More on domestic ‘unilateralism’

Birthright citizenship

Yesterday, I wrote about what unilateralism looks like on the domestic front. And in many ways, it’s similar to international unilateralism. The guiding principle is to prematurely forgo compromise and take a stance, defending it aggressively, thus, forcing an adversary to counter.

I believe Donald Trump may do this with the issue of birthright citizenship. He is not just engaging in pre-midterm bluster. I believe Trump is prepared to try and change citizenship laws by executive order or by whatever other means he can.

Reader Peter wrote me, saying “I have no legal background so I am just curious, could the Supreme Court potentially interpret the 14th in a way so that an executive order could end birthright citizenship? Thanks.”

Well, I don’t have a legal background either (outside of 2 years as a paralegal some 25 years ago as I was getting into the US Foreign Service). So I don’t know any more than Peter. Here’s a 2015 post on “The National Security Dimension of Birthright Citizenship” though. It’s on Lawfare blog. And these guys do have a legal background. That might help. Here’s another from the same site called “The Chaos of Trump’s Would-be Birthright Citizenship Order“.

But, remember, what matters with unilateralism is taking action. For example, once an executive order goes into effect, it becomes real. In this case, suddenly all children of illegal immigrants will no longer be citizens. So, then, it’s incumbent on the President’s adversaries to try and block his order in the courts. And that will take a while. Even if the court rejects Trump’s executive order, they may give his legal team clues about how to go about drafting a better executive order that will deal better with potential objections. That’s what Trump did with the Muslim travel ban and it worked. So, I suspect he could do this here as well.

What about the court of public opinion?

I saw an interesting article in the New York Times today about how polarized people have become. (Here’s the link. Read it!) This piece had some very pointed conclusions on how to think about the issue, especially on hot button topics like immigration. Here’s the quote I want you to focus on:

Traditionally, the left parties were based on a working class constituency, and advocated redistribution of income. In striking contrast, the postmaterialist left appeals mainly to a middle class constituency and is only faintly interested in the classic program of the left.

The conclusion you have to draw from this is this: left parties are seen by many as having sold out. They have become bastions of ‘identity politics’ rather than leading with agendas based on ‘class politics’.


the unprecedentedly high levels of existential security experienced in developed democracies during the postwar decades were bringing an intergenerational shift from Materialist values that emphasized economic and physical security above all, to Postmaterialist values that gave priority to individual autonomy and self-expression. Rising emphasis on Postmaterialist values eventually brought massive social and political changes, from stronger environmental protection policies and antiwar movements, to higher levels of gender equality in government, business and academic life, greater tolerance of gays, handicapped people and foreigners and the spread of democracy. Postwar prosperity brought these changes with a substantial time lag, since they moved at the pace of intergenerational population replacement.

But what do the left’s working-class constituency think of the shift?

Most voters may say that they prefer politicians who take moderate stands on these divisive issues, the authors argue, but when polarized nomination processes offer voters a choice between two extremes, the American electorate is more wary of the liberal extreme than of the conservative one.

You’ve got to read the article. But let me unpack it for you:

  1. In society, there are the traditionalists and then there are explorers, people who are change seekers. And then there are a bunch of people in the middle.
  2. As late as 1992, when Clinton won the White House, the two major US political parties were evenly split between these groups. But by 2016, all of the explorers moved into the Democratic camp and the traditionalists into the Republican camp.
  3. Crucially, though, “voters whose worldviews are midway between the fixed and fluid “are more like the fixed than they are the fluid.””
  4. So, when people are forced to choose between a traditionalist political candidate (i.e. Donald Trump) and one with more explorer views (i.e. Hillary Clinton), they choose the traditionalist.
  5. Remember, “in high-income countries virtually all of the gains have gone to those at the top. During the past three decades, a large share of the population has experienced declining real income and job security, in context with a massive influx of immigrants and refugees.”
  6. In that world: “support for xenophobic populist authoritarian movements such as British exit from the European Union, France’s National Front and Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party” are big.

What does this mean?

So, I think what we’re seeing is a middle class buffeted by change – and therefore open to someone espousing a more traditionalist message, even if it has unpalatable edges. People just want all of the change to end, so they can have some modicum of comfort, security and constancy.

If the choice is between someone advocating still more change and someone promising less change, the winner will be the politician advocating for less change, for going back to a more comfortable and secure era. That’s a huge positive for nationalists politically.

And note that “Members of Trump’s base”

are much more like the average American than are his staunchest opponents. A lot of Americans are susceptible to the kinds of rhetoric that won Trump the presidency: especially his appeals to people’s innate xenophobia and fears of threats both internal and external. The liberals, people of color, and traditional conservatives who are outraged by Trump’s comportment and who have avowed to oppose his every move — these are the real outliers.

I’m not going to say a lot more than that. But I think this is fascinating stuff. The reality is that – despite many people’s unease about Trump – the message of the Democratic Party simply doesn’t resonate with a lot of voters. They can easily be painted into an pro-open borders, pro-globalization box. And they don’t have a good comeback. Sure, Trump is demagoguing the migrant caravan issue. But it resonates with a lot of people. And the Democrats have yet to come up with a robust retort.

In my view, this is why nationalism will continue to be an issue. As long as the working and middle classes feel insecure, expect nationalism to remain attractive.

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