Source: Huffington Post
By John Tirman
Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies
In the last few weeks, the alarming rise of vitriolic anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric from the right wing has alarmed a large segment of the American people, but equally disturbing is how much support these noxious views are getting from the public. After the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, it was widely assumed that tolerance and diversity would win the day. Many studies show that growing familiarity with the “other” typically yields more tolerant attitudes. But this recent spasm of hatred is shocking in its intensity and in the apparent rejection of that decades-long progress toward social peace. Many even call it fascism. Why has this reversal suddenly appeared?
Current attitudes toward Muslim immigration and accepting Syrian refugees are revealing. A CBS poll taken December 9-10 shows rejection of Donald Trump’s suggestion that Muslims be banned from entering the United States (58 percent opposing Trump’s proposal, and 36 percent supporting). A far slimmer plurality, 46-44 percent, opposes keeping a database on Muslims in the country. Republicans in that survey supported the Muslim ban by 54-38 percent, and the database of Muslims by 60-31 percent.
On Syrian refugees, Republicans are opposed to allowing them into the country, 76-22 percent. (Democrats are 66-32 percent in favor of taking refugees.) On unauthorized immigrants — mainly Mexicans and Central Americans — a similar partisan divide appears: Democrats and independents favor legal residency by wide margins, while Republicans say they should be deported by a 63-34 percent. The polls are relatively consistent over the past several months.
The surveys basically tell us what we already sense from the Republican Party leadership and the presidential candidates in particular. But they don’t answer the question of how tens of millions of Americans have adopted such harsh ideas. It’s easy to conclude that these attitudes are being cultivated by Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere — commentators like Laura Ingraham and Michelle Malkin, among many others, have been spewing anti-immigrant vitriol for more than a decade.
The right-wing entertainment complex has doubtlessly added fuel to the fire, but it didn’t start it. There has long been anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, and it’s been a staple of the extreme right wing. But the phenomenon, as I argue in Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash, is broader than mere xenophobia. Over the past forty years, incomes have stagnated for the middle class, while social dynamics have encroached upon residual “privilege” — e.g., gay and lesbian activism resulting in same-sex marriage, women’s empowerment, affirmative action for African-Americans, and sharp growth in illegal immigration.
Of the last, heated resistance from the right has increasingly relied on the false complaint that Hispanics aren’t assimilating (rather than an older, also false argument about job stealing) and are demanding educational reforms that are fundamentally anti-American. These kinds of arguments reflect a cultural anxiety about the rapidly growing minority populations in the United States, which demographically is heading toward a majority of minority ethnicities. And these anxieties — sometimes expressed violently, as with black church burnings, or through discriminatory laws and practice — are targeting Christians among blacks and Hispanics. With the Syrian refugee crisis and the San Bernardino shootings, the volatile component of Islam is added to the mix.
Recently some explanations beyond the historical aversion to foreigners in our midst, or racism, have come to the fore. We have known about income stagnation for some years, and that stagnation for the middle class, broadly defined, has persisted for four decades. But a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that one-fifth of Americans are living in poverty or near poverty (defined as a family of three with an income of less than $31,402 annually), many have slipped economically since the Bush recession and have never found their footing in a country that off-shores many semi-skilled jobs and has steadily shrunk the social safety net since the Reagan era. One indicator is child poverty, affecting as much as two-fifths of all American kids, with devastating long-term consequences of persistent poverty through their lifetimes. And it’s not just a problem of the inner city: one in seven white kids is poor.