Consensus and Immigration

This is the final installment in my series about consensus. For the first two posts, see Consensus and Cities, and Democratic Versus Elite Consensus.

There’s a pervasive view that, far from a consequence of extreme diversity, consensus is in fact a feature of homogeneous societies. For example, the popular view in Scandinavia is that the traditional high-trust society is under assault by immigrants who do not share the same social values as the native-born. Robert Putnam goes further and shows that diversity is associated with less trust and social capital, which made many racists joyful that here, there was a scientific basis for hate. The conclusion they as well as many ordinary members of the elite draw is that immigrants are a problem for society to deal with.

Before presenting an alternative view, let me point out that in fact, some of the world’s most famous consensus societies are also the most diverse. The Netherlands had a sharp division between Catholics, Protestants, and secular socialists for a century; Dutch consensus democracy is based in part on the need for those communities to coexist. Belgium is practically two separate countries – one Flemish, one Walloon. Switzerland, too, is diverse, though the German-speaking community has a majority. Those societies are all deeply suspicious of immigrants, but their attitude to the diversity they have built natively is positive, and, in the Netherlands, one attempt at integration involved creating a separate pillar for Muslims.

The diversity in those countries is discounted today by Americans and even Europeans who have grown to seeing the West as a single coherent civilization in opposition to others, but back when they developed their model of inter-ethnic consensus, Protestant vs. Catholic and other internal European divisions were critical. By analogy, it would have been senseless to talk about Jews, Irish, and Italians in New York in 1900 as one undifferentiated white mass.

The negative attitudes toward immigrants in the most diverse European countries, as seen in the rise of the SVP and Geert Wilders’ PVV and in the success of their nativist programs, suggests the reason for the xenophobia is not fear of diversity, but fear of change. Consensus government works slowly – and, at any rate, the mainstreaming of democratic consensus has gotten to a point that there’s a strong elite consensus for not dealing with incendiary issues. Rapid entry of new people into an area causes NIMBYism everywhere; when those people are distinguished by skin color or religion, the result is racism.

It is not my intention to excoriate racism here, much less European racism – it is pointless. However, let me suggest ways for social and political leaders to avoid the above problems – to build a consensus in favor of more social integration and acceptance. This is especially important in diverse cities, where immigrants tend to cluster, and where there’s preexisting diversity making it feasible to avoid majority-minority politics.

First, immigrants are not a problem. Neither is immigration. The problem is racism. This is the mistake of the elites in every European country: they whitewash the existence of discrimination and make little attempt to fix it. A good reference is Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, portraying French governments as knowing exactly how many Muslims there are in their communities when it comes to discussing gender-segregated swimming pools but not knowing or discussing discrimination. Alternatively, read these two New York Times articles published in the wake of the French riots.

Second, in the long run, diverse communities become stronger, and the trend of hunkering down dissipates. It’s a long process, and the goal should be to make it shorter, and avoid the risk of long-term divisions as occurred between blacks and whites in the US over the centuries. Putnam himself notes it in his study; his three examples include black-white integration in the army following desegregation, Catholic/Protestant intermarriage from the postwar period to the 1980s, and the turning of ethnic whites from disparate nationalities into Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

Third, it’s imperative to make integration a matter of local consensus rather than a political play by one party, either a liberal party looking for patronage voters or a conservative party looking for strikebreakers. In other words, immigrants are a group of people, not a solution or a problem.

A good example of a mayor who seems to abide by the first two principles but not the third, viewing immigrants as a solution, is Schenectady’s Al Jurczynski. After hearing that the Guyanese don’t accept welfare, Jurczynski began a concerted campaign of luring them in from New York and giving them free housing that would otherwise have to be demolished. Many of Jurczynski’s actions, such as going to Guyanese areas of Queens and going on a Guyanese radio show, are a good example of what political leaders must do to make immigrants feel like part of the city; however, the consensus he created exists purely among the business class, and therefore has drawn animosity from other groups within the city, including existing minorities, who feel slighted by the implication. It was a political play, much like Nixon and Pat Buchanan’s strategy of appealing to Catholics.

It’s not hard to redefine Americanness (or Britishness, or Dutchness) along more inclusive lines – it’s been done before in the face of new waves of immigration, often in order to maintain a majority of those defined as white Americans but using methods that could be generalized to decrease rather than increase animosity.

A mayor who wants to promote integration rather than create an ethnic group captive to his political needs will not engage in such divisive politics. He will walk in the ethnic enclaves of his own city first, making people already in the city feel welcome. He will make a positive effort to hire qualified minorities and listen to communities on the issues relevant to them, including, for example, making an effort to integrate the police force in order to reduce racist brutality.


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  3. Andre Lot

    Alon, I honestly think you mistook some essential issues regarding immigration here in Europe (I’m currently living in Southern Netherlands) in regard to assertions that might work on the other side of the Atlantic.

    First, it is impossible to ignore the fact America is country where the settlement mentality is pretty much present on national narratives, and also on legal, very important aspects like birthright citizenship no-questions-asked-about-your-parents – something that sounds and abomination in Europe. In The Netherlands, Italy, Germany and France – countries for which I know something about their legislation – a children born from illegal immigrants and educated will not gain citizenship and, in some cases (Italy has recent examples of that) become subject to deportation in the hypothetical case they keep living until they complete general education at age 18.

    Then, you have a whole universe of arguments that surround a different labor market, a different regulatory environment, and – for all that is good and bad – a much larger welfare state with heavy-loaded social programs in Europe than in US. The very concept of a official language (of languages) in which people are supposed to do business with government is strange to US, especially because the languages of the majority of low-skilled immigrants are not official languages from EU (Turkish, Chinese, Arab are not European languages after all) so no special provision can be made for them.

    Here in Europe, where many social programs from housing to education to health care allowances are not only the realm of the dispossessed but encompassing large chunks of population (think of unemployment programs that pays up to 3 years or salary coupled with extensive re-training), overuse (I’ll not call outright abuse) of these programs by non-assimilated immigrants. It’s not hysteria, it’s what directors of such programs say and present on their annual reports to the parliament. I really don’t know the cause other than most of the recent immigrants being low-skilled and the labor market in Europe far less accommodating of under-the-table employment in all but the lowest among the lowest jobs.

    Controversies like use of burkha in France are very relevant, if you consider that France, since the 1960s, prohibits any public office from collecting data on ethnicity of its citizens unless in narrowly-defined situations like medical studies.

    In any case, you assume that immigration is not a demographic problem on itself, assumption with which I strongly disagree. A famous Gallup poll in 2010 (, applied with a reasonable set of guidelines and criteria (Gallup is far from being a biased one-sided think-thank or inexperienced in global surveys), identified a potential of 710 million immigrants from underdeveloped countries to developed countries. As no developed country needs, today, raw, unskilled and untrained migrant manpower to populate and settle uncharted territories or provide cheap labor on manufacturing anymore, and as most would-be immigrants are low-skilled for our standards, the only plausible effect of countries like Denmark getting a population 40% larger than the actual would be devastating to the standard of living, probably requiring either a drastic medium-term reduction on the average standard of living to finance a more robust set of social programs to those newcomers, or the dismantling of most of those social programs – which would foster economic inequality in the long term. Neither outcome is positive.

    In regard of urban aspects of immigration here in Netherlands and also in Italy (two of the 4 countries in which I had lived for a substantial period of time) is the self-clustering in ethnic ghettos which makes easy for an immigrant to avoid assimilation (as she/he goes living in an area where their likes are the local (neighborhood-based) majority). I know from experience and readings and else that US has different attitudes, but for me, it is outrageous and offensive that there are stores in my medium city where attendants can’t speak the local language, another EU language (a.k.a., English) and become suspicious when someone not from their background enters the place.

    And this clustering phenomenon doesn’t happen as a state policy, at least not anymore: recently Dutch government passed provisions disallowing asylum seekers to live in the same cities where the ratio of non-EU citizens to the total population is higher than 10% or 11%. Actually, they can live, but they will not be given benefits. Lack of proficiency in Dutch will imply cut-off of certain welfare programs (unless the non-EU had come through a high-skilled immigration program). Something is being done about that, but the bottom line I want to say is that what we call the “developed World” (EUA, Canada, most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Israel and the occasional small-rich-country) cannot cope with the demands of impoverished people that would like to have a shot in life moving here, neither should we bear, through taxes or degradation of standards of living, being responsible for that.

    • Alon Levy

      Andre, a lot of the problems you portray in Europe exist in the US as well, and did a hundred years ago in the previous wave of immigration. Turn-of-the-century New York had well-defined Jewish, Irish, Polish, and Italian neighborhoods, with their own informal power structure (patronage, mobs), newspapers in the home language, and a local labor market. Part of the impetus for suburbanization and urban renewal in the US was the WASP elites’ decision that those were inherently bad communities and the immigrants had to be made into proper Americans – though integration happened equally well in neighborhoods that were spared the bulldozer as to former residents of demolished neighborhoods. Today, there are all-Hispanic neighborhoods, all-Chinese neighborhoods, etc., and until the crime rate crashed in the 1990s, they had their own brutal drug gangs. But since then, many of those neighborhoods have undergone what Jane Jacobs calls deslumming, and are quite pleasant if lower-income – e.g. Washington Heights and Inwood.

      My understanding of the language issue is that in both the US and Europe, first-generation immigrants usually don’t know the local language, second-generation immigrants usually do, and third-generation immigrants always do and frequently don’t speak their ancestral language well. The rioters in 2005, mainly second- and third-generation Algerians, spoke French. And within countries that view themselves as nations of immigrants, there’s no difference in accommodation between those without official languages and those with, such as Canada and Israel. Israel, which is very accommodating toward immigrants as long as they’re Jewish, offers election information in three non-official languages – Russian, Amharic, and English – in addition to the official Hebrew and Arabic. The point here is that governments that want to integrate immigrants do, but that they typically do this only as a way of keeping the dominant group a majority (Jews in today’s Israel, whites in Pat Buchanan’s paradigm of America, anti-welfare ethnic groups in Jurczynski’s Schenectady).

      The point I was making about the French burqa issue is that the rule making it illegal to collect statistics only work in favor of the racists. Bowen, the author of Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, notes how local governments always seem to know the exact percentage of Muslims when they need to – his example is segregated swimming pools. In contrast, unlike in the US (or UK, or Canada), there are no official statistics about wage disparity or discrimination in jobs and housing. A study reported by the BBC in the wake of the 2005 riots, which I’ve tried and failed to dig up, argues that even after controlling for education levels, the Algerian-French unemployment is still 17%, vs. a national average of 10%.

  4. Danny

    I’m not sure of what you are trying to get at here. I don’t think there is a sizable fraction of the country that you could get to come to any consensus on immigration. There is no persuasion either. My dad practically thinks that Mexicans should be rounded up and dumped into the sea…and yet he married the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant. How can you form consensus when people are like that? There is no rational discussion, and there can be no persuasion.

    Making matters worse, once you actually filter out the racists, the paranoid delusionals, and the labor protectionists, you are left with nothing more than two handfuls of people…one hand worth of opportunists, either capitalist or political…and another hand worth of people who will fight all day long about the amnesty issue.

    Honestly, I would love to see a mayor that could embrace immigrant communities, but politically it just doesn’t pay. You can win votes from those that have already assimilated, and you can win future votes from current non-citizens…but you sacrifice votes from every other political faction out there.

    • Alon Levy

      Maybe I’m being excessively idealistic here, but there are examples of towns that resisted white flight, and instead went for a biracial consensus. Those are now mixed white/black middle-class areas. The one example I remember is Mount Vernon, but there are better ones all over the Rust Belt. The Failure of Integration gives an example of a Philly suburb where, when black people started moving in, the (white) priest went from house to house and asked people personally not to leave. In one such community, once there was enough of a consensus around not leaving, the town passed an ordinance banning displaying for-sale signs on the lawn, to avoid giving the image of decline.

      It happens in parts of the US even today, not out of consensus but out of necessity. Areas with so many immigrants both parties need their votes have a pro-immigrant, pro-immigration consensus. As a result, even conservative politicians don’t support deportations, at least not locally: witness Rick Perry’s opposition to the Arizona law, or Rudy Giuliani’s directive to NYPD not to enforce federal immigration laws. In New York and I think also in Texas, opposition to immigration is a galvanizing issue for movement Tea Party types, but mainline conservatives and organized labor both view immigrants as a source of votes.

      • Andre Lot

        Alon, I’m not entirely sure (will have to look at it later), but I guess this:

        “the town passed an ordinance banning displaying for-sale signs on the lawn, to avoid giving the image of decline.”

        was struck down in a legal case that reached even the Supreme Court as one of the landmarks case of balancing the interest of individual property owners versus interest of a city of concealing real estate deals. Later, again, if I remember correctly, the precedent was used to struck down certain disguised regulations that prevented real estate owners from advertising rent outside their own neighborhood (which was a caveat to prevent African-Americans from moving in houses that were divided in tenements in the 1960s)

        • EngineerScotty

          The laws banning “for sale” signs also were generally supported by the real estate community, as those who hired realtors to sell their homes had access to RMLS and other industry databases; but FSBO sellers do not; and banning the posting of for sale signs essentially makes it impossible to sell a house without hiring a real estate agent.

    • Andre Lot

      Here in Europe the latest clash is about voting in local elections. Since 2000, European citizens living legally in other country (by means of registering as residents, a legal procedure one must take upon taking residence) within the union can vote in local but not national elections. The logic is that local powers deal with daily life and so other European citizens should participate, whilst national elections deal with country-level decisions and so non-citizens shall have no voice.

      But now, there is a small, fringe movement of legal immigrants from outside Europe demanding rights to vote in local elections as well. It’s outrageous, and unacceptable in so many levels, starting with lack of reciprocity (foreigners legally living in China don’t get a vote in China, for instance)

      • ant6n

        How is it “outrageous” and “unacceptable”? Your argument that foreigners in China don’t get to vote seems silly, because there aren’t too many elections in China to begin with. Your argument sounds racist in a way: “We’ll let foreigners vote, as long as they are from the European Union – people who are from farther away are just too foreign.”

        Personally, I’d like to be able to vote on a municipal level here in Canada, where I’ve been living for six years, but have no citizenship. And there are a large number of people in the area where I live, who all have no say in local decision making.

        • Andre Lot

          ant6n, it’s not about racism, but about the fact that allowing foreigners, non citizens to vote in local elections is done on a reciprocity basis. I’m (among others, I have more than one citizenship) Italian, and I live in Netherlands: I can vote in local elections here, and so can a Dutch living in Italy. It’s a fair deal. However, Europeans don’t get any rights to vote in – say – Australia, China, Gabon, Brazil, Russia or United States, why should they get to vote in our elections them?

          Is a similar argument I make when discussing free trade, rights to buy property in a foreign country, recognition of diplomas etc.: if there is no reciprocity, those deals, rights and prerogatives are inherently unbalanced and should only be adopted if on interest of those granting it. Which leaves me with a question: what would my municipality gain from allowing non-Europeans to vote here? Nothing.

          Immigration and all its implications are tricky waters, because they bring an element of allegiance and sovereignty that is moot when you are discussing something within a national scale or, as in the case, in a regional scale (European Union) supported by a plethora of treaties and guarantees. Unless one is to propose something like a worldwide free movement – temporarily or permanent – right or some form of World government (both fiercely opposed by me), immigration is always a selective tool that is inherently “unfair” for those that are foreigners, because it implies discretionary selection of people that would enhance your country while keeping everybody else out.

          • ant6n

            I think voting has nothing to do with reciprocity, but with allowing the members of a society to participate in decision making. When you ask “what would my municipality gain from allowing non-Europeans to vote here?”, I’d say that municipalities gain from allowing it’s residents to participate in the decision making of the municipalities. Your question is like asking, what way a country gains from having poor people vote?

            Would it mean that even Chinese who have become Canadians should not be allowed to vote, because Canadians who become Chinese are not allowed to vote in China?

            Hey, while at it, while not ask in what way your European municipality gains from (Non-European) immigrants? – I guess your answer is also, “Nothing”?

            There are plenty of other deals that are not reciprocal – for example I pay foreign tuition, ~10x more than for natives, in Quebec, whereas Quebequoi in Germany would pay the same tuition as everybody else.

          • Danny

            Your observations only make sense from the perspective of someone that values fairness over results. Most people do not think about everything in this manner, as there are many that recognize that they are better off when things are unfair.

            It is interesting that you mentioned free trade because that is one of the better examples where this is the case. Even in the case where a trade agreement isn’t reciprocal (one nation imposes stiff tariffs or outright bans, the home nation imposes none), both nations still benefit on net. Prices to consumers drop for all people, which increases wealth for all people…even those that might earn less.

            For this reason, many trade economists hate free trade agreements. They would prefer that we drop any and all barriers to trade regardless of reciprocity. Those that do advocate trade agreements tend to advocate them only as a negotiation tactic…without any regard for fairness. Even New Trade Theory economists, who are concerned with trade fairness, tend to not care about reciprocity and would rather concern themselves with correcting wealth imbalances between trading nations.

            Back to the issue of local voting rights, I have to say…if allowing non-citizen European residents to vote in local elections produces better results, then allowing all non-citizen residents to vote in local elections should produce better results. It doesn’t matter one whit if the favor is not returned in other countries…it will still produce better results for those that adopt the policy. Only if you value reciprocity over results does the situation become inadvisable.

          • Alon Levy

            Andre, the reciprocity issue is one of many ostensibly neutral standards that can be used for discrimination, either intentionally or unintentionally. For a stark, intentional example, Australia never had White Australia laws on the books, for fear of alienating Britain’s ally Japan; instead, it demanded that every immigrant pass a 50-word dictation test in a language chosen by the immigration officer, which could be made as hard as possible to ensure nobody could get in. More often, the original intentions are neutral, but then the law becomes a way to enshrine discrimination – for example, the aforementioned French ban on taking racial statistics.

            To look at what the reciprocity standard is intended for, consider the following two possibilities:

            – Switzerland proposes a bilateral voter reciprocity agreement with the EU, for example in order to make it easier for Italians to move to Ticino.

            – Turkey proposes a bilateral voter reciprocity agreement with the EU, in order to make life easier for Turkish immigrants in Germany.

            I think it’s uncontroversial that the EU would reject the second proposal out of hand but seriously consider the first, even though in both cases the non-EU country benefits from the arrangement far more than the EU, though for the opposite reasons.

          • ant6n

            Btw, there are non reciprocal voting rules: The UK allows voting of commonwealth citizens to an extend, whereas Canada, for example, only allows citizens to vote. Some Canadian friends of mine actually got to vote on the vote referendum earlier this year.

  5. Wad

    I don’t really have much to add or debate about this topic, but I want to point to two websites that give a look at the dynamics of conflict and consensus.

    One is the University of Colorado’s Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict. It’s a former program, but on the side it gives terms and explanations for conflicts as a broad term from collegial disputes to the eventual causes of warfare.

    The other, I must caution you, is not for the thin-skinned or easily agitated. It’s the website of Tim Wise, an anti-racist writer and speaker. Let me first of all say, don’t shoot the messenger for bringing this link here. The intent is not to start provocation over an inherently provocative topic.

    Wise approaches an explosive topic, American racism, and parallels to other societies and other identification groups can be inferred. His thought process attacks racism from all angles. Wise doesn’t use a narrative arc, which devolves into oversimplification (Idea/Action/Event A caused effect B, which played out as C, D and E and the solution lies in F to resolve E, D, C, B and finally A).

    He stresses systemic causes and effects of racism, pointing out ideas and behaviors from history, sociology (group dynamics), education, psychology, economics and arts that reinforce one group’s domination and others’ subjection. And he touches on everything, including his own biases, authority and agency.

    These sites offer some insights beyond what’s good or bad, or even who’s good or bad.

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