class whites. Conversely, those migrants are poor and are in danger of becoming a permanent underclass. Salam’s hope for the future is a middle-class melting pot. The U.S. will become less white due to intermarriage. Economic policy will be designed in a way that reduces income inequality, creating a large middle class and helping to heal racial divisions.

It seems that Salam is banking on the following two things: rising rates of intermarriage among racial and ethnic groups and the decline of in-group bias. Though intermarriage between racial and ethnic groups has risen over the last 50 years, the majority of Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, prefer to marry within their own groups. Further, only white leftists exhibit the sort of out-group bias that favors Salam’s completed melting pot. My purpose is not to pass judgment on intermarriage or out-group bias, but the data are clear and they do not cut in Salam’s favor.

In the second chapter, Salam starts off with a personal story that sets the tone for his discussion of the problems that come with the children of immigrants. He recalls that his mother was once scolded in public for having a “large family.” She replied that “she fully intended to have a large family so that she and her offspring would displace America’s native inhabitants, just as European settlers seized the lands of the American Indians.” Salam praises this sentiment. 

In the ensuing pages, Salam notes that immigrants are much more fertile than the native-born here in America. This is a sentiment that is praised when it is uttered in a positive context but decried as racist when it is expressed as a lament. Salam discusses the incentives to come to the U.S. from poorer nations: welfare programs and better overall living conditions. He astutely notes that, were immigrants to simply move here, work, send money home, and leave, the debate over immigration would not be so contentious. 

Though immigrants who assimilate into America’s atomized consumerist culture will likely be no more fertile than American citizens, first generation immigrants start families. Big ones. They are generally poorer than the rest of us and the intergenerational poverty fostered by, Salam tells us, America’s “caste system” must be redressed with more generous social programs to financially buoy immigrant families. There is no discussion of finding ways for us to promote political stability in their home countries. Salam tells us he is not in favor of open borders, but one wonders what sort of restrictions he would consider given that he believes we must increase incentives to migrate here.

Salam answers this question in the next chapter. We need, he says, a skills-based immigration system. Allowing migrants into the U.S. when they have something to add to the upper echelons of our economy, in the most competitive sectors, will allow us to benefit and will also benefit the immigrants themselves. Salam sees the political danger associated with allowing large numbers of low-skilled immigrants into the U.S. Citizens working low-skilled jobs resent competition from low-skilled immigrants, which fosters a political backlash. 

Compounding the problem of low-skilled immigration is ever-increasing automation. As automation continues to disemploy low-skilled workers (at least in the short term), low-skilled immigrants displace U.S. citizens because they are willing to accept lower pay and worse working conditions. Salam wishes for an economic model that integrates newcomers into an economic ladder, rather than creating an underclass. He wants a skills-based immigration to solve this problem.

However, merely stemming the tide of new, low-skilled immigrants won’t solve the problem low-skilled Americans face today. Salam’s commitment to the free market at all costs prevents him from seeing the real problem: automation itself. People are different, we have different skill sets and different levels of intelligence. Refusing to slow down automation threatens American workers’ financial prospects and the risk doesn’t disappear by stemming the tide of low-skilled immigrants.

Salam is right to identify automation as an area of concern, and his discussion of the interaction between automation and low-skilled immigration is interesting, but ultimately his proposals will not fix the problems immigration causes. Salam wants amnesty for the long-resident illegal immigrant population. He suggests that legal immigrants and American citizens should simply quit whining and get on board with this proposal. I think Salam underestimates the resentment this move would create in so-called flyover country, but we should be accustomed to proposals like this from conservatarians and neocons. Salam wants to ease tensions between immigrants and citizens; this will throw gasoline on the fire.

Salam’s second proposal is the adoption of a skills-based immigration system. Apparently Salam does not want immigrants to become a permanent underclass, but an underclass of American citizens seems to be no problem for him. This proposal also seems quite selfish. If one of the richest countries on the planet only lets in the most intelligent, talented, and educated people from the third world, the third world will decline economically. This policy will drive a bigger wedge between the wealth and income of rich vs poor countries. Not, I think, a recipe for cohesion in our country or any other.

Finally, Salam wants to fight inter-generational poverty. The purpose behind this is to give new immigrants to the U.S. and their children a foothold on the ladder of success. Salam doesn’t give us many specifics for this proposal and it’s easy to see why; he would look a lot like mainstream Democrats if he did. The only way to use federal power to alleviate inter-generational poverty among immigrants is to enact policies that are directly opposed to subsidiarity and the notion that a government is beholden to the interests of its citizens first. Every dollar that is transferred to an immigrant is a dollar that could have gone to (perhaps ineffectively in some cases) fight poverty among existing American citizens. When it comes to the financial results of redistribution, we are playing a zero-sum game.

Salam’s goal is noble. Most of us can see new rifts tearing open and old ones getting wider in the social fabric of the U.S. He wants to heal those divisions and create a more cohesive society. The trouble is, Salam is too committed to so-called free markets and too blind to the real problems faced by Americans who oppose immigration. He can’t accurately diagnose the problem because he doesn’t understand the patient. That said, Salam’s book is likely to be a blueprint for conservatarian and neocon immigration policy in the coming years. For that reason, it is well worth reading.

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L.A. Pesch

is a Catholic husband, father, 4th degree Knight of Columbus, and Reactionary Economist. His writing has appeared in academic journals, newspapers, blogs, and magazines. His personal motto, borrowed from the Knights of Columbus, is Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori.