Bernie Sanders has been getting a bum rap from people who purport to be his fellow progressives. He’s been chastised for not supporting open borders: Totally open immigration, the Vermont senator told Vox’s Ezra Klein, was “a Koch brothers proposal” that would erode the “concept of the nation state.” He’s been accused of downplaying the effects of racism by emphasizing the effects of classism — a more valid criticism to which Sanders, after his initial, grumpy response to protesters last month, has responded more recently by highlighting the racism of many police practices. Some critics have added that Sanders's allegedly blinkered vision stems from his decades in nearly all-white Vermont, or from his admiration for the social democracies of nearly all-white Scandinavia, or from the purported racial blindness of social democracy itself.
To fault Sanders for failing to support open borders, however, is to hold him to a standard that no present-day elected official in any nation I know of has met. Like his fellow liberals and, polling shows, most Americans, Sanders supports offering citizenship to those immigrants, documented and not (excepting those who’ve committed serious crimes), who are already here, and stopping the efforts to deport them. Like most Americans, Sanders clearly supports the continuation of legal immigration.
But Sanders is on sound historical ground when he asserts that a permanent policy of open borders would have consequences that progressives would come to regret. It is a sad constant of human, and American, history that the solidarity needed to build workers’ organizations and social benefits waxes when people can overcome the divisions of ethnicity and tradition and wanes when they can’t. As Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen documents in “Making a New Deal,” her study of Chicago workers in the decades between the world wars, those workers’ efforts to form industrial unions in 1919 failed in large degree due to divisions between the various immigrant communities, and between them and the native-born. Their efforts succeeded, however, in the late 1930s, once those immigrants and their children had been in the United States long enough to forge a more common culture with other immigrant and native-born groups. It’s not that those groups had abandoned their traditional identities, but, with the federal government all but shutting down immigration in 1924, the pull of tradition and the effects of ethnic insulation were no longer continually renewed. Indeed, one of the most sobering facts of U.S. history is that the great social legislation of the New Deal and its successors came forth during the 40-year period (1924-65) when a federal ban on most immigration reduced the percentage of foreign-born Americans to an all-time low.
It’s also true that the nations with the most extensive social rights and benefits, and the highest levels of social and economic equality, have been the Scandinavian social democracies — and that, as these nations have become home to immigrants from developing nations and refugees from the world’s war zones in recent years, they’ve each seen right-wing nativist parties spring up and claim between 15 and 20 percent of the vote. Then again, right-wing nativist parties have sprung up and done just about as well in virtually every European nation, even as the Tea Party has commanded an equivalent level of support in the United States.
These developments can hardly be traced to the ostensible racial insensitivities of social democracy. Indeed, the social democratic parties’ commitment to racial equity has a long and storied history. The definitive New Deal-era indictment of white racism against African Americans was Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s landmark study “An American Dilemma,” which laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court’s overturning of the doctrine of separate but equal. It was the Swedish social democrats who provided the first significant support from a Western nation to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, and who welcomed refugees to their shores well before the rest of Europe (while opposing open borders for economic reasons). Indeed, it’s the policies of the social democratic, socialist and labor parties of Europe — embracing immigrants into their ranks and supporting their eligibility for social benefits — against which Europe’s nativist right has risen.
Does diversity invariably dim progressive prospects? A survey of most large U.S. cities (and the largest state, California) today, where coalitions of minorities, immigrant groups and white progressives have come to power, suggests that it needn’t. Tellingly, though, those cities (and California) still have unions that are a force for cross-racial solidarity. In the absence of such institutions, as Bernie Sanders has cautioned us, our capacity for tribal resentment can bring us all down.