Charges that supporters of more restrictive immigration policies are racists and xenophobes and all- around bigots are so widespread that I don’t even see the need to document this claim with links. That’s why a recent poll from Grinnell (Iowa) College is so fascinating and important. It’s full of evidence showing how overwhelming false these allegations are.
Just as important: The survey reveals strong and bipartisan support for the kinds of assimilationist approaches to newcomers that are emphatically rejected by diversity- and identity politics-obsessed leaders of the Democratic party and especially its progressive wing – although it also finds that Left-of-center backing for these views lags the national totals.
Much of this evidence comes from respondents’ views on “what it mean to be a ‘real American’.” The survey, which was taken last November (after the midterm elections) presented 12 possible answers (which were not mutually exclusive). According to Grinnell faculty who analyzed the results, agreeing with the following propositions revealed “narrow” and “restrictive” beliefs about national identity:
”To have been born in America”
“To have lived in America most of one’s life”
“To be able to speak English”
“To be a Christian”
I wouldn’t quarrel with this characterization, with the exception of English ability. How, after all, can anyone meaningfully participate in American life in any dimension without speaking the country’s dominant language?
The rest of the propositions were described by the pollsters as more values-based – and more praiseworthy.
“To respect America’s political institutions and laws”
“To accept people of different racial backgrounds”
“To accept people of different religious backgrounds”
“To believe in getting ahead by one’s own hard work”
“To believe in treating people equally”
“To support the U.S. Constitution”
“To take personal responsibility for one’s actions”
“To believe that democracy is the best form of government”
No quarrel here, either – with one major exception I’ll get to below.
According to the prevailing narrative, Trump voters should strongly support the restrictive views of American identity (i.e., those most closely associated with prejudice), and supporters of his 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, should emphatically reject them. Only that’s not what the Grinnell survey shows at all. Let’s zero in on the most clearly nativist and bigoted possible responses.
It turns out that only 33 percent of Trump 2016 voters agreed that being native-born is “very important to being a real American,” five percent view it as “fairly important” and 20 percent as “just somewhat important.” Those are higher percentages than for the Clinton voters. But 39 percent of this group regarded this criterion as being at least “just somewhat important” to “real American-ness” – including 20 percent who saw it as “very important.”
These results don’t easily jibe with the mainstream picture of most Trump voters chomping on the bit to keep out all foreigners, and the gap separating them from Clinton voters is anything but yawning. Indeed, 41 percent of Trump voters considered native-born status as “not important” (versus 61 percent of Clinton voters).
The Christian criterion generated answers more consistent with the depiction of Trump voters as prejudiced – 51 percent believed it had any importance. But only 32 percent considered it “very important,” while 43 percent called it “not important.” A quarter of Clinton voters ascribed at least some importance to a Christian identity, including 16 percent of responses in the “very important” category. Sixty nine percent dismissed it as having no importance. And the results for having lived “in America most of one’s life” generated similar numbers among both groups.
But there’s another category that can be carved out of the list of Grinnell criteria – standards supportive of the idea that newcomers need to be adequately assimilated into the nation’s culture before they can be considered “real Americans” – and in particular, need to buy into the country’s distinctive founding ideals.
It’s not an idea that dovetails terribly well with either the kind of nativism that the Grinnell researchers deplore, or with the diversity worship of the contemporary Left. But it’s hard to understand how any country can succeed without the kind of ideological and related values consensus sought by assimilation. P.S.: The imperative of this goal has been recognized and touted not only by many of the Founding Fathers, but by the early 20th century titans of the original progressive movement.
In that vein, it’s encouraging that overwhelming majorities (more than three-quarters in all instances) of both Trump and Clinton voters agree that accepting people of different racial and religious backgrounds is “very important” to being a real American. (And yes, it’s curious that Trump voters’ score on the latter doesn’t jibe well with their responses on the Christian criterion.) Even stronger, across-the-board support was generated by the notion that “treating people equally” is crucial to real American identity.
It’s more encouraging still, if you believe in assimilation, that healthy majorities of all the Grinnell respondents concurred on the importance, for real Americans, of respecting America’s political institutions and laws, supporting the Constitution, and believing in the importance of hard work and taking responsibility for one’s actions.
But the partisan split characterizing these responses showed that Clinton voters’ support for these assimilationist values – except regarding the importance of personal responsibility – was notably weaker than the national results.
Specifically, only 68 percent of Clinton voters answered that it’s “very important” to American identity to respect those American political institutions and laws; only 55 percent put similar stock in hard work; and only 73 percent valued supporting the Constitution this highly.
Much lower still were those shares of Clinton voters who awarded “very important” status to the assimilationist values of English-speaking ability and believing that “democracy is the best form of govenrment” – at 26 percent and 52 percent. But I’ve placed these answers in a category of their own because, although the Trump voters’ levels of agreement were much higher (68 and 69 percent, respectively), they fell somewhat short of their endorsement levels of the other assimilationist positions.
President Trump often says (along with many others), “If you don’t have borders, then you don’t have a country.” I’d make the same claim for assimilation and the common ideological values it requires (again, including a working knowledge of English). According to this survey, although Ms. Clinton’s voters don’t seem nearly so sure, Mr. Trump’s voters strongly agree. And thumping majorities of the latter aren’t racists or xenophobes. That’s why their views on immigration strike me as by far the best guides to national immigration policy – and why I don’t see how any thinking adults could disagree.